By W.A Wijewardena –
The return of a girl condemned to die
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl who was shot by Taliban in October 2012 when she was 15 years old for the crime of fighting for the right of Muslim girls to education and thereby defying a Taliban order that girls should not go to schools, celebrated her 16th birthday on 12 July 2013 in a way that no other girl has ever done. She did so by delivering a very powerful and inspirational speech at the UN Youth Assembly in the presence of a large number of dignitaries including the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown now a UN Ambassador on inclusive education (available here)
Her address at the UN coincided with the declaration of her birthday as ‘Malala Day’ by the UN, a rare honour which a girl of her age and status could expect from a world body. She is not big-made and could not even reach the top of the podium of the UN Assembly without the support of a low deck to stand on. Yet, the powerful speech she delivered with confidence throughout and meaning in every word spoken captivated not only the high dignitaries who were present in the Assembly but also millions of viewers and readers worldwide.
More bouquets and a few brickbats for Malala
When the video of her speech was posted to numerous websites, many who had been touched by the substance of her message and the powerful way she delivered it had showered her with praises. But a few, possibly because she spoke on the side of the UN which is widely believed to be an arm of the Western countries, had sought to decry her speech saying that she had read a script written by someone, been an unwitting cat’s paw to their schemes and exposed herself to bigger risks of being hunted down by Taliban.
Perhaps she would have got outside support for fine-tuning her ideas and that is not strange since even the top world class leaders who address the UN have been in the habit of doing so. But when one screens the public speeches which Malala had delivered in her own language even before she was shot by Taliban, one has to make the judgment that she is gifted with effective public communication and she could speak her own mind without outside support. What was done at the UN was simply expressing her ideas in a foreign language.
Malala speech not sudden but the culmination of long-held views
In my view, the Malala Message which she delivered on the Malala Day is a culmination of the thought process she had built up ever since she had been an activist in promoting education among Muslim girls. When it came to the UN Youth Assembly stage, the message had become universal arguing for the right of children worldwide, both girls and boys, to education, due right to be afforded to women in society and the need for extending a peaceful hand even to terrorists who had sought to destroy the present system by unleashing a reign of terror and violence on the innocent.
She declared valiantly that even if she had a gun in her hand, she would not use that gun against the Taliban cadres who sought to assassinate her. Her fight today is not against a particular group but against extremism that seeks to keep women and children in intellectual and physical slavery forever.
Extremists frown upon knowledge in fear of losing power
Malala has made her message clear by expressing her own position: “I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same and my dreams are the same. I am not against anyone. Nor am I here to speak against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak up for the right to education of every child.” Then she goes on saying that she speaks not for herself but for all those who “have fought for the right to be treated with dignity, their right for equality of opportunity, and their right to be educated”.
She surmises that the Taliban has been against women acquiring knowledge because it would dilute their power in society. What she means is that with knowledge freely spreading in society, the Taliban or any other extreme group will lose their monopoly power on wisdom and therefore would resort to even the most violent methods of suppressing people’s right to knowledge. For them, knowledge is what they consider as knowledge and people should without exception accept what they call knowledge.
Recalls Malala in her speech: “When we were in class in Pakistan, we realised the importance of pens and books. The extremists were afraid of education… That is why they’re blasting schools every day. Because they’re afraid of progress, afraid of change.” Malala’s observation is valid not only to the Taliban; it is equally valid to any other extreme group.
Malala: Education is the first
Expressing her determination to work tirelessly until she reaches her goal, she announces boldly: “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”
Leave education to experts
Indeed, education should be the first. Societies have advanced for thousands of years not because of the leaders who have led those societies but because of the advancement of knowledge. It is not knowledge gained by some selected class of people but knowledge spread freely over a wide segment of society. That knowledge comes basically from education as this writer has been arguing in this series of articles.
Education could be formal as Malala has been receiving from her school. Or it could be informal as she had been coached by her father in the art of writing her Diary for the BBC Urdu Service on the life under Taliban. Or it can even be non-formal where people pick up knowledge just by observing what others do. Leaders are necessary not to decide what one should learn; they have no knowledge to make that judgment. That judgment should be left to experts who have to look at the type of the knowledge being developed in the world and decide what should be imparted.
Engineer people’s minds and reap dummies
The task of the leaders is to facilitate the process of advancing knowledge in society. It has always been a disaster when leaders have decided what the members of society should learn. The result of such direct intervention by leaders has been the destruction of the creativity of people and through that destruction, as Malala too has pointed out, the destruction of the progress of society. This has been elaborated by the Ukrainian migrant writer Marina Lewycka in her 2005 novel ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’.
In Ukraine, the leadership of the former Soviet Union had tried to dictate terms of knowledge to scientists with the disastrous result of many scientists ending up as alcoholics and a frustrated lot; this has made many such scientists migrate to other Western countries. The result has been the sudden halting of the scientific inventions in Ukraine and its disastrous outcome could be seen in that country even today.
