Does America Deserve Malala?
There were many men with guns before one shot Malala.
Malala Yousafzai at the Jordan/Syrian border in 2014. Photo by Gina Nemirofsky/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Long before she was known to Americans, or the Taliban that would target her, Malala Yousafzai was already being cast as a dead girl. When choosing a student to diary about life in Swat for the BBC in 2009, the commissioning journalist posited that Malala could be Swat's Anne Frank. That same year the New York Times contacted Pakistani journalist Syed Irfan Ashraf to help them produce a documentary on schools threatened by the growing influence of the Taliban, "We want it to play out like film," their email said.
Malala's eloquence as the daughter of the man who ran Khushal Girls High School and College had caught the attention of journalists before, appearing on Pakistan's Dawn channel, and Ashraf connected the Yousafzais to the Times' Adam Ellick. Malala's family and Ashraf thought the documentary would be about Taliban school closures more generally but instead it focused on Malala. From January to March, Malala also blogged for the BBC about life in Mingora, and the violence that was becoming routine. Despite her use of a pen name the media attention was worrisome, but everyone thought a child would be immune from the dangers other journalists risked in Pakistan.
Malala survived the assassination attempt, but the way those outside Pakistan celebrate her life almost presupposes her death instead. So shrill and uninformed is the call to be inspired by her that it's easy to imagine it all as a posthumous hagiography.
The preference for narrative is equally apparent in Davis Guggenheim's recent documentary He Named Me Malala, which closely follows the events that made Malala Yousafzai an icon. That Malala is named after a folk hero who also stood up against armed forces without fear of reprisal is a poetic symmetry the film enjoys lingering over. And so would I, if the story were in fact the children's folktale that the animated vignettes punctuating the documentary suggest, and not about living activists.
The war on terror is not a feel-good tale of triumph over adversity; yet He Named Me Malala is. How do we evaluate a movie whose central narrative is activated by a reality the film ignores?
At first they're effective, carried by Malala's incredible life story thus far, and especially moving when paralleling her father's victory over his stammer and fear of public speaking with Malala's own journey toward discovering her skills as a public speaker. Familiar with the ungenerous assumptions made about Pakistani fathers, I was especially grateful that the co-star of He Named Me Malala is Malala's father, teacher and firebrand activist Ziauddin Yousafzai. But the animations are styled as if for a children's public programming special—a hint of what the movie could have been like had the producers stuck with their original plan for a feature film as opposed to a documentary. The title of the movie references the film's implication, that perhaps Malala's name, shared by the storied Malalai of Maiwand, inscribed a fate upon her from birth. Guggenheim should have saved such prophesying for the Disney reboot.
Guggenheim replaces the events that shaped Malala, her father, and their home for a story of individual resilience, a single rising note held for poignancy. The war on terror is not a feel-good tale of triumph over adversity; yet He Named Me Malala is. How do we evaluate a movie whose central narrative is activated by a reality the film ignores?
The memoir the movie is based on, co-written with journalist Christina Lamb, comprehensively traces Malala's experiences along her homeland's history—from the Buddhist ruins that can still be found across their hills to the drones that terrorize their skies. Malala describes Swat valley in stirring detail:
"We lived in the most beautiful place in all the world. My valley, the Swat valley, is a heavenly kingdom of mountains, gushing waterfalls, and crystal-clear lakes. Welcome to Paradise it says on a sign as you enter the valley."
"Paradise" is a word repeated in the film, and in just about everything ever written on Swat before 2007. The events that violated that paradise gain far less screen time, an omission increasingly painful the more Malala and her family reminisce about the idyllic past of their old home, and their desire to one day return to it, understanding how slim the chances of such an opportunity have become.
Located roughly 50 miles from the Afghan border, Swat's history is intertwined with Afghanistan, and its people are spread across the hills between the two countries. These are areas with ties much older than modern maps would show—"We Pashtuns," Malala writes, "are split between Pakistan and Afghanistan and don't really recognize the border that the British drew more than 100 years ago."
