Malala’s character assassination on Pakistani social media

After a Bullet in the Head, Assaults on a Pakistani
Schoolgirl’s Character Follow


(Courtesy: The New York Times)
A graphic posted on Facebook comparing Aafia Siddiqui, top left, a Pakistani Islamist jailed in the United States, with Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl who professed admiration for President Obama before she was shot by Taliban militants. The caption reads: “Dr. Aafia’s ideal and Malala’s ideal.”
As a Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by Taliban militants last week fights for her life in a British hospital, a battle to tarnish her reputation is being waged on social networks and news sites in Pakistan.
In yet another statement to the Pakistani news media defending the assassination attempt, a Taliban spokesman claimed on Tuesday that young Malala Yousafzai, who had criticized the Islamists for closing girls’ schools ina blog she wrote for the BBC when she was 11, was “a spy who divulged secrets” and “created propaganda.” The spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, also took pains to note reports that the girl had turned 15 in July, suggesting that this meant that she was no longer a child. “Even if no sign of puberty becomes noticeable,” he said, “this age of the girl marks the end of prepuberty phase.” That being the case, he added, the “Taliban executed the attack on an adult girl only after she emerged as a pivotal character in the media war against us.”
The Taliban’s media wing issued the statement after an outpouring of sympathy for the girl, and anger at the militants, swept Pakistan. As my colleague Declan Walsh reported, “Front-page headlines have carried updates of her medical treatment, schoolchildren held prayer services and candlelight vigils, and the political system has united to condemn the Taliban with an unusual vehemence and unity.”
That solidarity, however, has been less than universal online, where extreme nationalists and politicians from religious parties who support the Taliban have attempted to tarnish the image of the young activist by spreading rumors of her supposed complicity with the American military. One of the main elements in the viral campaign is a mislabeled image of Malala and her father, Ziauddin, meeting in 2009 with President Obama’s envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke.

As the Pakistani journalist and blogger Beena Sarwar noted, the image wasposted on Twitter repeatedly by Samia Raheel Qazi, a senior figure in Pakistan’s largest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Ms. Qazi, who is the daughter of the party’s former leader, added a caption that falsely claimed that the child had attended “a meeting with American military officers.”
Far from being a glimpse of a secret meeting, however, the image is actually a still frame taken from a documentary about the family made by my colleague Adam Ellick. As the film makes clear, the Yousafzais and other grass-roots activists were invited to meet Mr. Holbrooke on July 24, 2009, as they made their way home to the Swat Valley, following a Pakistani military operation to regain control of the region from Taliban militants. When it was her turn to speak, Malala said simply, “I will request you all, and respected Ambassador, I will request you that if you can help us in our education, so please help us.”
After Ms. Qazi circulated the falsely captioned image of Malala with Mr. Holbrooke, several Pakistani journalists expressed outrage that she appeared to be spreading rumors about the young shooting victim.

In a subsequent update, the Islamist politician defended her decision to circulate the image by endorsing, obliquely, the theory that Malala’s shooting was part of an American-led conspiracy to justify further strikes in Pakistan. Ms. Qazi wrote that she had shared the image only because “we condemn those who used this little candle in the wind.”
In addition to Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana, Ms. Qazi appeared to be referring to a conspiracy theory promoted in recent days by Islamist politicians and nationalists who claim that Malala was shot by American intelligence agents in order to deflect criticism of drone strikes or build public support for Pakistan’s Army to move against militants in the tribal area of North Waziristan.
Ms. Qazi’s father, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, who is the Islamist party’s former leader, hinted darkly at the conspiracy on Pakistani television, condemning those who, he said, “used Malala.”
Before she circulated the image, Ms. Qazi passed on a series of claims from conspiracy theorists who insisted that the attack was a ploy.

