Islam, Western Discourse, and the Politics of Framing
After Malala’s relocation to Birmingham in Northern England for emergency medical treatment, the Pakistani faction of the Taliban issued a statement which said that if she were to return to her native country, she would once again be targeted by their forces who would attempt to take her life. In her book Malala speaks about how difficult she finds it not to be able to return to “your homeland, where your fathers and forefathers were born and where you have centuries of history, it’s very painful” (Yousafzai and Lamb, XX). However, as upsetting as this was for Malala, it could hardly have been unexpected. Not only did the Taliban make it perfectly clear with the first attempt on her life that they were prepared to murder anyone who spoke out against them, but the worldwide support that she gained in the days after the shooting were more than enough to confirm to them that she was an influential figure.
What is perhaps more surprising was the reported reaction of other Pakistani’s in her hometown of Mingora. Malala has been quoted often as saying she is a proud Pakistani, and indeed wished one day to go into politics there, however the months following her attack divided opinion on her cause. Where thousands of schoolchildren prayed for her swift recovery, according to an article from The Telegraph near to the anniversary of the shooting, many still feel she is an “agent of the West”:
Abdul Khaliq, a teacher at a school just outside the town, called her a “mouthpiece” for America and Britain. “The so-called education campaign by Malala is just eyewash. Neither me nor other Pakistanis will believe in her,” he said, sipping tea and smoking at a roadside hotel. (Crilly, Telegraph: Malala Yousafzai brings fear and loathing to her home town)
There seems to be several interesting things at work here. Firstly, one must consider that the people living near the Tribal areas of Pakistan have witnessed the occupation of those lands and bordering Afghanistan by both the Taliban and Western military forces, and are therefore entitled to their scepticism of the West acting as Malala’s saviour when they themselves had a direct influence in creating the socio-political background that caused her to get shot in the first place. Secondly, the level of fear in Swat is tangible, and it is understandable that those still living under the Taliban’s watchful eye should feel worried about the type of attention Malala brings to their cause. Later in the article, “Muhammad Rasool, a taxi-driver, summed up the fear. ‘Anyone linked to Malala will get killed. No-one wants to be seen identifying with her’”. While it is worrying that the “agent of the West” narrative that is mainly perpetuated by the Taliban is widespread among the local people of Mingora, on reading the article in full there seems to be a disconnect between the intention of the article and the humanity of the Pakistani public.
Once again there is an interesting spin on how opposition to Malala is reported by Western media. Where the article initially, with its headline ‘Malala Yousafzai brings fear and loathing to her home town,’ tries to make it seem as if Malala’s views are unpopular in Swat valley, the truth is far more understandable. They fear further targeting from the Taliban given the widespread fame she has gained in sharing her story, and their criticisms are mainly focused on the influence of the West in her activism. The whole attitude seems off – is it the people of Mingora’s fault that they have now been targeted by the Taliban? Can it be said that it is Malala’s fault either? As those closest to the heart of the problem, who have faced the violence of the Taliban and corruption of their government first hand, surely they are justified in their suspicions of the way the West focus their attention on Malala.
In Judith Butler’s Frames of War, she addresses the idea of ‘the frame’ first in terms of art and photography, and then in terms of the ‘framing’ of a narrative. This is useful when analysing the way in which the media presents certain news stories in order to further specific parts of Western discourse. When a narrative is ‘framed’ in a particular way, the focus is on whatever has been placed inside that frame, however much can be learned from what is outside it, i.e. the information that has been purposefully left out. Butler explains:
…To call the frame into question is to show that the frame never quite contained the scene it was meant to limn, that something was already outside, which made the very sense of the inside possible, recognizable. The frame never quite determined precisely what it is we see, think, recognize, and apprehend. Something exceeds the frame that troubles our sense of reality.
Both the East and the West have framed Malala’s story, leaving out certain key features and twisting her narrative for their own gain. While the Taliban themselves have created a particular frame of the world,* which they use not only to justify their actions in occupied regions but also to try and bring others to their cause, Western discourse has done exactly the same thing. The Taliban frame the things Malala campaigns for as Western and ‘un-Islamic,’ meanwhile Western media continues to use Malala as an example of how Islam is a cruel and barbaric religion, completely gutting Malala’s tireless work of any meaning or value. Western discourse surrounding the East and in particular the Islamic faith has taken many forms throughout history, but the current discourse promotes the idea that Islam is inherently violent, that it promotes terrorism, and encourages the oppression of Women and the eradication of other religious doctrines.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Pakistani women’s rights campaigner Humaira Awais Shahid makes it clear that although Malala fights for a just cause, the West “wants to gain from Malala’s real story, an agenda that suits them or the policies they want” (Hines, The Daily Beast: Has Malala Become a Puppet of the West?). She describes how criticism of the Taliban as reported in the West is always framed as a criticism of Islam itself in order to promote secularisation, where in fact the real focus should be on the complicated social and political problems faced in Taliban-controlled regions.
“Our constitution starts with the name of almighty, Allah, talks about in accordance with the scriptures and the principles of Islam—so what are you talking about? […] Our folklore, our old traditions, our music, our art, our poetry is all about celebration of the creator and creation—our love is a root to love of the creator, this is very different to your societies,” she said. “Our issue is injustice; our issue is poverty; our issue is corrupt governments; our issue is a lack of accountability. Please help us on that. Our issue is not secularization.”