In 1979, Russia intervened in a civil war in Afghanistan that had broken out after socialist Nur Mohammad Taraki's coup began a regime that violently suppressed opposition. The Russians wanted to install a socialist of their own preference and found themselves mired for ten years. The last headscarved girl who captured America's imagination was fleeing Soviet airstrikes when Steve McCurry photographed her for the 1985 cover of National Geographic.
Back then, there were other groups resisting Taraki's Marxist-oriented regime, but the US chose to support the ideological mujahideen. Among those championing the power of radicalized Islam to further US interests in destabilizing the region was Graham Fuller, deputy director of the CIA's National Council on Intelligence. This support, named Operation Cyclone, had begun before the Soviets intervened and ultimately became one of the longest and most expensive covert operations the CIA ever funded.
Pakistan is a young nation, founded in 1947. Zia-Ul-Haq's 1979 coup inducted only the sixth president the country had ever had. Under Haq, Pakistan experienced a radical departure from the vision of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. At a speech to a women's school in 1940, Jinnah said, "No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men," and indeed insisted throughout his life that "Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic state to be ruled by priests with a divine mission." But Haq instituted oppressive reforms in the name of religious piety. Malala's memoir recounts how Haq barred the women's national field hockey team from wearing shorts, banning women entirely from other sports. Religion classes suffered a curriculum overhaul, with tolerant representations of other faiths excised and a brand of religious nationalism emphasized. The appetite for being remembered is exaggerated in unremarkable men—the man Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had once dismissed as a "monkey" later ordered Bhutto's hanging. "We started off with an open hand, a hand of love and affection for the people of Pakistan," Haq remarked. "But then I find that at times a squeeze has to be applied."
The execution of his elected predecessor repelled the international community, and the US cut off aid to Pakistan. When Haq started training the Afghan refugees escaping Russia's bombs as resistance fighters, the US returned with money and weapons. At a state dinner in winter of 1982, President Ronald Reagan honored Zia-Ul-Haq, effusing:
"We find ourselves even more frequently in agreement on our goals and objectives.... Your country has come to the forefront of the struggle to construct a framework for peace in your region, an undertaking which includes your strenuous efforts to bring peaceful resolution to the crisis in Afghanistan—a resolution which will enable the millions of refugees currently seeking shelter in Pakistan to go home in peace and honor."
For Pakistan it was a way to exert influence in an area out of the national government's range. For the US, it was a way to gain a regional ally after losing Iran in the Shah's overthrow in 1979, counter Soviet influence, and establish an access point to the natural gas-rich lands of then Soviet-controlled Central Asia. Ziauddin Yousafzai's memories betray the nature of the shared goals Reagan alluded to, in her memoir Malala recalls:
"My father says that in our part of the world this idea of jihad was very much encouraged by the CIA. Children in the refugee camps were even given school textbooks produced by an American university which taught basic arithmetic through fighting. They had examples like, 'If out of 10 Russian infidels, 5 are killed by Muslims, 5 would be left' or '15 bullets - 10 bullets = 5 bullets.'"
In the early aughts, Pakistan's President Musharraf, another coup-installed army general, eroded some of Haq's legacy by appointing the first woman governor of the state bank and the first women airline pilots and coast guard, while also loosening restrictions on the entertainment industries. At the same time, the North West Frontier Province experienced the emergence of a "mullah government" in the form of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a fundamentalist party backed by Musharraf. These men took power and began erasing women from public life. In 2004, the high school where Ziauddin taught was no longer allowed to be co-ed. "But some people supported them because the very religious Pashtuns were angry at the American invasion of Afghanistan," Malala writes.
By early 2009, the US and Nato forces had militarized Swat and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had overtaken the Swat valley. In an utterly remorseful op-ed after Malala's shooting Syed Ashraf recalls the lead up to the attack, "I realized the gravity of the situation only after the New York Times released the short documentary, Class Dismissed... While I then disassociated myself from such projects, the media helped turn Malala's advocacy for education into a solid campaign against the TTP over the next three years. Politicians jumped into the fray to help the media in commodifying Malala's youthful energies. A strong anti-TTP structure was erected on her frail shoulders. This is one aspect of the story, and it concerns the media's role in dragging bright young people into dirty wars with horrible consequences for the innocent."
