If there is a simple human decency that unites people around the world, Ziauddin Yousafzai embodies it. He spent 14 years running a school for girls in his native region of Swat, Pakistan. When the Taliban overran his hometown, he closed the school to keep his students – including his own daughter, Malala — safe. But he refused to leave. He did not want to hand over his beloved hometown to the Taliban.
“I must bring them out from that quagmire,” he told a documentary filmmaker in 2009. “This is my duty, and if I die for that, I think there is no chance for me to die better than this.”
Ziauddin did not die for Swat. But he did make the ultimate sacrifice. On Oct. 9, Taliban assassins boarded a school bus and shot his daughter, Malala, in the head.
At 14, Malala had already become an activist in her own right. She blogged for the BBC under a pseudonym about what life under Taliban rule was like. In 2009, she agreed, alongside her father, to be in a New York Times documentary that chronicled the family’s struggles under Taliban rule, and during a Pakistani military operation that swept the Taliban out of the area. In recent years, an uneasy peace has prevailed in Swat. Malala has spoken out on television and at public meetings about her fear of a Taliban return, and her strong belief in the importance of educating girls.
“They cannot stop me,” she said in the documentary. “I will get my education, if it is at home, school, or anyplace.”
Now that Malala lies in a hospital bed in the United Kingdom, the choices for her native land lay in stark relief: Will Pakistan continue to tolerate religious zealots so extreme that they would assassinate a child? Or will people reject those beliefs and struggle for a different kind of future? Malala’s shooting shows just how much of the turmoil in Pakistan, and the rest of the Muslim world, is really struggle over the soul of Islam itself.
It’s a hopeful sign that tens of thousands of people rallied in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, in support of Malala. Politicians have called her a “daughter of the nation.” Even some conservative clerics who have expressed sympathy for the Taliban in the past condemned the attempt on her life.
One can only hope that the backlash will transform itself into a larger movement to push Pakistan towards a brighter future, just as the backlash over the 1964 murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner woke millions of Americans up to the reality of racism and enabled the passage of the Civil Rights Act.