It was impossible not to be inspired listening to Malala Yousafzai yesterday as she addressed the UN General Assembly on her sixteenth birthday, exactly nine months after she had been shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Since 2009 from the age of eleven she has been recording their systematic destruction of the education system in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Through her BBC blog she has been a powerful voice recording the oppression she and her fellow female peers have faced from the oppressive militant forces of the Taliban as they have sought to impose their Islamist ideology on the peoples of that area.
Her fearless blogging has had a far reaching impact. In October 2011, Desmond Tutu announced Malala’s nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize and she became a celebrity in Pakistan. Her public profile rose even further when she was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize two months later in December.
As Malala became more recognised, the dangers facing her became more acute. Taliban death threats were published in newspapers and slipped under her door. Despite this Malala vowed to “never stop working for education for girls”.
When none of this worked, a Taliban spokesman says they were “forced” to act. In a meeting held in the summer of 2012, Taliban leaders unanimously agreed to kill her.
Their failed attempt followed by her subsequent remarkable recovery has brought her further international attention. She was included in Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Yesterday’s event at which she demanded education for all was described by the UN as Malala Day and was organised by Gordon Brown, now the UN Special Envoy for Global Education.
Malala Yousafzai is from a Muslim family, but her speech referenced a number of famous religious figures and campaigners and drew on a number of religious themes:
“I don’t know what people would be expecting me to say, but first of all thank you to God for whom we all are equal and thank you to every person who has prayed for my fast recovery and new life.
“Dear friends, on 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.
“I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. And my dreams are the same. Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learned from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
“This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.
“Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced.”
What Malala is referring to is a deep reality that those who seek truth and freedom are ultimately far more powerful than those who attempt to rule by force and violence. The darkness will never extinguish light no matter how hard it tries and it only takes a small flicker of light to eat into and begin to destroy that darkness. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1,27-28:
‘But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.’
I do not want to bestow any messianic qualities on Malala, but her life bears many parallels to that of Jesus. He regularly spoke out against the leaders of his day confronting the legalistic religion they used to exert control over the lives of those in their society. His words caused those leaders to attempt to silence him through brutal murder, despite his innocence. His death was not the end, but instead his resurrection caused his name to be ultimately known throughout the earth. Jesus’ life of love, compassion and forgiveness continues to demonstrate to us how we should live.
Malala has experienced her own metaphorical death and resurrection and through it she has come out with an even bigger voice and influence than she had before. It reminds us of the way one individual has the potential to achieve great things if they are willing to risk everything in their life for the greater good.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Malala despite still being a child has given us a reminder of the truth of these words. She may not fully appreciate it, but it is almost as if these words of Jesus were spoken directly to her.