Malala at the Kisaruni Girls School in Massai Mara, Kenya. Photo by Gina Nemirofsky/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Last year Ashraf was working on a doctorate in journalism at Southern Illinois University with a grant from the State Department. In an interview with the Southern Illinoisan, Ashraf described how his appeals to Pakistanis in Swat are undermined by American policy:
"I am teaching about love, and social relationships and they would say, "Wait a minute, you just came from the US and are telling us about these things?" That is the reaction from the huge militancy around me there and that militancy is a result of the militarization from which the US and NATO forces have done... despite all of the positive things I can say about America, I will be less influential there as long as officials here do not engage in social interaction, but through metals and bombshells."
When I met with Guggenheim in September over coffee in New York, he said he "made a very conscious choice not to get into the geopolitics of all that," a baffling attitude from someone known for the political import of his documentaries. He went on to admit, "In the end it's very important, especially for Americans, to understand our role in destabilizing the region, and the roots of fundamentalism. But I chose not to make that movie." That decision, which doesn't prevent the film from being an eminently watchable 88 minutes, yields a very bitter aftertaste.
The chief convenience of a far-away tragedy is that the commiseration, a voluntary engagement, can feel like charity.
As wonderful as it is to see Malala show us the bookshelf in her new room in Birmingham, England, and watch her be teased by her brothers, safe and sound, I'm left disturbed. The documentary offers a comfort those of us in America and England have not earned. Reviews exclaim how inspiring the film is, but it isn't illuminating. What exactly will viewers be inspired to do? There's nothing to challenge the prevailing ignorance about the region's history, the land Malala came from and why she can no longer live there.
Military interventions in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been sold to the public as a rescue mission to save Muslim women from Muslim men. When shot at 15, Malala became one of those women. Despite her love of her homeland and proud identification as a devout Muslim, her story is shared with the assumptions about a region that remains clouded by shallow, manipulative representation.
Media outside of Pakistan talk about Malala as a girl shot for wanting to go to school. Like the way clueless parents urge children to finish their vegetables because some kids somewhere in Africa are starving, Malala is often introduced with a reminder of how some American kids have the gall to complain about attending school. There is little curiosity about why she couldn't—instead, we are led to assume that the barbaric attack on Malala is all that can be expected of a barbaric people. In the Western imagination, the Middle East and Pakistan exist in a state of crisis that assumes an ahistorical retardation of the so-called "Muslim world."
Guggenheim admitted sharing the general public's ignorance about the devolution of the region Malala calls home. "When I look back at when I started the movie, I realize how ignorant I was. You could easily assume that the problems of the Taliban in these parts was just a continuation of problems for centuries," he told me. "But it's not."
If you search pictures of universities and public spaces across the Middle East before the 80s, you'll find many women, many of them dressed chicly in skirts of varying lengths and with hair uncovered. Today, from Cairo to Kabul, the women are often sequestered indoors or underneath mandated niqabs and burkas. The Quran, a text preaching intellectual inquiry, tolerance, and equality, is used to justify intolerance, misogyny, and suicide bombings. Countries with Muslim-majority populations, who can claim women heads of state long before it was even a possibility in the US, devalue women's standing in society with restricted access to the public sphere. The same country in which Malala was shot for insisting upon her education also boasts a greater percentage of female members of Parliament than there are women in the US congress.
Contradiction between preaching and practice are common to our species, but these particular disparities have ballooned through the special circumstances.
If Malala's father is a good man, it's only because he's not like all the other men "over there." If Malala was shot on her way to school, it's simply because people "over there" can't stand girls in schools.
