Sometimes, a single act can reveal everything there is to know about someone or something. The attack by the Taliban last week on a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, Ms. Malala Yousafzai, is one of those clarifying moments. The assassination attempt was a cowardly, barbaric deed. A political movement that feels threatened by a 14-year-old child deserves to be isolated, humiliated and disregarded, both for its savagery and for its utter disregard of the rules of normal politics. Now there can be no doubt about what the Taliban stands for or what it will do to realize its ambitions.
Ms. Yousafzai has been a relentless campaigner for the right of young Pakistani girls to an education. In 2009, at the age of 11, Ms. Yousafzai began a journal for the BBC, the British broadcaster, in her native language of Urdu. Writing under a pseudonym, she explained the perils and deprivations of life under the Taliban in her home in the Swat valley of Pakistan, a picturesque region sometimes called “the Switzerland of Pakistan.” When the Pakistani military drove the Taliban from the valley, she became even more outspoken, focusing on her desire for an education and the importance of education for young women — a practice that was banned by the Taliban, which they enforced by threatening students and teachers, and escalated to the blowing up and burning down of schools for girls. Her efforts won her a national peace prize, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.
It also earned her the enmity of the Taliban. The group reportedly warned her and her family three times to stop her advocacy and to shut down their education efforts — her father runs the school that Ms. Yousafzai attends. They refused to bend, and their determination prompted the Taliban leadership to decide two months ago to proceed with the attack. According to Taliban spokesmen, they selected three men, two of which were trained sharpshooters, to study the girl’s route home from school. On Oct. 9, they attacked the school bus in which she was traveling, and shot her in the head and neck, and wounded two of her class mates. While her injuries are severe, it appears as though she will survive and recover.
The attack has outraged the world. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called it a “heinous and cowardly act”; U.S. President Barack Obama characterized it as “reprehensible and disgusting and tragic.” More important has been the reaction in Pakistan itself. Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf visited Ms. Yousafzai in the hospital and called her “the real face of Pakistan.” Perhaps even more significant is the appearance of Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who many believe is the real power in Pakistan, who also went to her hospital and declared her “an icon of courage and hope.” The mere fact that she was transferred from a civilian to the country’s top military hospital before a decision was made on Monday to send her to Britain for specialized care is a sign that Pakistan’s most powerful institution is behind Ms. Yousafzai.
The Taliban is not intimidated. The group justified the attack by calling her “secular-minded” and “pro-West.” She was also accused of “inviting Muslims to hate mujaheddin (holy warriors)” and of advocating “so called enlightened moderation.” More chilling still, they have pledged to come back and finish the job if Ms. Yousafzai survives.
Never before has the choice for Pakistan been so clear. The country faces two futures: Ms. Yousafzai’s, in which all Pakistanis have the right to an education and a life in which they choose their destiny, and that of the Taliban, which calls for a feudal religious order as interpreted by a small cabal of ideologues, all men. The choice in the 21st century should be simple. This cowardly, reprehensible act also forces Pakistanis to acknowledge that the country’s problem with terrorism is not imported, but homegrown. The forces of repression that have targeted Ms. Yousafzai are Pakistani in origin.
Thus far, that has been a difficult concession. Pakistan seems to prefer to think that its terrorist problems are the result of American over-reach, triggered by attacks in tribal areas near the border area with Afghanistan. It appears that the government in Islamabad wants to think that there is a “good” Taliban that can be used to exert leverage on Pakistan’s behalf in the battle for influence in Afghanistan; the acts within its borders are those of a “bad” Taliban. In reality, the distinction is fictional and the aims of the group unitary: imposition of a government ruled by oppressive religious laws.
Now is the time for all Pakistanis to unequivocally declare themselves. They should rally behind Ms. Yousafzai, denouncing her attackers and demanding justice, not just for those who pulled the trigger, but for those who planned and organized this barbarous attack as well. The Taliban will try to manipulate the narrative — continuing to paint Ms. Yousafzai as the handmaiden of foreign and Western interests — or try to intimidate those it cannot delude. Support for Ms. Yousafzai must outlive her recovery — it must not fade along with the media spotlight. The Islamabad government must mince no words in its support for Ms. Yousafzai, her family and her cause. It must then match those words with deeds.