In a detailed report on the viral campaign against Malala on Pakistani Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, Jahanzaib Haque, the Web editor of the English-language Express Tribune, explained that the conspiracy theory widely shared online was outlined in an article headlined “C.I.A. Behind Attack on Malala; Attackers Are in Afghanistan.”
That report, from a Web site called The Lahore Times, which is set up to look like a replica of The New York Times, begins with the assertion that the “United States of America was behind the attack” on the schoolgirl. It goes on to claim that Taliban militants are in fact American agents: “Evil U.S. forces created a dirty plan to kill Malala and they gave the task to Tehreek-e-Taliban or Black Water (Xe).” A part of the report, in bold type and somewhat broken English, calls the Pakistani Taliban, “a coward terrorists organization which works close with C.I.A., Mossad and R.A.W.,” referring to the American, Israeli and Indian intelligence agencies.
As Mr. Haque reported, another formulation of the same theory was posted on Facebook by the Pakistani nationalist blogger Ahmed Quraishi, who wrote:
Fact is, the U.S. is partially responsible for Malala Yousafzai’s plight. The killers of Malala are a bunch of criminals known as ‘Swat Taliban.’ This terror group was roundly defeated by Pakistan Army in 2009 and flushed out from northern Pakistan. That action by Pakistani military was a lesson to American commanders in Afghanistan in how to successfully defeat terrorists.
But Pakistani officials have discovered last year to their horror that the entire leadership of this terror group, the ‘Swat Taliban’ is alive and well and thriving in terror ‘training and resting’ camps inside Afghanistan under the watch of U.S. Army.
Screenshot by Jahanzaib Haque/ Express TribuneAn illustration shared on Pakistani Facebook pages this week, suggesting that the United States was responsible for the shooting of Malala Yousafzai.

Although it requires a deeply conspiratorial mind to believe, as Pakistani nationalists do, that the American military has the power to choose which Islamist militants operate from areas of Afghanistan under the control of the Afghan Taliban, every good conspiracy is woven from scraps of the truth. As the journalist Ahmed Rashid explains in a post for The New Yorker, the Pakistani Taliban’s leader, Mullah Fazlullah, described as the mastermind of the attack on Malala, does appear to be based in Afghanistan.
Fazlullah’s forces were defeated by the Pakistani Army in 2009 after the public was incensed by a video showing Fazlullah’s gunmen flogging naked women. The army, also under enormous American pressure, moved some 2.5 million people out of the Swat Valley and sent in eighty thousand troops to clear Swat of militants — except that Fazlullah and his commanders escaped across the border into Kunar province, in northeastern Afghanistan. From Kunar, which is under the control of like-minded Al Qaeda affiliates, the Afghan Taliban, and multiple other groups from Central Asia, the Caucasus, China, and Europe, Fazlullah has recently relaunched his movement, attacking army posts inside Pakistan’s tribal belt and then retreating back to Kunar, where Pakistan cannot touch him.

While Mr. Rashid, who is based in Lahore, does not embrace the theory that Mullah Fazlullah is an American agent, he notes: “Afghan officials have quietly admitted to me that Fazlullah’s actions are being backed by the Afghan intelligence services. (Officially, Afghanistan denies all such charges.)” He adds:
Afghan support for extremists like Fazlullah is, in a sense, return pay. Pakistan’s army has done exactly the same thing for the past twelve years — allowing Afghan Taliban to launch strikes into Afghanistan against United States and Afghan forces and then retreat back into Pakistan. Now both countries are more evenly balanced in this dangerous, brutal, bloody proxy war — one that is leading to open war, with Pakistan’s army shelling Fazlullah’s camps and Afghan villages in Kunar almost every day, angering the Afghan public.

Late last year, when Afghan forces became involved in a nighttime firefight along the disputed and thinly guarded border between Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region and Afghanistan’s Kunar Province, they called in American airstrikes on positions that were only identified later as Pakistani Army posts. Two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed, and Pakistan’s government responded by closing NATO supply routes into Afghanistan and ordering the Central Intelligence Agency to vacate an air base in Pakistan used for drone operations.
Another part of the online backlash to the support shown for Malala were demands from Pakistani nationalists that the news media should pay as much attention to the victims of American drone strikes. Several images of children said to have been wounded or killed in drone strikes were sent to journalists, with the demand that they be given equally intense coverage.

One of the journalists, Beena Sarwar, pointed out that one widely circulated, heartbreaking image, presented as an example of an overlooked drone victim, actually showed a 7-year-old girl named Laiba who was shot by members of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Constabulary in 2008.

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8 Comments on “Malala’s character assassination on Pakistani social media”

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