Creativity and innovation are the aims of education
The United Nations has been advocating the policy of ‘education for all’ without discrimination. That is why achieving universal primary education and enrolment of girls in schools in the same way the boys have been enrolled have been made two of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations. However, societies on their own should have strategies to take universal primary education beyond that level since it is the full education that makes a creative person.
Modern societies are invention based societies and without inventions, they would not have much progress. When there is universal education which economists call ‘inclusive education’, a society will be blessed with a large pool of minds that could come up with new inventions and innovations to bring those inventions to the benefit of mankind. In the modern world, economic progress on a sustainable basis depends on having a fine combination of these two requirements. But, without freedom of thought and freedom of expression, the attainment of such a goal will simply be a dream.
Extreme groups try to engineer minds
What will happen when societies have been infested with extreme groups which have taken upon themselves the responsibility for engineering human minds according to their own thinking? This could be seen in religious and nationalist movements in many countries.
For instance, Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen in his 2005 book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ has pointed out that the Hindutva Movement and its militant force Sivsena which is equivalent to Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka in both scope and goal has tried to reinvent India’s history of rich cultural and religious diversity in the form of a ‘Grand Hindu Vision of India’. This is similar to the Sinhala Buddhist state advocated by some extreme groups in Sri Lanka.
Sen says that Hindutva movement has been supported by the large Indian Diaspora in the West “for whom it is quite important to be able to retain their general Indian nationalist attachment”. Accordingly, when the Bharathiya Janata Party which derives its strength from the Hindutva Movement came to power in 1998, various organs of the government were mobilised to rewrite Indian history to suit their thinking. To facilitate this, it is claimed that all the governmental bodies were filled with staff sympathetic to the Hindutva view of Indian history and school textbooks were changed accordingly.
Free thinking and free discussion are the key to progress
To prevent this, Sen argues that a society should have free thinking and free discussion. The thinking of people can be directed by extreme groups who also get the support of the government in power to do so. For instance, free art and literature are condemned if they do not carry the world view of the extreme groups; instead, art and literature that support that view is upheld driving a society to uphold only one view.
The banning of many art work acclaimed by global art critics in Sri Lanka on cultural or religious grounds is a testimony to this. The danger of such one view promotion is the killing of the inventive and innovative talents of the members of society. With inventions and innovations gone, the progress of the society is also gone.
But Sen says that this was not the tradition of India: He has said that “it was indeed a Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who, in the third century BCE, not only outlined the need for toleration and the richness of heterodoxy, but also laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations, ‘with the opponents duly honoured in every way on all occasions’. That political principle figures a great deal in later discussions in India, but the most powerful defence of toleration and the need for the state to be equidistant from different religions came from a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar.”
The Buddha: make a self-examination before accusing others
Sri Lanka too has had its own share of extreme groups that sought to engineer human minds in the past but they have come to prominence in the recent past. One such group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE did not tolerate opposing views and brutally suppressed those who held an opinion against theirs. With the annihilation of LTTE in 2009, similar extreme groups have sprung up among the majority Sinhala Buddhists claiming that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhala Buddhists and all others have to subject themselves to this majoritarian rule.
This is strange since Sri Lanka got Buddhism from India and the ambassador who functioned in the transfer of this rich philosophy had been Emperor Asoka who proclaimed in his famous Asoka edicts that “anyone who tries to raise his religion by condemning the religions of others does the worst damage to his own religion”. In his edicts, he further declared: “The faiths of others all deserve to be honoured for one reason or another. By honouring them, one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others.”
His philosophy of government was the co-existence of diverse religious and ethnic groups and toleration of the faiths of others however much they would be strange to one’s own practices. In the Judiciary Sect of Anguttara Nikaaya, the Buddha advised his Bhikkus that they should first make self-examination whether they have done it correctly before they make accusations against another Bhikku. This fine advice for Bhikkus is valid for lay Buddhists as well.
Pen is mightier than the sword in the long run
Malala’s message has been an inspiration to all the youth in the world. It says that one should not be discouraged in pursuing one’s just goals simply because another person who is opposed to those just goals has used violence on him. According to Malala, to fight with violence one should not resort to taking up arms but extending peaceful hands. The Buddha eloquently said it in the Dhammapada that one cannot cause hatred to cease through hatred but through universal kindness.
Malala has gone a further step forward. She has said that to fight with violence and brutality, one should take the pen and the books and place oneself on a learning path. That is because, according to her, pen is more powerful than the sword. This is a wise saying repeated over time to emphasise the futility of suppressing people’s views through repressive tactics.
But what would happen if those who have the sword too take over the power of manipulating the pen to amplify their views as it happened in the former Soviet Union and as it is happening in many developing countries today? Definitely, there will not be a place for just views in the immediately following period. But history has shown that when those with swords started to manipulate the pen for their ulterior motives, the very same pen has destroyed them eventually. A classic example is the collapse of the Soviet Empire in late 1980s.
Considering the social and political problems which Sri Lanka is facing today, Malala’s speech is an inspiration not only for Sri Lanka’s youth but also for its adults.
*W.A. Wijewardena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org