The Assassin’s Challenge

By Shehryar FazliNovember 24, 2013

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

THE OCTOBER 2012 SHOOTING in Swat Valley of 14-year-old Malala Yusufzai has come to symbolize the grisliness of the Pakistani Taliban and the daring of a teenage girl and many like her who insist on their right to an education. It also silenced a three-year-long applause by the national and international media, the government, and, above all, the Pakistani military, for operations that began in May 2009 that the army had claimed flushed Swat of insurgents by July. Since then, Malala has understandably become a national and international icon, a runner-up Time magazine “Person of the Year,” an EU human rights prize winner, a Nobel contender.

The assassins, meanwhile, have vowed to try again. On November 7, Maulana Fazlullah, the Swat militant commander who reportedly ordered her assassination from his hideout in Afghanistan, was selected to lead the Pakistani Taliban after a U.S. drone attack the week before killed the previous leader, Hakeemullah Mehsud. Since the assassins still roam the region, if not as visibly as they did before the 2009 operations, Malala and her family are unlikely to return to Swat from their new home in Birmingham any time soon. Her autobiography, defiantly titled I Am Malala — a response to the gunman who stopped the Khushal School bus and asked, “Who is Malala?” before shooting her in the head — reminds us that hers is a story of exile, too. Symbolically, her former classmates still keep a chair for her in class. It is, in a sense, a double exile: one, from her home in Swat; two, from the school where she first made her mark.

Once known as “the Switzerland of the East,” Swat, a district in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, used to boast a popular world-class ski resort; Pakistani and foreign tourists visited for its dazzling mountains and Sufi music and dance festivals. Today, its most suggestive symbol is the military checkpoint, manned by non-Swati soldiers whose manner with the locals is generally gruff and intrusive. This transformation, in a relatively short time span, is the tragic central reference point of Malala’s story. Every major event brings us towards it: the October 2005 earthquake in neighboring Kashmir, one of the worst in memory, kills around 75,000 people, affects 30,000 square kilometers, and leaves around 3.5 million people without homes; jihadi groups, helped by General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, establish themselves in Swat under the cover of conducting humanitarian relief; Fazlullah’s voice on the airwaves, through illegal FM stations that eventually give him his nickname, Radio Mullah, blaming the earthquake on the sins of the region’s residents; Fazlullah and his men establish their own Shariah courts and vigilante squads; dead bodies start appearing in the public square, including a popular female dancer, and they give a deadline for Swat’s girls’ schools to close; finally, a disastrous military-backed peace deal between the state and the militants give them absolute control over the area.

When the accord was breached, as the militants moved into Swat’s neighboring Buner district, domestic and international condemnation spurred the military to act. Millions of residents fled as their homes and neighborhoods were destroyed by air raids — as did the militants, including Maulana Fazlullah, who escaped to Afghanistan, and other commanders to cities like Peshawar and Karachi. A third tier remains behind, their faces unknown, emerging now and again to conduct a targeted attack. Swat now feels like a garrison town.


Swat has its myths and heroes to supplement its physical beauty. Its residents regularly stroke the idols of Pashtun history. Malala herself was named after Malalai of Raiwind, “the greatest heroine of Afghanistan,” who inspired the Afghan army to defeat the British in a key battle during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880). The pseudonym she used for her diary of life under the Taliban, published on BBC Urdu’s website, was Gul Makai, after another Pashtun heroine from a local folk tale. Her father’s school, Khushal, was named after the 17th-century warrior-poet, Khushal Khan Khattaq, considered the father of Pashtun literature, who mobilized a major Pashtun revolt against the Mughal Empire. But the past hasn’t stifled the present. Swat today is filled with reform-minded teachers, NGO and human rights activists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs.

