1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A divisive figure

Shamil ShamsJuly 18, 2013

A senior Taliban commander has written an open letter to teenage Pakistani activist Malala, accusing her of running a 'smear campaign' against them. Experts say the letter is a reaction to Malala's historic UN speech.

Malala Yousafzai speaks at United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 12 July 2013 (Photo: EPA/JUSTIN LANE)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old activist from Pakistan's restive northwestern Swat area, has become an international symbol of resistance, empowerment of women and right to education. However, in her own country she is looked down upon by many, who accuse her of being a US agent, set out to malign Pakistan and Islam. It is a view spoken out recently by a senior Taliban commander in Pakistan, which experts say is proof that when it comes to matters related to religion and nationalism, many Pakistanis and the Taliban think alike.

Adnan Rasheed, a former Pakistani air force member and now a Pakistani Taliban leader, accused Malala of running a "smear campaign" against the militants in an open letter released Wednesday. Rasheed, who was freed by the Taliban in a mass jail break last year after he was arrested by Pakistani authorities over a plot to murder former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf, said he wished his comrades had not shot Malala but then went on to justify Malala's assassination attempt and his organization's activities.

Malala - who is also a blogger - was shot by armed men in October last year along with three other girls in the Swat Valley of Pakistan's restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the attack and said in a statement that Malala had been attacked for promoting "secularism."

This picture shows a Taliban supporter standing in front of a graffiti reading 'Ameer-ul-Momneen Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid Zindabad (long live holy fighter)' in Killi Nalai, a village near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, during a religious gathering (Photo: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Taliban militants control many parts of Pakistan's tribal northwestImage: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

The 16-year-old had been campaigning for girls' right to education in Swat and was a vocal critic of the Taliban before she was shot. She won international acclaim for writing about Islamist atrocities in Swat in a BBC Urdu service blog. She has recently been nominated for the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala was sent to the United Kingdom after she received initial medical treatment in Pakistan. Presently, she is residing with her family in the UK.

Historic UN speech

Last week, Malala addressed the United Nations, urging the international community to promote education.

"The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions," Malala said at the UN youth assembly, "but nothing changed in my life, except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born."

She said that "the extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens."


The Taliban commander criticized Malala's UN speech in his letter by calling it "propaganda."

"It is amazing that you are shouting for education," Rasheed wrote to Malala, adding that the reason she was shot was not because she was promoting education, but because of her "propaganda" campaign against the Islamists. "What you are doing now, you are using your tongue on the behest of the others."

"I advise you to come back home, adopt the Islamic and Pashtun culture, join any female Islamic madrassah near your home town, study and learn the book of Allah, use your pen for Islam and the plight of Muslim ummah (community)," Rasheed wrote.

The Taliban have destroyed hundreds of schools across Pakistan's northwestern areas. But Rasheed insisted this happened because the Pakistani military had been using them as their bases to launch attacks on the militants.

Symbol of pride

Activists and experts say that there is nothing unusual about the remarks and claims Rasheed made in his letter, since the Taliban are known for justifying their "barbaric actions."

"Malala posed a threat to the Taliban in the sense that she was setting an example for other girls," Pakistani writer and activist Zahida Hina told DW. "The Taliban attacked her because they wanted to tell others that if they dared to stand against them, they would also meet the same fate."

"Malala Yousafzai is a brave young girl who has already succeeded in transforming adversity into an opportunity to advance a noble cause. She is working for the empowerment of women through education, which can be compared in significance to the abolition of slavery and the fight against racial discrimination," Dwayne Ryan Menezes, a historian at Cambridge University, told DW.

Commenting on her UN speech, Menezes said that Malala had become a model to young people around the world. "She is a William Wilberforce of our time," he said, referring to the English leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. Menezes added that Malala had hit the nail on the head by identifying books and pens as the most powerful weapons. "I was particularly pleased she stressed the importance of providing education not just to women, but also to the sons and daughters of terrorists and extremists."

A controversial figure

Despite the fact that Pakistani liberals hail her as a symbol of pride for the country, she has become an extremely controversial figure in Pakistan. A majority of conservatives allege she is working against Islam and the country.

Pakistani students and teachers hold posters of Malala Yousafzai while they take part in a demonstration in Karachi, Pakistan on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012 (Photo: Faree Khan/AP/dapd)
Loved abroad, Malala is maligned in her own countryImage: Reuters

"Isn't it strange that many Pakistanis share Rasheed's views on Malala?" said Shareef Ahmed, a Karachi-based activist. "They are saying the same things against Malala on social networking websites that Rasheed wrote in his letter. I think it shows that the Taliban ideology is a popular ideology in Pakistan. Malala has exposed quite a lot of people, even those who are not hardcore extremists."

Many in Pakistan believe that the local and international media are unnecessarily creating hype around the young activist. Right-wing parties in Pakistan claim that the campaign to promote Malala is proof that there is an "international lobby" behind the whole issue.

"I don't think that Malala deserved to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I think there are more deserving people in Pakistan who should have been nominated for the award," Karachi-based Shiite activist Syed Ali Mujtaba Zaidi told DW. "Just because you (Malala) got shot by the Taliban does not make you worthy of the award."

Supporters of the 16-year-old say that it is "Malala haters" who are running a smear campaign against the teenager. The Taliban's letter to Malala reflects a mindset, they say.