Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year for demanding education for girls. After a remarkable recovery in Britain (where she now lives and attends school), she gave a powerful speech about the right to education for all of the world’s children at the United Nations today, her 16th birthday. Various news agencies had run various quotes from it, many of which I found impressive and inspiring. So I queried my secret massive surveillance database, and read the entire transcript.
I am just going to come right out and say this: the religious references in her speech really pissed me off. Sure, she was ecumenical: we had Buddha and Jeezus, along with Mohammed. Mother Teresa even put in an appearance. And believe me, I understand the context of where she was speaking, what she is trying to accomplish, and that she is a very young Pashtun woman from Pakistan’s Swat region.
It still really pissed me off.
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By chance, I happened to be conversing over the last few days with Palace V.I.P. Professor Emeritus & Alumni Association President SJ about religious fundamentalism. As I read Malala’s speech, our recent discussions came to mind. I have written much about the problems inherent in hierarchical worldviews, and won’t rehash all that here. Suffice it to say that that I believe religious fundamentalism (of any flavor) is an emergent property of a conservative mindset, and not the other way around. Fundamentalist religions validate hierarchical views (particularly with respect to gender), and they make it easier for conservatives to maintain and defend those views by providing divine justification. This is just reason number 6,782 that religion is damaging. But the fact remains that certain individuals will be abusive, controlling and domineering assholes, with or without a religious justification. That said, with respect to religious people, it is vitally important to remember that most of them are not abusive, controlling and domineering assholes. Many of them really and truly mean well. They are, after all, human beings with exactly the same evolved morality that the vast majority of people share. Yes, they are wrong about gods, and I will never stop saying so. But they are right about tolerance and equality, and they are right to give a shit about the wellbeing of other people. In other words, they are liberals.
Religious liberals have made tremendous sacrifices and been invaluable allies in social justice causes, here and in the Islamic world. 19th century abolitionists, 20th century abortion rights activists, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King — the world would be a much darker place without their work. I do not see how we can get around the fact that if there is to be any hope of social and economic progress for billions of people on our overstressed little planet, we will need religious liberals as allies, just as much as they will surely need allies among the ever-growing numbers of godless.
And so it was that I took a deep breath and read her words again, only this time I glossed over and ignored all of the religious references. Without them, the speech is simply extraordinary. For my beloved Many Tens of Loyal Readers™ I have taken on the arduous task of editing out all of the religious bullshit and replacing it with ellipses. (Is there nothing I won’t do for you people? No. No, there is not.)
Honorable UN Secretary General Mr Ban Ki-moon, respected president of the General Assembly Vuk Jeremic, honorable UN envoy for global education Mr Gordon Brown, respected elders and my dear brothers and sisters:
Today is it an honor for me to be speaking again after a long time. Being here with such honorable people is a great moment in my life and it is an honor for me that today I am wearing a shawl of the late Benazir Bhutto. I don’t know where to begin my speech. I don’t know what people would be expecting me to say, but … I cannot believe how much love people have shown me. I have received thousands of good wish cards and gifts from all over the world. Thank you to all of them. Thank you to the children whose innocent words encouraged me. Thank you to my elders whose prayers strengthened me. I would like to thank my nurses, doctors and the staff of the hospitals in Pakistan and the UK and the UAE government who have helped me to get better and recover my strength.
I fully support UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his Global Education First Initiative and the work of UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown and the respectful president of the UN General Assembly Vuk Jeremic. I thank them for the leadership they continue to give. They continue to inspire all of us to action. Dear brothers and sisters, do remember one thing: Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.
There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for their rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goal of peace, education and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them. So here I stand. So here I stand, one girl, among many. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.
Dear friends, on 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.
I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. And my dreams are the same. Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him…This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother… be peaceful and love everyone.
Dear sisters and brothers, we realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns. The wise saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” It is true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. This is why they killed 14 innocent students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they kill female teachers. That is why they are blasting schools every day because they were and they are afraid of change and equality that we will bring to our society. And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist why are the Taliban against education? He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said, “a Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book.”
They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would point guns at people’s heads just for going to school…Pakistan is a peace loving, democratic country. Pashtuns want education for their daughters and sons…It is the duty and responsibility to get education for each child…Peace is a necessity for education. In many parts of the world, especially Pakistan and Afghanistan, terrorism, war and conflicts stop children from going to schools. We are really tired of these wars. Women and children are suffering in many ways in many parts of the world.
In India, innocent and poor children are victims of child labor. Many schools have been destroyed in Nigeria. People in Afghanistan have been affected by extremism. Young girls have to do domestic child labor and are forced to get married at an early age. Poverty, ignorance, injustice, racism and the deprivation of basic rights are the main problems, faced by both men and women.
Today I am focusing on women’s rights and girls’ education because they are suffering the most. There was a time when women activists asked men to stand up for their rights. But this time we will do it by ourselves. I am not telling men to step away from speaking for women’s rights, but I am focusing on women to be independent and fight for themselves. So dear sisters and brothers, now it’s time to speak up. So today, we call upon the world leaders to change their strategic policies in favor of peace and prosperity. We call upon the world leaders that all of these deals must protect women and children’s rights. A deal that goes against the rights of women is unacceptable.
We call upon all governments to ensure free, compulsory education all over the world for every child. We call upon all the governments to fight against terrorism and violence. To protect children from brutality and harm. We call upon the developed nations to support the expansion of education opportunities for girls in the developing world. We call upon all communities to be tolerant, to reject prejudice based on caste, creed, sect, color, religion or agenda to ensure freedom and equality for women so they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back. We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.
Dear brothers and sisters, we want schools and education for every child’s bright future. We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education. No one can stop us. We will speak up for our rights and we will bring change with our voice. We believe in the power and the strength of our words. Our words can change the whole world because we are all together, united for the cause of education. And if we want to achieve our goal, then let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge and let us shield ourselves with unity and togetherness.
Dear brothers and sisters, we must not forget that millions of people are suffering from poverty and injustice and ignorance. We must not forget that millions of children are out of their schools. We must not forget that our sisters and brothers are waiting for a bright, peaceful future.
So let us wage, so let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first. Thank you.
Education, of course, has a well-documented secularizing influence. My hope is that as she pursues her education in the West, Malala eventually comes to free herself from the darkness of her indoctrination, and discover that her morality, like yours and mine, comes from our humanity. The Taliban-types, both in the U.S. and abroad, are understandably threatened by the very idea of this. They are no match for Malala Yousafzai.
Here she is, unabridged:
Thank you, Malala. Happy birthday. We are all better off for having you in the world. May you have many, many more trips around our sun.