The narrative created by the West about Malala twists the intentions she had in bringing attention to the treatment of girls in Swat. The problems present in Pakistan are not caused by the Islamic religion itself, but by the actions of the Taliban, who, while using the name of Islam to validate their cause, were created in reaction to a political situation (the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989**). Just because Pakistan is a religious country does not mean every problem is because of religion. There are multitudes of different sections of Islam which practice their faith slightly differently, but terrorists do not suddenly appear from within a religion that has been practiced peacefully for thousands of years, without the existence of an external cause to trigger their extremism and fundamentalism. There are white terrorists*** who are seen for what they truly are – unreasonable, violent men – whose religious affiliations are not investigated as their sole motivation.
Perhaps the Western psyche is simply not capable of disconnecting its fundamental distrust of Eastern cultures, traditions, and most importantly religions, from its perception of troubles that occur within that region. After all, to claim that secular societies are without these sorts of problems would be ridiculous. The fact of the matter is that Western governments have their share of corruption, indeed if not more. The difference, as Shahid says, is that political and military leaders are held accountable when corruption occurs. Furthermore, for the US and the UK to act as if problems in the Middle East are caused by Islam, when they directly fuelled them through war and colonialism, is a case of incomparable hypocrisy and immorality. To use Malala to further this argument is even worse. In Baig’s 2013 article, he comments on how Malala is a “good native”:
She does not criticise the West, she does not talk about the drone strikes, she is the perfect candidate for the white man to relieve his burden and save the native. (Baig, Malala Yousafzai and the White Saviour Complex)
Here, Baig invokes Spivak’s theories of the ‘native informant’ to suggest why Malala’s case is useful to Western narratives. When Malala is seen criticising the actions of the Taliban, she becomes the “empty signifier used to legitimate political positions while simultaneously rendering that informant into a subaltern status that cannot speak for itself” (Smith, 320). The native informant is used only to confirm what Western discourse had already decided, validated by their ‘otherness’, and in Malala’s case this means a whole host of meaning is attributed to her standpoint that she never intended in the first place. As Malala has grown older, however, and as she continues to exist very much within the public eye, she has spoken out more against the actions of Western governments:
We discussed the USA’s role in supporting dictatorships and drone attacks in countries like Pakistan. I told him that instead of focusing on eradicating terrorism through war, he should focus on eradicating it through education. (Yousafzai and Lamb, Preface XXII)
Malala is referring here to her visit to The White House in 2014 at the age of 17 to talk with President Obama, and it is clear that she understands the importance of a ‘native’ directly criticising the West’s military involvement in the East. Her focus has always been peace, education, and the protection of innocents, however this is not particularly conducive to maintaining the frame constructed by Western media and government policy. The United States and other allied forces have since launched air strikes on Islamic State in Syria following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2014.**** Malala’s voice is only heard, it seems, if her advice works in accordance with Western interests.
To conclude, I feel that the experience of Muslim women in the East is being misrepresented and misunderstood in the West, and Malala is an example of this. Western media continuously promotes the stereotype of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ and the ‘violent Muslim man’, and has no interest in allowing Muslim women to speak for themselves to rectify this. Western discourse is motivated by a need to narrativise, a need to simplify extremely complicated histories to the story of good versus evil, East versus West, religious versus secular. In the process of this narrativisation, the humanity of people of colour is being lost.
Western governments must take responsibility for the atrocities performed in foreign countries, both historically and in front of our very eyes. Rather than labelling people of colour in foreign nations as perpetrators of violence and oppression against their own people, white Western men in positions of power should begin to analyse their role as oppressors of the world, in their attempt to maintain the power that they systematically conquered and stole through war, colonisation and racism. While Malala has spoken at high profile, international events like the United Nations, and won the Nobel Peace prize, the governments who praise her message and present her with awards continue to use violent force to solve the world’s problems. The rise of terrorist groups such as Isis and Boko Haram in recent years have been met with the same kind of military action that Malala condemns in her book, which she even points to as a key cause for extremism in the first instance.
Using the word ‘puppet’ to describe Malala is far too strong, and inaccurate. To say this takes away the autonomy she has fought very hard for, and reinforces a sexist, racist narrative. But to begin to deconstruct these narratives, we must first feel free to point them out when they become apparent. It is important, however, that speculation about Western intentions and criticism of the media flurry around Malala should not shout louder than what she herself has to say; the bigger picture here is the rights of children around the globe and the campaign for their education.
* An example taken from ‘I am Malala’: “The Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues and stupas where we played, which had been there for thousands of years and were a part of our history from the time of the Kushan kings. They believed any statue or painting was haram, sinful and therefore prohibited.” (Yousafzai and Lamb, 102)
**In Chapter 2 of ‘I am Malala’ (21-31), Malala talks in depth about her father’s experiences living in Pakistan during the occupation, and the ideological changes that came along because of it: “Some boys from my father’s district went off to fight in Afghanistan. It is said that one day a maulana called Sufi Mohammad came to the village and asked young men to join him to fight the Russians in the name of Islam. Many did, and they set off, armed with old rifles or just axes and bazookas. Little did we know that years later the same maulana’s organisation would become the Swat Taliban.” (Yousafzai and Lamb, 26)
***A report released by the New America Foundation in 2015 found that white people are the biggest terror threat in the United States, “killing more people in attacks than Muslims or any other group in the last 14 years” (Guion, Independent: White people are biggest terror threat in the US, report finds)
****The Guardian’s interactive article ‘US-led airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq’ usefully illustrates the timeline of the strikes in Syria and Iraq.
I’d like to thank you if you read all three parts, this dissertation meant a lot to me so I appreciate it.
I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks now, so I’ll be back when I return with a new, totally non-Malala-related post.
Image via BelfastFilm.Net