Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan achieved the near impossible over the weekend. In fact, he did it twice in a single statement. First, he actually made it possible to sympathize for at least one fleeting moment with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. Second, with a single ham-fisted grab at publicity, he distracted from the remarkable story of the reaction of both his country and the world to the Taliban's craven attempt to murder 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young activist who had the courage to speak out against Taliban efforts to repress education for girls.
Following a visit to the hospital in which Malala was clinging to life -- a clear attempt to tap into the widespread concern throughout Pakistan for the girl's fate -- Khan used the occasion to justify the Taliban's activities in Afghanistan as a legitimate "jihad."
"Whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad," the Guardian quotes Khan saying in what is apparently a line from the Quran. "The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad."
The Afghan Foreign Ministry immediately condemned the comments. Why Khan would choose that particular moment to defend Taliban activities raises profound questions about the judgment of this man who clearly harbors ambitions to lead his country someday. Worse, it resonates in uncomfortable ways with his prior refusal to cite the Taliban by name as Malala's attackers, allegedly for fear that to do so would put his supporters at risk.
Elsewhere, Malala's plight has produced a stunning worldwide reaction that culminated this weekend in an effort involving cooperation between the Pakistani, , British, and UAE governments to have her transferred to a specialized care facility in England. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis rallied Sunday in Karachi to protest her shooting and to show their support for Malala and her cause. Local clerics declared the attack on her as "un-Islamic."
"The attempt on Malala's life was not only an attack on a defenseless child, it was an attack on her and every girl's right to a future unlimited by prejudice and oppression. Her assailants must be universally denounced and brought to justice. Malala bravely confronted extremists in their attempts to ban girls from attending school. We must all stand with Malala in promoting tolerance and respect," said Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in a press release issued by his government.
In an article in the Daily Beast, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leading a global effort to promote education for girls, wrote, "The words ‘I am Malala' -- seen on T-shirts, placards, and websites -- have been adopted by young people everywhere, boldly challenging the Taliban and affirming the right of every single girl to education."
A Pakistani journalist named Owais Tohid offered a glimpse into why Malala has become such a galvanizing figure in an article in the Christian Science Monitor late last week. He met with her to discuss her protests against the Taliban efforts to suppress girls' education in the Swat Valley as well as her (at the time) anonymous blog postings about the violence she was seeing all around her. "I wanted to scream," she told him, "shout and tell the whole world what we were going through. But it was not possible. The Taliban would have killed me, my father, my whole family. I would have died without leaving any mark. So I chose to write with a different name. And it worked as my valley has been freed."