Encouraged by her father, Malala maintains a skeptical eye toward tradition, even while celebrating parts of it. She is particularly weary of the tribal Pashtunwali code’s emphasis on and exultation of revenge. For her and her peers, heroism is no longer found in martial deeds but in the quest for education. As such, the unsung hero in this tale is Malala’s father, Ziauddin, who seems at times like a latter-day Mr. Biswas — only he seeks to build his own school, not a house. The challenges accumulate: the school has only three students to start, local officials come for bribes and free meals, and flash floods destroy the infrastructure. The school is “not meant to be,” but, Biswas-like, Ziauddin persists. Eventually, the Khushal School has more than 100 students, and later becomes a sanctuary for girls whose own schools have been destroyed and, more generally, from the horrors bedeviling Swat after the thugs come to town.

Ziauddin’s life also reflects the lively political dialectic in Swat’s civil society, on its college campuses and its pluralistic student groups, its professional associations and its informal councils. One remarkable episode involves the 1989 controversy over The Satanic Verses when, finding Rushdie’s book objectionable, Ziauddin nevertheless defends it on the grounds of free speech, encourages his peers to read the book before condemning it, and suggests, “Why not write our own book [in response]?” Dissent is common. Ziauddin and others mark Pakistan’s 50th anniversary, on August 14, 1997, with black armbands to protest the state’s treatment of Swat, and are arrested and fined for it. Ten years later, they non-violently resist the Pakistani Taliban.

This is the environment that produced Malala Yousufzai — not foreign media outlets out for an exotic narrative of life under the Pakistani Taliban, as some cynical observers argue. I have spent much time in the area in recent years and witnessed various civil disobedience movements —whether against the timber mafia and its collaborators in the police and local bureaucracy; to counter the mullahs’ campaigns against girls’ education; or to support reforms for residents’ full legal and political enfranchisement. Some of the most determined are women’s rights groups. And as remarkable as she is, Malala was but one of several ambitious schoolgirls who competed fiercely for academic distinction (One of her friends aims to become Pakistan’s first female army chief.) When Fazlullah and his gang threatened girls’ schools, the quest for education became more rather than less urgent, expressed in the calculus and chemical formulae the girls hennaed their hands with during weddings rather than “flowers and butterflies” (A black and white photo of such a decorated hand, presumably Malala’s, prefaces the book.) The school uniform, lacking any symbolism for most of us — and if anything, that of empty conformity — became a secret emblem of defiance. This defiance did not, in Malala’s case, remain hidden for long.


fronticepiece_bw_rev2_print_hbg 2

Image from I Am Malala, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company


The journalist Irfan Ashraf, who covered Malala in Swat extensively after seeing her on a national TV station speaking of her fear of the Taliban, eventually persuaded Ziauddin — against his instinct — to allow a New York Times documentary crew to film Malala on the final day of school. Soon after her shooting, Ashraf wrote a moving op-ed in the daily Dawn, condemning himself, his press colleagues, and politicians for erecting a “strong anti-[Taliban] structure” on Malala’s “frail shoulders.” An April 2013 Vanity Fair piece quoted him denouncing the media’s role in “making a commodity out of this small and graceful shining little girl,” endangering her life in the process. Ashraf’s mea culpa is noteworthy, and raises important questions about the international and national media’s narrow coverage of militancy in Pakistan, often characterized by the search for symbolic personalities as a shortcut to the issues. But Malala is also candid about the importance of the media as “a powerful platform” from which “we would say things [local journalists] didn’t dare to.”

Malala volunteered of her own volition for the role of an anonymous chronicler of life under the Taliban for BBC Urdu. It was the reflex of an outspoken child who cherished and struggled to exercise her right to an education. The diary became a fixture in the coverage of Swat. “Gul Makai” was reminiscent of Christian Slater’s surreptitious teenage rebel in 1990’s Pump Up the Volume, anonymously exhorting his fellow students through — incidentally — a pirate FM station to challenge the stagnancy and latter-day puritanism of their school and society. One of many charming moments in the book is Malala hearing a schoolmate read a printed diary entry to her headmaster: Ziauddin.