The oil crisis of 1973—in which Saudi Arabia embargoed the US and others in response to US military support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War—proved Saudi Arabia's power internationally. America realized its dependency on Saudi oil, and as such it became paramount to never again alienate the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia constitutes barely three percent of the world's Muslim population, but Wahhabism was born and bred in a country with the petrodollars to export it around the world.
Wahhabism is patriarchal, uncompromisingly intolerant of anyone who isn't Wahhabist, and offers only absolutes in a world of uncertainties, replacing a sense of faith with a sense of mission. An estimated 100 billion dollars has gone toward evangelizing this shuttered worldview, mostly through Wahhabist translations of the Quran and the funding of madrassas—religious schools devoted to a Wahhabist form of Islam. These schools, often the only option in the most rural and impoverished of communities, teach pupils the rigidity of Wahhabism and invite them to participate in what is presented as a global struggle against nonbelievers. In her memoir Malala describes how these schools mushroomed in Swat:
"During the Afghan jihad many madrassas had been built, most of them funded by Saudi money, and many young men had passed through them as it was free education. That was the start of what my father calls the 'Arabisation' of Pakistan."
While its ascension outside of Saudi Arabia overlapped with Operation Cyclone, Wahhabism dates back to the late 1700s, when Muhammad ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab agreed to support each other in their respective mission toward an Islamic state. Wahhab entered into this agreement with a view towards a "purified" Islam; Saud with a view towards increased land assets. Eventually, through a series of strategic, armed campaigns justified as an expansion of Wahhabist morality, the Saud family established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1926. That alliance produced an ideological juggernaut, an autocratic monarchy dependent on an informal body of religious authorities and rich off international oil dependence.
Islam has no ruling body, no Church, no Vatican, no priesthood. That hasn't stopped men from insisting on their religious authority through varying levels of scholarship. Besides, as the land of the final prophet and Islam's holiest sites, Saudi Arabia flexes an Arab-supremacist view of Islam.
Quietly unchecked, Wahhabism could one day be viewed as among the most important determinants of the modern world as we know it. ISIS, which emerged out of post-Iraq War sectarian violence, may be anti-Saud, but only because they're the competition for the actualization of a Wahhabist state.
In an interview with Frontline in October 2001, extremism expert Professor Vali Nasr explained:
"...the main source of funding for these groups is Saudi Arabia. In fact, this whole phenomenon that we are confronting, which Al Qaeda is a part of, is very closely associated with Saudi Arabia's financial and religious projects for the Muslim world as a whole... There is an undercurrent of terror and fanaticism that go hand in hand in the Afghanistan-Pakistan arc... For instance, in one madrassa in Pakistan, I interviewed 70 Malaysian and Thai students who are being educated side by side with students who went on to the Afghan war and the like. These people return to their countries, and then we see the results in a short while.... At best, they become hot-headed preachers in mosques that encourage fighting Christians in Nigeria or in Indonesia. And in a worst case, they actually recruit or participate in terror acts."
The oil and weapons trade funds an economy devoted to the proliferation of an ideology masquerading as the one true expression of Islam. It's hardly recognizable to me, as a practicing Muslim, but it's the one that's increasingly taken to represent the faith I subscribe to. Muslims around the world insist Islam is a religion of peace every time a Wahhabist carries out a terror attack, and everyone else grows increasingly bigoted toward the Muslims around them despite our testimony. We perform a respectability politics of ideal, upwardly mobile patriotism, but it's unable to compete with the jihadis who shriek for death and chaos and politicians who channel public fears toward furthering the surveillance apparatus against Muslims.
Saudi Arabia, however, enjoys American allyship and protection. The pages of the 9/11 congressional commission that allegedly detail Saudi Arabia's ties to terrorists are redacted, but a Wikileaks cable in 2009 quotes then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying, "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." When Biden made similar comments last year at a Q&A at Harvard's Kennedy School regarding Gulf monarchies and the money flowing to extremists, he was forced to issue formal apologies. Meanwhile, countries in its orbit suffer the influence of Wahhabist imams and the American weapons we send in after them. In the 80s, Osama Bin Laden was among the millionaires who helped Saudi Arabia match the American funds to Pakistan during Haq's presidency. Since then, most of the victims of Wahhabist attacks, suicide bombings in markets and assassinations, continue to be other Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia.
