A truly remarkable piece of work by a truly remarkable young woman. Malala Yousafzai has produced a memoir that’s so much more than mere autobiography. Anyone ignorant of this brave girl has clearly been living in a shelter on Mars, so I won’t insult readers of this review with an overview.
There’s great optimism in this account of courage and determination, but there’s also much innocence and naivety. Malala continues her unquestioning support for a faith that, in the hands of ambitious, brutal and misogynistic men, gave birth to ideas and moral standards that allowed her to become a target for murder. In common with other scripture-based religions, Islam uses texts that are subject to interpretation, and therefore misinterpretation. In fact, the Qur’an is generally presented as a series of verses, contained in 114 Surahs, claimed to have been passed to Mohammed, and accompanied by commentary written and expanded after the prophet’s death. Because there are also internal contradictions, it’s possible for those with their own agenda to distort the apparent rules of Islam, in much the same way as happens with Christian sects relying on the Bible, to suit their own purposes.
Malala tells us that conspiracy theory is rife among the Pashtuns who form her home state, perhaps with good cause. But she seems reluctant to follow through on this thread. She mentions that the Qur’an tells adherents that all boys and girls should study and learn about the world and how it works. This makes the Taliban’s call to end their education unislamic, of course.
A lot of Islamic schools in Pakistan continue to teach their pupils the text of the Qur’an in Arabic, a language most Muslims do not understand; translations are available but often discouraged. Many of the Taliban were educated in Saudi-financed madrassas and taught Wahhabism, a notably austere and rigid form of Islam rooted in Saudi Arabia.
Worldly learning in science, the arts, history and all those other subjects we, in the West, take for granted, are neglected in many of these ‘schools’ where pupils merely repeat words they have no means of understanding. As a result, all meaning and information are in the hands of those running madrassas and mosques: any individual Imam or madrassa teacher can, therefore, teach whatever he wishes to his flock.
Among other things, Malala tells us that many suicide bombers, usually men, who operated in Swat, her hometown, wore the burqa to disguise their identities. She describes wearing this item of clothing as being very uncomfortable, like being in an oven, difficult to walk in, and nothing to do with the Qur’an. Having read the Qur’an, I can confirm it has little to say about what to wear, except that both men and women should dress ‘modestly’, with no explanation of what that term actually means.
Traditions and customs in a land of misogynistic, paternalistic and ignorant injustice exacerbated the cruelty and superstitious prejudice that allowed an organisation as corrupt, morally bankrupt, and insanely nihilistic as the Taliban to flourish. That local and national politicians and military leaders were more concerned with personal power and vanity served only to facilitate the development of a culture of utter brutality and base inhumanity.
There’s little doubt that lack of clarity in the Qur’an, coupled with the ambitions of ruthless opportunists, is at least partly responsible for the development of extreme and perverted views and rules in a land governed by possibly the most self-serving gang of politicians ever to have existed. Malala, a child of her upbringing, appears utterly unaware of the deeply divisive nature of the myths and misinterpretations on which her faith is based, and largely ignores such facts of religion.
Whilst her courage and determination are to be both lauded and encouraged, her failure to place blame for the atrocities at the feet of those responsible unfortunately devalues much of her positive action. Until religions based on so-called ‘sacred scriptures’, accept the very real flaws inherent in those scriptures, and address these with real and honest action, all the best intentions, hopes and dreams of the moderate majority will continue to come to nothing under the inevitable onslaught of ambitious radical extremists.
Malala wishes to present herself, her culture and her faith as honest, honourable and true. But she’s missed the opportunity to explain that the inbuilt scope for different interpretations makes the Qur’an, like the Bible, an unreliable guide for the good life.
Tradition in her homeland, mixed with religion, devalues the reality of honesty whilst appearing to make it a priority. It’s clear that in lands where the Taliban and other extreme organisations, like Daesh, have been, and remain, in power that truth really is the first casualty of war. Clever politics and the distortion of custom and tradition ensure no one is trusted and thereby provide more power to those most willing to employ the slogan, ‘Might is Right’.
Malala’s book is an account of real bravery and tenacity by a gifted young woman and her father. And this enthralling and moving account demonstrates the beauty and courage possible in the heart of a kind young woman of intelligence. But I found it ultimately depressing in its conclusions and failure to address real honesty, honour and truth.
[Any review is a personal opinion. No reviewer can represent the view of anyone else. The best we can provide is an honest reaction to any given book.]