Unfortunately, Malala’s international prominence, before and after her shooting, has also invited accusations of treachery. On November 10, 2013, the president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Management Association announced that the association was banning Malala's book from the libraries of its 40,000 affiliated schools. A news report quoted him saying, “Everything about Malala is now becoming clear. To me, she is representing the West, not us.” The same article also quoted the chairman of another association that has also banned the book, the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, saying that Malala “was a role model for children, but this book has made her controversial. Through this book, she became a tool in the hands of the Western powers.”

This display of crass partisanship and jingoism not only does the cause for education in Pakistan a disservice, it also obscures a more urgent discussion about how Swat came to be a place where an extremist could shoot a child in public at midday, and get away with it.


Swat’s devastation has yielded its share of romantic accounts — of a peasant uprising against feudal tyrants, of popular perceptions of the Pakistani Taliban as a party of order and swift justice — the core proposition being of a traditional, tribal people resisting the alienating incursions of a modern state, and thus offering the militants their support. This book illustrates just how foreign the militants’ program was to the eyes of normal residents, facing warnings “to stop listening to music, watching movies and dancing.” Fazlullah’s group mandate public whippings that “we had never seen before.” Emulating their Afghan counterparts in Bamiyan in 1990s, they destroy centuries-old Buddhist statues carved into the hillside, which were a local source of pride.

At the same time, Malala is under no illusion about the militants enjoying some support from locals, who were drawn to the Fazlullah’s appeals to stricter and better governance. Yet the guise was soon exposed, for example when instead of reprimanding the timber mafia that chops the region’s precious trees and sells them for enormous profits elsewhere, the militants simply extorted them. Whatever support there was didn’t last long. In the 2008 elections, the secular Awami National Party routed the mullahs in Swat.

Decisive support did not come from the populace, but from the state. The book doesn’t delve into the recent history of the civil administration’s role in Swat’s turbulence, but this is worth knowing, both for understanding what made this region vulnerable to the spread of militancy, and for debunking some of the modern myths around it. First, there is an eccentric legal structure: Swat is part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), which also include the districts of Lower and Upper Dir, Chitral, and Malakand, along with parts of two other districts. PATA lies immediately east of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), bordering Afghanistan, and west of the disputed state of Kashmir, both historically serving as bases and sanctuaries for a long inventory of military-backed jihadi groups.

After Pakistan’s independence in 1947, Swat, Dir, and Chitral were technically self-governed princely states, ruled by nawabs and walis who, as the final appellate authorities, also controlled all judicial affairs. In 1969, these states were integrated into the Northwest Frontier Province (renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010), but the 1973 Constitution defined them as provincially administered tribal areas rather than normal districts. Under Article 247, no law passed by a legislature applies to either PATA or FATA without specific presidential assent, while no higher court has jurisdiction unless established through an act of parliament. These antiquated legal frameworks legally, politically, and economically isolated potentially dynamic regions. They also gave the state an excuse for inaction against extremists. For instance, when Fazlullah first started inciting jihadi violence through his illegal FM stations, the KPK provincial government, led by a six-party Islamist alliance, failed to act because, it argued, the 2002 Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Ordinance was never extended to PATA.

While sharing this legal lineage, PATA soon diverged from FATA as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in the 1970s gradually extended most of the basic laws of the land to the former, establishing normal courts and the jurisdiction of the Peshawar High Court and Supreme Court. FATA, known then as ilaka ghair, or “alien land,” remained under an oppressive colonial-era framework called the Frontier Crimes Regulations. In 1975, after mass public protests in the region in a dispute over forest royalties, the government introduced the PATA Regulations, giving the local bureaucracy greater latitude in enforcing law and order and settling disputes. The regulations vested judicial powers in the top local bureaucrat, the deputy commissioner, who constituted and referred most criminal and civil cases to jirgas (councils of elders) rather than courts. This formed the basis of power for district officials and their allied local elite, including influential landlords.

