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Hospital staff assists Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who was wounded in a gun attack, at the Saidu Sharif Teaching Hospital in the Swat Valley, northwest Pakistan. Taliban gunmen in Pakistan shot and seriously wounded on Tuesday a 14-year-old schoolgirl who rose to fame for speaking out against the militants, authorities said.

STRINGER/PAKISTAN/REUTERS

A groundswell of anger at the brutal authoritarianism of self-appointed dictators gave the world the Arab Spring. Now the Muslim world needs a groundswell against the evil of the Taliban, another self-appointed group that seeks to rule by violence and terror.

This is a movement afraid of a 14-year-old girl who loves to read and write. The Taliban are not strong; they are weak. They targeted Malala Yousafzai for a Mafia-style murder because she insisted publicly on the right of girls to go to school. And why are the Taliban afraid? Because they can't stand up to the power of that simple idea. They have no defence against it except bullets and bombs.

If the 30-year Mubarak regime in Egypt, with its experienced military and its brutal jails, could be destroyed by a groundswell of anger, are the Taliban invincible? If the 40-year Gadhafi regime could fall, must the Taliban stand forever? If Syria's cruel Assad regime is tottering, what allows the Taliban to endure?

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Pakistan needs to stand behind the idea exemplified by Malala. (As of Wednesday, doctors were still trying to save her life after a gunman shot her in the head and neck.) It needs to give shelter to one of the most basic of all rights – the right to go to school. If it cannot do so, if it can't protect girls' basic rights – including the right to life – it will have failed as a country.

Bullets and bombs cannot kill Malala's idea. It will live on. Others will carry it forward. And no doubt the Taliban will try to kill them, too. As things stand, it is a war between schoolgirls and men with guns.

This is not the country that Pakistan aspires to be. Pakistan has much to offer its people and the world. But it is paying the price for having nurtured the Taliban and for playing a double game, opposing them with one hand, sometimes ferociously, while continuing to feed and protect them with the other.

Pakistan, to its credit, had attempted to secure the region in which Malala lives. Its army battled the Taliban, even as elements within its intelligence agencies are alleged to have supported the Taliban. Now the country needs to bring overwhelming force to bear. It needs the full weight of the public, including the support of mosques and religious leaders, behind it. The Taliban claim that Malala was a symbol of Western culture, and thus deserved to die. She is not; she is a symbol of what Pakistan, even in its frontier areas, should become.

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