We Are All Malala

Abdulkhalig Alsir

by Doaa Eladl, Egypt

by Doaa Eladl, Egypt

In October 2012  the Pakistani Taliban, an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban, shot Malala Yousufzai in the head. Malala, aged 14, is now a well-known activist for girls’ right to education. Her brave stand against the Taliban’s belief in banning girls’ education nearly killed her.

This tragic incident has brought lots of anger, from within Pakistan and beyond. Most politicians around the world raced to show their support and willingness for her to be treated. However, the incident has raised many questions about the moral credibility of the Muslim majority.

Theoretically, Muslim majorities around the world who like to define themselves as ‘moderates’ are very keen to distinguish themselves from the fundamentalist minority. Moreover, they don’t miss an opportunity to assure others of their support for co-existing with people of all beliefs. But in reality, the story is different.

The influence of the fundamentalist minority on moderates is both visible and undeniable. In fact, they live under ongoing blackmail. Whenever the fundamentalists see something as an attack or insult to Islam, the majority fall in line and take their side, despite their whispering condemnation of the radicals’ violence and overreaction.

Malala’s “accident” is evidence of how moderate Muslims have not yet developed an attitude distinct from that adopted by fanatics. The fact that fundamentalist Muslims all around the world ignored what happened to the Pakistani girl is not a surprise; it’s simply consistent with their misogynistic attitudes. But what about the moderate Muslims? What was their reaction to what happened? Why couldn’t they mobilise themselves and protest? Why didn’t they express strong condemnation and make it clear that what happened to Malala is an insult both to Islam and to Muslims?

The answer is very simple: there is no difference between the “moderates” and the fundamentalists. They dance to the same tune. And if they don’t, it is only in degree rather than essence. Both groups are traditional-minded; the radicals appear more consistent in their theological perspectives. The dilemma of the moderates is that they feel caught in the middle. Most of them are secular to some degree, but at the same time, they haven’t developed a clear-cut position to make them immune from the influence of traditional interpretations of Islam, which are manipulated by conservatives.

Most have internalized the notion that they are not true representatives of Islam, as if Islam has only one solid version, which in reality is not the case. This pushes them to shy away from Islamic issues unless invited by the so called “true” representatives, the Salafists. This situation, where they are deprived of their right to criticize, comes to Islam from within. It creates a subordinate position for the moderates and has given Salafists the upper hand to exclusively define what constitutes an insult against either Islam or Muslims.

It is well known to those moderates that Malala had done nothing to insult Islam. In fact, she sought her right to education within the traditional paradigm of Islam. However, their lack of confidence as Muslims meant they failed to seize the moment to defend their tolerant message of Islam, and at the same time to corner the radicals and embarrass them.

This inconsistency, and the double standards, will hurt both moderates and Islam. Anything they declare in future about the tolerance and peaceful message of Islam will not be taken seriously whilst they refuse to respond to the violence or insults to their beliefs from within.

In this situation, the only winners are the radicals. They are left as the main players in the Islamic arena. The radicals gain increasing legitimacy each day as the only representative voice of the Muslim community. At the same time, their violent brand of Islamism steadily dominates. No wonder then, that it has become more and more difficult for the silent majority of Muslims to defend their peaceful version of Islam.

First published in Women in Islam Issue 1 (2014)