Things began to change in the 1990s. First, in 1990, the Peshawar High Court struck down the PATA Regulations as contravening fundamental constitutional rights. Then, in 1994, the Supreme Court upheld the decision, thus restoring the formal justice system. Yet, with progress also came violent reactionary forces: the Sunni extremist group Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), headed by Fazlullah’s father-in-law Sufi Mohammed, began its brutal campaign for Sharia in PATA in 1994. In response, the government made a series of capitulations to the Islamists, incrementally giving them more power in PATA’s judicial affairs through a series of Shariah ordinances in 1994, 1999, and, finally, 2009.

Many domestic and international observers justify such measures on the grounds that traditional local communities prefer Sharia and jirgas over formal justice. For example, in his widely read book Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven writes that for “many ordinary Pakistanis,” the “hunger for justice focuses on the Islamic code of Shariah; and […] at least up to the spring of 2009, the Taleban’s [sic] claim to spread Islamic justice was central to the growth of their popularity in the Pathan areas, and to the unwillingness of most Pakistanis elsewhere to support military action against them” — without substantiating the claim. Later, he writes:

The judicial system [in PATA] has never been definitely settled, and the Pakistani system has never been fully accepted as legitimate by the population. This has helped provide fertile soil in recent decades for Islamist groups demanding the full implementation of the Shariah.

This leaves key questions unanswered. Firstly, by 1994 Pakistan’s justice system had to a significant extent already been Islamized, as a result of General Zia-ul-Haq’s reforms in the 1980s that, among other provisions, introduced a constitutional provision requiring that all laws comply with Shariah; a Federal Shariah Court to ensure this compliance; and various other amendments to Islamize the penal code. Yet, the TNSM’s calls for Sharia came only after the PATA Regulations were abolished. Why did they not appear during the time of the PATA Regulations, which in fact undermined Shariah, for example by the absence of the death penalty? Furthermore, the Shariah frameworks of 1994 and 1999 authorized magistrates to redirect criminal and civil cases to jirgas if both sides to a dispute agreed. In the vast majority of cases, litigants chose the formal process.

Who, then, supported the jirga system, and opposed PATA’s integration into the legal mainstream? In fact, it was the local bureaucracy and landed elite, who were to lose power as PATA transitioned to a regular justice system. Envisioning a fresh three-way alliance of bureaucrat-landlord-mullah, which would continue to control the judicial affairs of the state, these forces provided vital logistic and other support to the TNSM’s campaign. That, and not popular endorsement of Shariah, was at the heart of the militants’ power. One damning piece of evidence was that during a mass TNSM demonstration that blocked the main Malakand highway, the group’s first major show of strength, the vehicles used to turn protesters out and block the roads were reportedly government-owned.

Although her book doesn’t chronicle this history, Malala does return again and again to the problem of official collusion with the Taliban. While she frequently criticizes political leaders, she reserves her baldest scorn for the local bureaucrats. “It seemed to us that these bureaucrats came to our province simply to get rich, then went back home,” she says. Likening them to the walis who ruled Swat in an earlier time, she describes these men as “the new kings” whom “no one questioned.” Later, some of these same officials hosted and bantered with the Pakistani Taliban in their offices.

“There was no one to protect us,” she continues. “Our own deputy commissioner, Syed Javid, was going to Taliban meetings, praying in their mosque and leading their meetings. He became a perfect talib […] When the highest authority in your district joins the Taliban, then Talibanisation becomes normal” (Javid was later removed from his post on suspicion of links to the Taliban.) Malala offers an account of a respected journalist’s visit to Swat in April 2009, after the militants and the government had inked their peace deal: “He went to visit the DC at his official residence and found him hosting what appeared to be a celebration of the Taliban takeover.” The guests include Faqir Mohammed, who led a Pakistan Taliban force in FATA’s Bajaur agency, not far from Swat. “Faqir had a $200,000 bounty on his head yet there he was sitting in a government official’s house having dinner. We also heard that an army brigadier went to prayers led by Fazlullah.”

