A Deserving Winner, And A Nobel Cause

This morning the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to its youngest winner ever — Malala Yousafzai, a 17-year-old woman from Pakistan.  She and Kailash Satyarthi of India received the Prize for their work to advance the rights of children and promote universal schooling.

Many selections of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee have been controversial — often they are criticized as highly politicized attempts to direct public discourse, rather than recognize true achievements in promoting peace — and even this award had an apparent political message.  The Committee Chairman said: “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”

Regardless of the political overtones, this time the Committee made a very worthy choice.  Yousafzai’s compelling personal story, and her courageous crusade for education, have been an inspiration to millions across the world.   Ever since she overcame being shot for resisting Taliban edicts that barred girls from going to school and bravely continued to advocate — peacefully — for the advancement and schooling of girls, Yousafzai has been a living example of everything the Nobel Peace Prize is supposed to represent.

There is something important in the fact that Yousafzai is the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, too.  A 15-year-old girl who is threatened, bullied, and then shot by religious extremists would seem to be powerless, but Yousafzai proved that perceptions of power can be wrong.  Individuals, young and old, can make a difference.

Let’s Go Slow On Bowe

Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive in Afghanistan for five years, was released from captivity by the Taliban over the weekend, in exchange for the release of five prisoners from the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The story of the circumstances of Bergdahl’s captivity is unclear, but what is being reported is both  curious and interesting.  Already, there are questions being raised about precisely how he was captured and whether he was responsible in some fashion for his own situation.  A former soldier in Bergdahl’s battalion has contended that he left his post voluntarily and that other American soldiers were killed while trying to find and rescue him. The Washington Post reports that some of his fellow soldiers consider Bergdahl to be a deserter who had become disillusioned with the war in Afghanistan and should be held accountable for his actions.

If there are questions about what Bergdahl did and didn’t do — and the stories being reported certainly suggest that there are — they should be investigated.  The determination of whether a soldier is a deserter is one reserved to the military, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  I think we should leave that question to those authorities, and in the meantime refrain from rushing to judgment, one way or the other, about Bergdahl.  We can all, at least, be happy for his parents that their son has been freed from captivity.

It’s also reasonable for Congress to examine the circumstances of the swap of Bergdahl for the Taliban prisoners.  What assurances did the Administration give, and what did they receive?  Was this situation one that was treated as an effort to free a POW, or was it more like negotiating to free a hostage?  Did the Administration’s approach signal a change in American policy, or not?  These are not empty, political questions; they are important, practical inquiries that are worth careful examination in a real world that unfortunately is full of terrorism and potential dangers.  Here, too, however, it is important not to leap to conclusions.  In a world of throwaway sound bites, this is an issue that cries out for careful, dispassionate consideration after all of the facts have been marshaled.

Malala Yousafzai And The Power Of The Individual

You can’t help but be inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who resisted Taliban edicts that forbade girls from going to school. Now 16 years old, Yousafzai is a living, breathing example of the unique power of the individual to serve as an agent of change.

Yousafzai’s story reminds us of how different the world can be under repressive religious regimes.  When she started a blog and advocated for education for Muslim girls in defiance of the edicts, the Taliban issued a death threat against her.  Later a Taliban gunman attacked her on her school bus, and she was shot in the head and neck.  She survived, went to Great Britain for brain surgery, and continues to be a strong voice for education even in the face of renewed Taliban threats.

This past week Yousafzai made a whirlwind tour of the United States.  She met President Obama, the First Lady, and their 15-year-old daughter Malia, thanked him for the United States’ support of education, but also expressed the view that U.S. drone attacks are fueling terrorism.  Yousafzai also deeply impressed Jon Stewart and the audience of The Daily Show by her patient insistence that violence and cruelty can only be defeated by education and peaceful dialogue.

Some people thought Yousafzai might win the Nobel Peace Prize.  Instead the Prize went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  I have no doubt that the group, which has worked to eliminate chemical weapons, has performed important work — but no organization can ever have the impact of one individual standing resolute in the face of tyranny.  Malala Yousafzai has single-handedly focused attention on the need for education and the plight of girls and young women under the Taliban and, by extension, in other places where religious edicts and despotic governments have repressed their rights and freedoms.  We can only hope that her message and example will ultimately bring about essential social changes in the benighted regions of the world.


A Dangerous Place

From the perspective of an armchair in the middle of the United States, it is hard to know what to think about Pakistan. There seems to be so much going on, and sometimes the stories seem contradictory. Is the Taliban advancing or retreating? Are the average citizens in Pakistan generally supportive of the Taliban, or frightened by its activities and opposed to the imposition of sharia? And, to top it all off, it seems that Pakistan is experiencing unrest due to food prices.

About the only thing that seems clear is that the United States should be very concerned about what is happening in Pakistan. When the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan, they provided a safe haven where terrorists could train, plot, and execute attacks. Their recent activities provide no basis for believing that they have changed their views or become more civilized. Terrorist groups already are apparently operating in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan where the Taliban is in ascendancy. What could those terrorists accomplish if the Taliban gained control of larger portions the country? After all, Pakistan differs from Afghanistan in at least one crucial respect — Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. Would leaders who do not hesitate to ruthlessly flog women who are accused of violating a medieval code of conduct hesitate to use nuclear weapons?

Floggings and Fire Hoses

This story — www.nytimes.com/2009/04/04/world/asia/04swat.html?ref=todayspaper — raises interesting questions about the future of Pakistan, a country most experts, and President Obama and his Administration, see as a focal point of the global struggle against terrorism.

Occasionally a single incident, such as the horrible flogging video described in this article and the negative public reaction to it, can be a turning point. Many people think, for example, that the TV images of peaceful black protesters being attacked by dogs and knocked down by high-powered fire hoses were crucial to convincing Americans outside of the Jim Crow South that federal civil rights legislation like the Voting Rights Act was desperately needed. If the public revulsion within Pakistan to this flogging incident and other Taliban excesses grows, it could help to move Pakistan and its people away from religious extremism, intolerance, and the Taliban. On the other hand, if the government ignores the incident or proves powerless to address it, the Taliban may be seen as immune from punishment for such excesses, and it will in turn grow more powerful as the everyday citizens in the areas controlled by the Taliban decide that submission and compliance are more sensible than defiance. The whole story of this particular incident has not yet been told.