When Malala Yousafzai walked into the House of Commons today, she became the youngest foreign dignitary to be awarded an honorary Canadian citizenship. At 19 years of age, she also joined an exclusive club: only five other foreigners have been granted the right to call themselves honorary citizens of Canada, symbolic though the title may be, including such historical giants as Burmese human rights campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela.
But these firsts are nothing new for the Pakistani native. Yousafzai was also the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as the youngest to receive the prestigious Sakharov Prize, and, last Monday, was named a UN Messenger of Peace, again the youngest person to receive the honour.
Few doubt that she is deserving of these awards. Her courage in the face of religious intolerance has set the bar for a world spiralling into ideological confrontation. In 2009, when she was just 11 years old, Yousafzai spoke out against the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, on a blog she wrote for the BBC’s Urdu service. At the time, the TTP had wrested control of her hometown in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan’s volatile Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and forced girls out of school. Three years later, they tried to silence her with a bullet to the head. She defied them again and survived.
FROM THE ARCHIVES: The House makes Malala a Canadian
Today, the Swat Valley has returned to its former glory as one of Pakistan’s top regional tourist destinations. Schools are open again and the current provincial government, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, has used Yousafzai’s legacy to invest heavily in health and education. With help from the Canadian government, which has focused a large chunk of its development aid to Pakistan on teacher training, the quality of education in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is improving.
The militants who wanted Yousafzai dead have not fared nearly as well. Hakimullah Mehsud, the Taliban commander who ordered her assassination, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2013. His death led to a fracturing of the Pakistani Taliban as various underlings vied for supremacy. The Pakistani army then took advantage of the discord and launched a major offensive, degrading the group further.
The successes, however, have been bitter-sweet. While the Swat Valley is again thriving, much of the rest of Pakistan remains unstable. The TTP’s demise has created an opening for the so-called Islamic State. Many of its leaders have now pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and carry out attacks in his name. February was particularly deadly, with a wave of bombings that killed scores and injured hundreds more.
More worrisome, though, are the shifting ideologies behind Pakistan’s fundamentalist realignment. The Pakistani Taliban were made up primarily of ethnic Pashtun tribes fighting to impose their brand of Islam on Pakistan, a blend of tribal norms known as Pashtunwali mixed with Islamic principles gleaned from a cursory understanding of Islam. They found little support outside of Pakistan’s Pashtun minority. Islamic State ideology eliminates those localized features, giving it a broader appeal. And in Pakistan, it is growing.
Yousafzai’s mission to make girls’ education universally available must now confront this, arguably more dangerous, ideological beast. The fundamentalist trend has found an increasingly welcoming environment in Pakistan, even among its educated middle and upper classes. In her 2010 book, Transforming Faith, Pakistani anthropologist Sadaf Ahmad, studying middle and upper class women in Islamabad, found a growing desire among Muslims to make sense of the chaos engulfing their religion as a key reason behind rising fundamentalism. The emphasis on pious simplicity, based on a literal reading of the Qur’an, offers an easy-to-follow guidebook for Muslims at a time when Islam is facing massive internal divisions.
“There are pockets of these fundamentalists growing even in traditionally liberal cities like Islamabad and Lahore,” Zayer Hassan, a Pakistani journalist who has covered religious movements extensively, says. “Swat is now free, but other parts of Pakistan are under threat.”
Yousafzai’s message of tolerance is more necessary now in Pakistan than ever before. In retrospect, taking on the Taliban was only a warm-up to the ideological battle looming on the horizon. The struggle to sideline the ideology that underpins Islamic State’s corrosive rise will be the real test of her young life.