Saudi Arabia currently leads the US-backed coalition of fundamentalist Gulf monarchies bombing Yemen in an effort to suppress a revolution. Amnesty International has called for a suspension of the US weapons supply that has been devastating Yemenis for the past seven months, but America remains steadfast. Today, the State Department identifies Saudi Arabia as a "strong partner in regional security and counterterrorism efforts."
You don't love Malala because you're grateful she survived—you love her because she's not angry. Despite the starstruck media's insistence, the star of this story isn't an astoundingly gracious child—it's the resounding relief of politicians and officials whose violent foreign policies aren't indicted.
When the mujahideen took root, so did a vision that would be inherited by generations, thanks to a Saudi investment in its dissemination. Since Operation Cyclone, the mujahideen who didn't become Al-Qaeda became Taliban, and imams in madrassas around the world deliver made-in-Saud narratives of an infidel world and a martyrdom rewarded with virgins. As the memory of Soviet bombs cools, American invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan and drone deaths in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, heat these sermons with a fresh urgency. There were many men with guns before one appeared between Malala and her life.
"It was a very enlightened society generations before," Guggenheim explained. "It was a very peaceful world. It was like a paradise. This Taliban thing was a very recent thing, and a lot of American's don't understand that." However Guggenheim's film does little to alleviate the misapprehension.
Listening to Guggenheim explain his film to me felt a lot like watching the film, pleasant until you realize what you're being distracted from. By what right can Americans allow ourselves to feel good about our embrace of Malala? The casualties of an imperial war effort shouldn't be cordoned off into charity projects with marketing teams. This is not politicizing a tragedy—rather, this is remembering that the depoliticization occurred, and continues. Positioning Malala as the hero of the process veils that process.
Malala is demonstrably attached to unassailable social goods like education and women's equality; the media uses that attachment to obscure the wars that interrupted education and women's equality around the world. In July, during a speech at the Oslo Education Summit, Malala stated, "There is a whole generation of children in Syria and many other war-affected areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine where children have been kept away from the classroom by conflicts." Those feting her have yet to make such connections.
He Named Me Malala might allow us to connect with a family, but it's a shameless intercession. American media, including Guggenheim's documentary, focus on fringe Pakistani conspiracy theorists to insist Pakistanis don't love Malala like the West does. Yet Malala was Pakistan's hero first and foremost. Pakistanis held vigils when she was shot, and when she won the Nobel peace prize, Ahmed Shah, a school principal in Mingora, echoed the nation's sentiments when he told Pakistan's most widely read newspaper, "Malala's achievement is a great pride for Swat and all of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but especially for Pakhtuns who are always perceived as terrorists. We are jubilant that it is our Pakhtun daughter who has brought laurels to the entire Pakistani nation."
But outside of Pakistan, if Malala's father is a good man, it's only because he's not like all the other men "over there." If Malala was shot on her way to school, it's simply because people "over there" can't stand girls in schools. And if America doesn't center itself in Malala's adulation, no one "over there" will appreciate her. The unengaged engagement we're called on to perform doesn't deserve to count as support of Malala and her goals: It hardly understands either.
The chief convenience of a far-away tragedy is that the commiseration, a voluntary engagement, can feel like charity. Leaving a public stirred, but undisturbed, charity offers a release valve that depletes the radical potential of outrage. Neoliberal responses to tragedy preclude justice in favor of non-state icons of "goodness." And once branded to endorse values without controversy or actionable commitment (like network-wide social-media avatars), these figures can be deployed to safely verbalize an alliance with what is good, while presenting no disturbance to the conditions preventing that good, or their own biases. Malala exercises her limited agency to defend the right to education—since the attack, she has opened a school in Lebanon for Syrian refugees and committed to rebuilding 65 schools in Gaza. But pundits, politicians, and corporate media partners, all rely on appeals to "humanity" that abstract historical timelines and ignore present-day context.
