You may have heard that Malala Yousafzai has been flown into Britain to receive medical treatment. On October 9th Malala Yousafzai was gunned down on the bus home from school after taking an exam, her friends Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Ahmed were injured in the shooting. There wasn't any doubt as to why Malala had been attacked. Soon after a spokesperson for the Taliban claimed "She is a Western-minded girl. She always speaks against us. We will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban." Naturally, Malala has become a symbol of the struggle for women's rights in Pakistan which has been an espcially uphill struggle, to say the least, since the radicalisation of Pakistani society beginning in the late 1970s and carried through under a military dictatorship in the 80s. A very unwelcome development as Pakistan became a nuclear power over the same period of time. It's easy to see this incident framed within the paradigm of the 'clash of civilisations' between Islam and the West.
Not that any of this was opposed by the United States, which has long taken Pakistan as a major strategic ally. The struggle for women's rights is not unique to Pakistan, we shouldn't overlook the women in Saudi Arabia have been protesting just to drive their own cars. And that's really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the trampling of basic freedoms in that oily Kingdom. We also shouldn't assume we're so much more advanced in the West because we pledged to establish pay equality (and have yet to deliver). The right to choose is still under threat in the US, where the state of Georgia has opted for a bill which obliges women to carry still-born fetuses to full-term because cows and pigs do. It's demonstrably clear that the fight of feminists has yet to win out even in the 21st Century on many fronts. The outrage provoked by the attack has nothing to do with a concern for women's rights, it's primarily about the political significance of the shooting. This is why we need to think seriously about Huntington's famous paradigm.
The suggestion of a cultural clash between Islam and the West is dubious for the main reason that these suggestions only emerged after the Berlin Wall crumbled. Until then chaps like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis had been more preoccupied with cheerleading the Cold War, Israel's expansion and denying the Armenian genocide. It's worth noting that the most extreme incarnation of political Islam in the world remains to be Saudi Arabia, the oldest ally of the US in the region and a long-time favourite of many other European governments. Are we talking about bombing Saudi Arabia? No, but we talk about bombing Iran on a regular basis. It's never about human rights or cultural differences, even if Iran had an immaculate human rights record it would be damned constantly for taking a line independent of American hegemony. Right now, by comparison, Pakistan is an increasingly dysfunctional client-state of the United States in its domestic and foreign affairs. Of course the country's turmoil comes up only when it is problematic for particular interests.
Even still Pakistan remains on the forefront of the 'War on Terror' in the minds of Western policy-makers. It was only last year that Osama bin Laden was assassinated in a compound surrounded by Pakistan's military elite. This is the same military which has lost all credibility in the country as it can't even defend the country's sovereignty. Demonstrably so, as Pakistan has been repeatedly struck by US drones and we pay no attention to the dozens of teenage girls killed in those strikes. The ongoing war in Pakistan is what led to the brief peaceful arrangement in the Swat valley, allowing the Taliban to wage its campaign to close all the girls schools in the area. It's worth noting that the Pakistani government came to this settlement after thousands had been killed and a couple of million people had been displaced in the valley. This is where Malala lived at the time and became involved in activism for women's education at just eleven - she even took up blogging for the BBC.
It's not to invalidate Malala's important work to acknowledge that there are cynical reasons behind the media reaction to the case. The Pakistani government and prominent clerics have condemned the assassination attempt, have they condemned the constant bombing by US drones? Imran Khan, cricketer-cum-politician, has taken a strange stand recently after leading a march against the drone strikes and just after the shooting. He claimed that "It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad… The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad." It could well be a goofy swing from a populist who is still much more liberal than the people who fired into a school bus to kill the young activist. All of this just seems symptomatic of the incessant turmoil which has wracked Pakistani society over the decades. The ruling-class of Pakistan presides over obscene corruption and stoops to new lows of incompetence on a regular basis. It's a situation which would prompt disenchantment from any culture.
When we try to think about how to make progress in the Middle East it's important never to overlook the devastated political sphere that has created a void for radical Islamism to fill. Of course, there are those who argue that to offer a rationalisation of Islamist terrorism is to excuse the culprits of their crimes. Yet it's funny that no one would ever suggest that an investigation into the historical conditions that led to Nazism excuse Hitler of his crimes. The first steps towards positive change in the Middle East will be in the crafting of a new politics, that's why the Arab Spring is such a vital series of events. The simplistic position that holds "Islam is the enemy" fails to even recognise that the Islamic extremists are the enemy of most Muslims in the world. And that is what the shooting has shown more definitively than the discourse on the subject in the past decade. The future of the Middle East is not in theopolitics. It's a political struggle within the region, not a war of regions defined by homogenous cultural blocs.