There’s no doubt that Madonna was trying to be helpful a few days ago when she performed a striptease for an audience in Los Angeles. The question is how carefully the pop entertainer considered the consequences before she shucked off her costume to reveal the name Malala emblazoned in big letters across her back, between her bra strap and her thong. The crowd at the Staples Center applauded and cheered, of course. But the response has been decidedly mixed in Pakistan, where 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai (no relation) attended school until Oct. 9, when a Taliban gunman shot her in the head for her outspoken public advocacy of women’s education.
The extremists pounced on the video as soon as it was posted. The schoolgirl’s shooting had provoked an unprecedentedly fierce backlash against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Now Madonna’s performance allowed the militants to recast Malala as a symbol of Western immodesty and immorality. Hospitalized in Britain, with a tracheotomy tube down her throat, she was in no position to protest. Kakar Khan, a former senior official in the Afghan Taliban’s Information Ministry, sent me a long email saying, “If you have any doubts about Malala’s game, you must watch Madonna strip sing.” He urges readers of his Facebook page to view the video—but not if family members are present: “Do not try to open it,” he warns. “Total strip and vulgar.”
Many Taliban say Malala’s Western supporters only prove she was a bad person. “If Malala were a good Muslim, such terrible people would not raise their voices for her—people like Obama, [Angelina] Jolie, Madonna, [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, and [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari, says Ghazi Wazir, a TTP member living in Karachi. “Whoever shot Malala would not be happy for hurting the girl, but they would be happy for any pain they could inflict on Obama, Zardari, Karzai, and the rest of the world’s top enemies of islam.” He says he has seen photos of Madonna on the night of her pro-Malala performance.
Even people from far outside the Taliban’s ranks are denouncing the singer’s performance. “I condemned the attack on Malala,” says Omar Mansoor Ansari, who worked as the media director for Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai’s campaign during Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential race. “At the same time, I also condemn Madonna’s song for Malala. Those who targeted Malala created a hugely negative message about Muslims, but Madonna has spread the anti-Islam and anti-Pashtun propaganda even wider by her song.”
Not satisfied with using Madonna in efforts to discredit Malala, some Pakistani Taliban are weaving bizarre conspiracy theories around the case. One TTP commander, currently living underground in Karachi and asking not to be named, claims that the Malala shooting was all a big hoax. “It was just play-acting,” he says. “If she was wounded in the head as it was said in the media, the doctors would have been forced to shave her head, but in photos her hair is perfect. She was never wounded.”
Zaman Taraki, a relatively moderate TTP sympathizer living in London, concedes that the shooting was genuine, but he insists that the attack was a plot by Punjabi members of Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistan government’s spy directorate, to rally worldwide support for military action in the TTP’s tribal-areas strongholds. But it’s no use, he says. U.S. support for action against the TTP “would only help the religious fanatics,” he says. “The Pakistani Army would never go after the Taliban in the tribal areas.”
The backlash against Malala actually began even before Madonna’s appearance in Los Angeles. I visited a madrassa in Mardan, a 90-minute drive from Malala’s Swat Valley hometown of Mingora. “There is no doubt that Islam never allows the killing of anyone under age,” says Maulana Ali Haqqani, 45, as his class of 15 students listened intently. “The question isn’t whether what happened to Malala was right or wrong. The question is why this incident is fueling anti-Islam feelings. The attack on Malala earned deep and rapid condemnation worldwide. So why does no one speak out against the killing of innocent kids in the tribal areas, Afghanistan, and Palestine?”
Haqqani blames practically everyone he can think of: not only the U.S. and Israeli armed forces, but Malala’s father for encouraging her to speak her mind, the late U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke for agreeing to meet with her and thus helping to make her a target of the TTP’s rage, the entire world for supposedly ignoring atrocities that are committed against Muslims. “Thousands of Muslim kids were burned alive in Burma,” he says, referring to violence that killed an undetermined number of men, women, and children last June. “Where were the people who are now at the front lines of the U.S.-led media war against Pakistan’s religious elements?” He takes off his glasses and looks proudly to his students. “I agree there is more sympathy for Malala than we thought, but it is Western media using her case and keeping it alive.”
In the end, there’s always a way to deflect the burden of responsibility to the West. “The Malala incident helped the West by successfully diverting attention from anti-Islam movies,” says Kakar Khan, evidently referring to the idiotic YouTube trailer for Innocence of Muslims, which set off furious protests across the Muslim world in September. “Malala was a poor and innocent girl, unwittingly forced to play her part in this satanic drama. Now her role is at an end, and the play will go on, costing lots of Muslim blood.” The tragedy will continue. That much seems beyond dispute.