Celebrities walk red carpets leading up to Malala events, and politicians who approved military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan eagerly smile in photos next to her. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio recently expressed his openness to barring Muslims from receiving student visas in America; when asked who he'd "most like to have a beer with," he confidently named our 18-year-old Muslim heroine.
Two months after the assassination attempt on Malala, Hillary Clinton—who voted to escalate the war in Afghanistan and supports ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan currently—dedicated a video to Malala and their "shared cause." Today, Clinton's campaign website hosts a GIF of Malala being interviewed by Emma Watson. Television hosts gloss over Malala's critiques of war to dote on her insouciance. Classroom guides formed around her memoir are taught in schools. But it's unlikely that any include chapters on the repeated invasions of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands or how the rise of Wahhabist Islam was funded to support terrorism like the kind that placed a gun between a young girl and her classroom. Neither the gun nor the man holding it appeared overnight.
The applause from everyone who can't name a thing about Pakistan besides Malala is, in reality, gratitude for allowing us a war hero minus the war—in which we are unassailable champions, in which all the mythos of an enlightened, forward-thinking West and a violent, perpetually stunted East hold true. I believe Malala. I don't believe the people posing next to her.
You don't love Malala because you're grateful she survived—you love her because she's not angry. Despite the starstruck media's insistence, the star of this story isn't an astoundingly gracious child—it's the resounding relief of politicians and officials whose violent foreign policies aren't indicted.
"Malala and her family are truly forgiving people," marveled Guggenheim. "They don't live with bitterness. They also don't live with their faith on their sleeve. It's very private and very beautiful. I was very inspired." Kind and not confrontationally Muslim: perfect for audiences worldwide. I don't doubt Guggenheim's sincerity, just its usefulness in an environment deaf to Malala's words and primed for a mascot.
Two years ago the Rehman family traveled from Pakistan to speak before Congress about the trauma drone violence is causing—they'd watched their grandmother killed as she tended their garden and now no longer go outside. Like many in northwest Pakistan, they've grown to fear clear skies; drone weather. Rehman told reporters, "I knew that Americans would have a heart... That's why I came here—I thought if they heard my story, they would want to listen to me." Malala has had audience with most heads of state, the UN, and Bono. Just five congressmen attended the Rehmans' hearing.
Thousands have been killed in the routine drone attacks in Pakistan. In Yemen, US drones have killed more than Al-Qaeda. Newspapers insist these are militants, but almost all are civilians. The army retroactively categorizes anyone killed by a drone (for things likeholding a cell phone or appearing in a gathering) as a militant if they're a "military-age" male, making the recorded deaths just as obscure.
The film briefly presents Malala's criticism of drone warfare, unabashed in her memoir, as teenage precociousness, not knowing better than to be blunt with heads of state. We're encouraged to find her most courageous statements cute, and her cutest impulses, like crushing on actors and athletes, courageous.
Almost every review of the documentary has thought to mention the scene in which Malala shyly giggles over online pictures of Brad Pitt and Roger Federer. I cringe each time an article remarks upon the innocuous gesture. It's like we're proud of ourselves for her participation in teen frivolity, of her interest in Western celebrities tinged with the typical fascination in Muslim women's sex lives, which non- Muslims tend to think are disallowed. My own appreciation for the scenes that showed Ziauddin Yousafzai's love and care for his family expressed the undignified gratitude of someone used to being saddled with gross stereotypes.
"What I knew about Pakistan was what I read in the New York Times," the director confessed. What was revelatory for him was learning what a Muslim family from a small town in Pakistan is like. "Sitting at their kitchen table, seeing how they raise their children, and seeing how they manage the complicated mission of building a family. It was a lot like mine. That's what I was drawn to. Their kitchen table is like my kitchen table, and there's teasing and joy and laughter and how beautiful the Islamic faith is." At the time, I was ecstatic hearing Guggenheim share what I already knew about Pakistani families, and recalled how I enjoyed watching scenes of Malala's father make breakfast and Malala's mother practice her English. In hindsight, to be so impressed by such basic recognition of a Muslim family's normalcy was a depressing reminder of how much bias against Muslims I'm used to.
