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On October 9, 2012, a Taliban radical forced his way onto a school bus in Pakistan and fired the shots that injured three teenage girls.  The target was 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, an outspoken activist for girls' right to education.  The intent, of course, was to silence Malala and others who shared her cause.

Didn't quite work out that way.

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In her book, I Am Malala, she draws a clear picture of life before and after the Taliban.  She was accustomed to music and dancing, DVD's from Bollywood and the West, and devouring any book she could get her hands on.  She describes the way she and her best friend read the Twilight books and "longed to be vampires."  She was usually at the top of her class in school.  Her father was a well-known activist for education, for boys but especially for girls, and noted that the Koran says that education is not only a right but a duty of both sexes.

I read books like this one and Paul Rusesabagina's An Ordinary Man (the basis for Hotel Rwanda) partly to understand how evil gains a foothold and takes over.  The Taliban got their first chance in Malala's area after a devastating earthquake, when they were involved in relief efforts while the government came off as incompetent.  Like any political party, the Taliban studied the local issues and could talk a good game about problems like governmental corruption (Pakistani politicians make ours look like amateurs).

One major force was the "Radio Mullah," Maulana Fazlullah, who reminds me of some of the far-right radio and TV preachers over here.  (Radio was also a major weapon in whipping up mobs in Rwanda.)  Fazlullah's message started off with more of a soft sell, urging people to dress conservatively, stop smoking, and give up "Western" things like television and CD's (though apparently radio was still okay?).  And he would give out attention and praise on the air:  "Mr. A has gotten rid of his television, and God will bless him in the hereafter!  Miss B has stopped going to school, good for her!"

Fazlullah also set up his own court, which was popular at first because it resolved lawsuits and disputes without the bribes that are a mainstay of the justice system in Pakistan.  He also introduced public flogging, starting with two men who had tried to abduct a woman.  Malala doesn't say, but I'm guessing that punishment expanded to other offenses.

While Malala speaks warmly of her mother, it's clear that her strongest connection is with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai.  Ziauddin is a devout Muslim whose lifelong activism has encompassed education, peace, and environmentalism.  When some friends were outraged by Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses and supported the fatwa against Rushdie, Ziauddin responded that they should write their own book instead, and that Islam was not so fragile that one offensive book would harm it.

Malala accompanied her father on his speaking engagements from an early age, and she wrote a blog (under a pseudonym) describing life as an adolescent girl under the Taliban.  Even now, Malala's teenage idealism shines through:  

...I'd imagine that on the way home a terrorist might jump out and shoot me on those steps.  Maybe I'd take off my shoes and hit him, but then I'd think if I did that there would be no difference between me and a terrorist.  It would be better to plead, "OK, shoot me, but first listen to me.  What you are doing is wrong.  I'm not against you personally, I just want every girl to go to school."
I don't share her opposition to self-defense, and I'm not optimistic about the chance of her attacker suddenly listening to reason.  But it makes more sense when you understand that she lives in a culture where blood feuds go on for generations, where the only chance at peace is getting people to let go of the endless justifications for violence.  Ironically, by getting shot she got her message out to the world in a way she could never have imagined before.

In the agonizing hours after the shooting, Ziauddin asked himself and his wife the inevitable question:  was he wrong to involve Malala in his activism, knowing how dangerous the Taliban was?  But if there ever was a situation where (as Audre Lorde used to say) "Your silence will not protect you," this was it.  The Taliban is not above targeting children for their parents' actions, or for any infractions against their rules (attending school, listening to music,violating the dress code...).

Malala expresses no bitterness after being shot, and was astonished at the outpouring of support from all over the world while she recovered in a British hospital.  The most treasured gift was a package from Benazir Bhutto's children, containing shawls that had belonged to her late mother.  Malala hopes to return to Pakistan someday and follow Bhutto's footsteps into politics.  Unfortunately, Bhutto's assassination could too easily become Malala's fate as well, and for now her family remains in England.

I said above that I read books like this to understand how evil gains a foothold and takes over.  I also read them to understand what it takes to stand against evil.  In An Ordinary Man, Paul Rusesabagina said this:

I did what I believed to be the ordinary things that an ordinary man would do. I said no to outrageous actions the way I thought that anybody would, and it still mystifies me that so many others could say yes.
In her own book, Malala adds:
If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can't one girl change it?
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MASSIVE THANKS TO BRILLIG FOR ONCE AGAIN RESCUING THE PHOTO QUILT FROM MY TECHNOLOGY JINX!

Originally posted to Top Comments on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 07:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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