Malala Yousafzai: The Struggle Between Civilization and Barbarism

On September 5, 1995, then-first lady Hillary Clinton uttered what may well be the most important sentence in her long career: “It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” Fast-forward seventeen years to Mingora, Pakistan, where the Taliban shot a fourteen-year old girl, Malala Yousafzai, for defending the right of all girls to get an education and for denouncing the Taliban’s violent effort to stop them.

There are times that call for moral nuance. Now is not one of them. For Americans— but not just for Americans— nothing can be more fundamental than freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of inquiry. Being deprived of an education truncates these rights, as it stunts the life of every human being who is prevented from developing her or his mind to the fullest.

The Taliban understand what is at stake. They know that enforced ignorance is an essential instrument of subordination and oppression. And unless they are stopped, they will use it to the hilt.

We must call this challenge by its rightful name: it is a struggle between civilization and barbarism.  We cannot split this difference. We should not negotiate with the Taliban, or with groups like them. Whenever we do, we stain ourselves to no purpose.

But America is not the only country facing a moral challenge.  A century ago, Max Weber said that “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Not just claims; successfully claims.

Measured against that standard, one must wonder whether Pakistan is a state. 

One thing is clear: Pakistan’s government will forfeit the world’s respect unless it responds appropriately to this challenge. It is encouraging that Pakistani civil society has spoken out so forcefully against this outrage.  It is fitting that Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Malala Yousafzai in the hospital where she lay so grievously wounded. He stated that this incident, and others like it, “clearly expose the extremist mindset the nation is facing.” And he continued: “It is time we further unite and stand up to fight the propagators of such barbaric mindset and their sympathizers… We refuse to bow before terror. We will fight, regardless of the cost.”

Fine words; now let us see what happens. General Kayani is arguably (many would say unarguably) the single most powerful man in his country. Will he use his army to accomplish the task that should have been completed years ago? Or will this moment of moral clarity give way, as it has so many times before, to a cynical and shortsighted raison d’etat?      

The world is watching.