Guggenheim's reasons for "leaving politics out" of a story that wouldn't exist without a series of political decisions made by America—first to arm and train the Taliban and then to fight them in Afghanistan, pushing them into Pakistan—reminded me how Guggenheim, and many of the white viewers of his film, can exist on a very different plane than the one I and Malala occupy. "Sometimes, when you tell the political story, it can dehumanize what is happening to everyday people," Guggenheim noted. "And I wanted to talk about one family and what they experienced. What does it take to speak out, how do you find your voice? To me, that was a very small intimate family experience." This definition of "humanize" was new to me.
Guggenheim uses "humanize" to mean relatable; relatability as a requisite for empathy is only a very slight improvement on dehumanization. And it's a power move. The film doesn't avoid dehumanizing Malala—it radically reduces her experience to be accessible. Taking the opportunity to universalize erases what is at stake for Malala and her family until it's available to everyone, regardless of whether or not it should be. Guggenheim interprets his film the way many viewers might. "I identify with it a lot," he told me. "Maybe when you have struggle, it makes you appreciate things more. The fact that [Zia] has trouble speaking, but it makes his voice stronger and more passionate. I had trouble in school, and now I cherish it more."
Zia Yousafzai, Malala Yousafzai, director Davis Guggenheim, and crew at the Za'atari Refugee Camp, Jordan, in 2014. Photo by Gina Nemirofsky/courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
When the Taliban entered Swat, Malala was roughly the same age as her father was when Operation Cyclone began. Decades later, the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands remain caught between the US and Pakistani governments. When the US brought the war on terror to Pakistan, it completely destabilized the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, with the Taliban moving east, and the CIA and Pakistani ISI following. Regions that had previously enjoyed anti-statist self-governance and functioned as tourist destinations are now unrecognizable, with hundreds of thousands if not millions of people displaced.
The US continues attempts to angle that chaos into a control of energy resources in Central Asia. Meanwhile, Pakistan's government clumsily juggles both the US demands for greater military aggression in the region and the Taliban's violence-bartered insistence on free reign. The United States and Europe, too dependent on buying oil from and selling weapons to Saudi Arabia to ever critique the Saudi monarchy, routinely escape shame for what their decisions have wrought, and the entertainment industry routinely facilitates that escape.
Guggenheim's film seamlessly furthers our ability to keep on celebrating ourselves for celebrating Malala. The international community exploits Malala's status as a failsafe crowd favorite, press tours with a native war hero, minus the wars, with nothing less than the half smile the remaining nerves in her face generously offer to those culpable in her fate.
The extent to which Malala Yousafzai has been heralded has been enough to trigger the paranoia of Pakistanis who, after years of being bombed by the United States, now feel they have no choice other than to distrust anything America insists is good. Thankfully, the conspiracy theorists, convinced of Malala's staging as a pawn of Western illuminati, are far outnumbered by the Pakistanis who see Malala's struggle as theirs, too. Like Malala, Pakistanis desperately wish to reclaim their country from the Taliban—risking their lives as every protester against extremism is added to Taliban hit lists.
Last December, the man who ordered Malala's assassination organized another attack on a school for the children of army members in Pakistan. Orchestrated by seven foreign nationals, the shooting killed 141 people in Peshawar. He Named Me Malala briefly profiles this man, but only from the point at which he is already an infamous Talib. He rose to prominence after joining Afghan fighters resisting the US invasion of Afghanistan. Prior to that, "Maulana" Fazlullah lived in a village selling wooden window shutters off a pushcart.
Ayesha Siddiqi is the editor in chief of the New Inquiry. Follow her on Twitter.
He Named Me Malala is playing in theaters now.