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A Pakistani customer looks at a newly published book about Malala Yousafzai at a local bookshop in Islamabad on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (B.K. Bangash/Associated Press)
A Pakistani customer looks at a newly published book about Malala Yousafzai at a local bookshop in Islamabad on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (B.K. Bangash/Associated Press)

NAHEED MUSTAFA

Why many Pakistanis have turned against Peace Prize nominee Malala Add to ...

Malala Yousafzai is a CIA agent. She might also be working for Pakistani intelligence services and MI6. It’s also entirely possible she’s on the payroll of Zionists and spending her spare time feeding information to Indian spies.

A lot of work for a 16-year-old.

By the way, that’s not me being facetious. Those are actually the kinds of allegations leveled against the young Malala by a motley crew of shrill right-wing characters, united by their suspicion that the young activist is not an agent of change but an agent of the west.

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Every culture has its shorthand. In Pakistan, foreign connections can earn you a reference as either “CIA ka aadmi” or “Agencies ka banda” – the CIA’s man or working for “the Agencies” (Pakistan’s intelligence services). It’s typically said in jest. Well, mostly. But it does point to a broader problem: The latent and not-so-latent paranoia that infuses Pakistani society.

Trust no one. Everyone has an agenda. Pakistan is a victim of the “foreign hand.”

This past week Maulana Samiul Haq, most famous for running the Darul Uloom Haqqania – a religious school that’s graduated prominent members of the Taiban – said Malala has been “hijacked” by western and anti-Islam forces. The cleric also heads up the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, an umbrella group for various rightwing, mostly religious parties, some of which are banned as terrorist organizations. The council’s raison d’etre is to protect Pakistan’s good name from being besmirched.

You can find anti-Malala pages on Facebook, you can read anti-Malala screeds online and in various newspapers in Pakistan. There are “truthers” who closely investigate pictures from the day the young woman was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. They painstakingly go through photographs, comparing her head wound and blood spatter from various angles. They say things like the shooting was a fantastic hoax and Malala staged it to get famous, to get a visa.

It harkens back to the accusations leveled against another activist, Mukhtaran Mai. Apparently she got gang raped as a way to emigrate.

Right.

The national conversation in Pakistan on any given issue is highly polarized whether it’s minority rights, drones, corruption, or even fashion. It’s all treated as a zero sum game: why fret about Malala when “so many Malalas” are being killed in drone strikes in the tribal areas? As though people can’t care about both. Why worry about Malala when Aafia Siddiqui, “the daughter of the nation,” is wasting away in an American prison? As though one has anything to do with the other.

Why is Malala Yousufzai even seen as a threat? She’s not advocating for anything that isn’t already on the books in Pakistan – that girls have a right to education. It’s not a new idea, it’s not a western idea. And while the majority of girls (and women) in Pakistan are illiterate, educated Pakistani women are hardly a novelty.

The problem, fundamentally, goes back to paranoia and the addiction to the zero sum game. The fact is that there is a very vocal minority (I can’t bring myself to accept it’s a majority), amplified by a slick media machine, thinks the Taliban and their ilk are right on. It’s not so much what Malala Yousafzai says about education, it’s that she doesn’t like the Taliban and has said so. Loudly. Again and again.

I reckon if you put the question directly to any of these rightwing types, including Maulana Samiul Haq, they’ll give you the usual speech that Islam brought rights to women, including the right to education, centuries before western women had them. But Malala can’t both be advocating for something that is her right as a Pakistani citizen – something her religion guarantees her – and rail against the Taliban. One must cancel out the other.

And she can’t simply be against the Taliban because she’s seen them blow up schools, and flog people in public, she must be against them because surely she’s serving a foreign master. How else would she get such immediate medical attention abroad? Why else would people all over the world be concerned for her? How else could she get a visa to live and go to school in the U.K.?

It’s difficult to underscore just how besieged by outsiders these groups feel, especially by the United States. The drone campaign is just one example. There are myriad ways they see Pakistan as a victim of American policies – not all of it fantasy. But they also feel besieged from within by elements they feel are trying to take the Islam out of the Islamic Republic. It’s led to a bunker mentality and any perceived threat to their version of the national narrative deserves a swift and harsh response. Even if that threat is in the shape of a child who just wants to go to school.

Naheed Mustafa is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers Afghanistan and Pakistan

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