State of Denial

Why So Many Pakistanis Hate Their Nobel Peace Prize Winner

While official reaction was overwhelmingly positive, on Facebook and especially Twitter, Pakistan’s middle class dredges up old conspiracy theories.

10.10.14 4:51 PM ET

After Pakistani Malala Yousufzai and Indian child advocate Kailash Satyarthi jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, official reaction in Pakistan was overwhelmingly positive. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called her the “Pride of Pakistan” and said girls and boys should “take the lead from her struggle and commitment.”

The spokesman for Pakistan’s powerful army, Asim Bajwal, weighed in with a congratulatory tweet, saying “Except for terrorists, all Pakistanis want their children in school.”

Even Imran Khan, the playboy cricketer-turned-politician who has been criticized for being soft on the Taliban and whose political party banned Malala’s autobiography in the part of Pakistan it controls, fêted her:

But in the darker regions of the Pakistan social media space, reaction was as scornful as it was celebratory, with many dredging up old theories that Malala was a plot by American, Indian, or Israeli intelligence agencies to defame Pakistan.

The BBC quoted Tariq Khattack, editor of the Pakistan Observer, condemning the prize and Malala:

“She is a normal, useless type of a girl. Nothing in her is special at all. She’s selling what the West will buy.”

Where does this animosity come from? Why isn’t she universally praised?

Malala came to prominence as an anonymous blogger for BBC Urdu in the deeply conservative Swat region of northwest Pakistan, where she bravely defied Taliban dictates that girls should not go to school. In 2012, after she had gone public with the support of her father, she was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen while on a bus. Rushed to Britain for treatment, she miraculously recovered and became an international campaigner for the rights of children—and especially girls—to get an education.

For Malala to be so uniquely honored when so many young girls in the Swat Valley face similar dangers engendered a lot of jealousy among many in Pakistan.

The CIA angle is a common one in Pakistan, which tends to see “foreign hands” as the root of the country’s problems. As I noted shortly after Malala was shot in 2012, everything that happens in Pakistan is a plot by the Indians, America, or Israel. Or all three. The Taliban, power cuts, corruption, economic stagnation, Osama bin Laden, all of it.

The tendency to see plots and enemies behind every tree is a common trait of the English-speaking Pakistani middle class, which is overwhelmingly conservative, nationalistic, and suspicious of the West. Non-Muslims, foreigners, anyone embraced by the United States (such as Malala), and even minority religious sects in Pakistan are all seen as agents of foreign powers.

(Of course it doesn’t help that sometimes the suspicions are right. A Pakistani doctor who helped find Osama bin Laden was working for the CIA. The drones bombing the tribal area, angering many, are run by the Company. India really does intrigue against Pakistan in the same way Pakistan plots against India. This part of the world wasn’t referred to as the board for the Great Game by Kipling for nothing.)

Dissing its Nobel laureates is a bit of a tradition in Pakistan, too. Before Malala, in 1979, Dr. Abdus Salam won the Nobel Prize for Physics. He, too, is a pariah in Pakistan, rarely acknowledged and never claimed as the “pride” of the nation. His crime? He was an Ahmadi, a minority Muslim sect that Pakistan has declared un-Islamic and against which it discriminates horribly. Like Malala he, too, was in exile when he won the prize.

Still, most Pakistanis no doubt are very proud of Malala. It’s only a small but very vocal minority attacking her. But they illustrate the larger problem in Pakistan: The powerful security state there needs enemies to justify itself, and “foreign hands” are a convenient target. For decades, Pakistanis have been encouraged by media, the military, and the government to blame others for the country’s problems instead of confronting them head on.

Politicians, media figures, and especially the army all ignore the cancer eating away at Pakistan since before the Islamist dictator Ziaul Haq took power in 1977. His policies helped engender the rise of an intolerant and severe nationalism that conflates piety with patriotism. It’s an ugly ideology that excludes and marks others as outsiders and, thus, enemies.

The real enemy in Pakistan is not the United States, India, or even the Taliban who shot Malala. It’s not even the passive acceptance of a pervasive xenophobia. It’s a denial that any of this comes from within Pakistan itself. It’s an almost pathological inability to self-evaluate.

But Pakistan also contains the seeds of its own salvation, with young people like Malala, who shows just how high she can rise. While no one wants another Malala in the sense of a schoolgirl who almost paid the ultimate price for simply wanting an education, Pakistan needs, and has, thousands of Malalas who demonstrate everyday defiance of the cynicism and jealousy the haters on Twitter so eagerly spew. If the trolls are the ugly face of Pakistani nationalism, Malala, and all the Pakistani girls inspired by her are the country’s true patriotism and potential.