The army, meanwhile, with its roadblocks “less than a kilometer apart on the same road” as the militants’, conducts repeated operations (before the big one in the spring and summer of 2009) that produce noise and destruction but leave Fazlullah’s network intact. In her 2009 diary, she’d written, “Had they conducted their operations here properly, this situation would not have arisen.” “No one,” Malala continues in the book, “understood why we were not being defended.” Such daily terror, with its accomplices in the state, does two things. First, it scares off dissenters and encourages collaborators. Second, it makes the prospect of any kind of peace dangerously alluring. Malala and her family succumb to this, too, placing high hopes in the state’s accord with the militants, only to see the militants all the more emboldened, starting with their entry into Buner.


This past September, almost a year after Malala’s shooting, militants killed Swat’s top army commander days after the provincial Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government ordered a troop withdrawal from the area. Since then, the military has decided to stick around, backed by a high court order. Once more, a suggestive attack smashed the illusion of normalcy.

Yet, the military and civilian leadership is again talking of a potential peace deal, presenting no preconditions or an idea of what an acceptable accord would look like. The loudest proponent for “peace” at any cost is the ex-cricketer Imran Khan, whose political party now leads a provincial coalition in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami and one other party. Khan has refused to acknowledge that the same gang with which he wants to talk peace has conducted recent terrorist attacks on religious minorities, marketplaces, and government officials, including his law minister. Lack of progress on talks is blamed on U.S. drones.

The more urgent issue of reform continues to go neglected. PATA remains isolated under a parallel justice system, governed by an idiosyncratic form of Shariah. As national and provincial legislation do not apply automatically to PATA, many important laws, including vital new protections for women, remain inapplicable. Others have been extended to PATA only after years of campaigning by local bar and other civil society groups. Court proceedings are often subject to inordinate delays as defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges bicker about whether a particular law applies to PATA or not, aggravating delays in an already limping justice system. Traveling through the region, one regularly hears residents express resentment at their separate, secondary status. How long before the Pakistan’s national security state appreciates the costs of maintaining “tribal” areas for strategic regional goals?

Those who have stakes in a half-baked system will continue to oppose more comprehensive reform, appealing insincerely to a resplendent past, with its defining characteristic of order. In their accounts, brigands like Fazlullah will always signify much more than they’re worth.

Praising Murray Kempton, Nick Pileggi, who wrote the book on which Scorsese’s Goodfellas was based, said that this great American journalist was the first to say “that mobsters did not control the world, that they were mostly just truck drivers without jobs” (as quoted in David Remnick's "Prince of the City," The New Yorker, March 1, 1993). Fazlullah’s predecessor, Hakeemullah, was indeed a truck driver. Fazlullah himself was once a chairlift operator. There is nothing glorious or revolutionary about these men. They’ve been given space to operate by a state that sees value in maintaining sanctuaries for extremist groups.

It is the assassin’s question before he points his gun that most plainly reveals the Pakistani Taliban’s hollow terror. Had he not asked, who is Malala, people might have speculated about motive, to what extent the attack was planned, and so on. But articulating the question makes everything bare: the thugs sent one of their own to kill a child they found too dangerous.

As for the answer to the question, Malala is more than “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban,” as the book’s subhead pronounces. The voice that beams, “I am Malala,” is the voice that continues to meet the assassin’s challenge. It is the voice of a courageous campaigner who still fights for girls’ education. The voice of an icon who may one day be able to return to her country, but who even from afar symbolizes its noblest cause. When she laughs, she covers the side of her face that becomes slightly distorted because of the bullet’s damage. A year after she was almost killed, it’s the most beautiful laughter we can hear.


Shehryar Fazli is a Pakistan-based political analyst and author.

LARB Contributor

Shehryar Fazli is an author, political analyst, and essayist who divides his time between Pakistan and Canada. He is the author of the novel Invitation (2011), which was the runner-up for the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival’s first book award. He can be reached via email at [email protected].


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!