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Why Malala Yousafzia matters

True heroes often walk unnoticed throughout the world

Published: Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 4:58 a.m. CST

In these days when American political partisans are obsessed with making sure their political team wins, and when Justin Bieber’s hair is the subject of thousands of well-read articles on Google, politics and celebrity are momentarily overshadowed elsewhere by the tale of a brave Pakistan girl whose only wish was to go to school — and is battling for her life because of it.

Yes, there are heroes in life, and they’re not the politicians hyped by partisans, spinners, or government flacks; not the overpaid athletes, or self-absorbed millionaire talk show hosts. They’re not the actors paid to convincingly mouth words written by others, or the cute girl and boy teen singers whose handlers peddle their sex appeal as much as their (often limited) talent.

If you look, you can see heroes every day — not just walking among you, but walking unnoticed throughout the world. Many are young people in America’s heartland, in cities and villages of countries such as Mexico, Spain, India and beyond — kids wise beyond their years.

In Pakistan, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzia, the girl who risked her life to learn, has become the symbol of those young people thirsting for a better life and seeking to live today, in the present century — not in centuries past.

By age 11, Yousafzia was known for her championing education and women’s rights in Pakistan’s Swat Valley — angering the Taliban who didn’t want girls to go to school. She became a national figure due to her eloquence and logic in print and broadcast interviews. She wrote a blog for the BBC criticizing life under the Taliban. Desmond Tutu later nominated her for the International children’s Peace Prize, and she was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize.

The Taliban felt she must be eliminated, so on Oct. 9 a would-be Taliban assassin got on her school bus and shot her in the head and neck. The critically injured girl was flown to Great Britain for treatment. The Taliban again threatened to kill her and her father. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari denounced the shooting. Some Pakistani Islamic clerics issued a fatwa against the would-be assassins.

The story of a brave teen fanatics tried to murder captured the world’s attention, but not everyone is thrilled by the outpouring of international concern and demands that the government of Pakistan take strong action:

“A deeply wounded Malala appears to have been hijacked by Washington, London and the Western media, which would now decide what the Pakistani government and its military should do in retaliation to satisfy the so-called world community,” Ansar Abbasi wrote in The News, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper.

“And as it seems one more military operation... bloodshed, more insecurity, more suicide bombing and more extremism are the most likely outcome for the people of Pakistan,” he went on. “We are told and our civil and military leaders agree that the so-called war on terror must continue even if it takes the lives of 50,000 more Pakistanis. Adding insult to our injury, the sympathy for Malala is coming from those who themselves are ruthlessly killing our innocent men, women and children or are behaving as silent spectators to post 9/11 butchering of the Muslims.”

In American politics this is called “trying to change the subject.”

Because the issue is actually pretty simple.

A teenage girl wants girls to be free to learn. Brutal fanatics who don’t believe girls should learn felt threatened by her high profile, eloquence, and the wise-beyond-her-years intelligence and logic. So they got on what is almost universally considered “a safe place” for kids — a school bus — to seek her out and murder her.

It’s also about the need for unmistakable consequences.

Consequences aren’t only paid by victims or the predators in acts such as this, but by those who remain silent and enable due to their fixation on their own political agendas.

It’s about drawing a line in the sand.

It’s about seeking out, marginalizing and/or obliterating those who murder or try to murder their political foes.

And it’s about protecting our world’s future, our dreaming, high-aspiring children — no matter where these kids live.

Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at jgandelman@themoderatevoice.com and can be booked to speak at your event at www.mavenproductions.com.

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