The Nobel committee did Malala a favor in passing her over for the peace prize

October 11, 2013

Malala Yousafzai speaks before the United Nations Youth Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. (Getty Images)

There was a moment midway through Malala Yousafzai's much-watched interview on "The Daily Show" when host Jon Stewart announced, apparently spontaneously, and in words that seemed to channel how much of the West feels about this young Pakistani woman, "I want to adopt you." The comment captured the growing adoration around Malala, who has become a Western media darling for her heroic work on behalf of girls' education in her country. And it foreshadowed the crushing disappointment felt this morning when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to someone else.

Still, the Nobel Peace Prize committee may have been doing 16-year-old Malala a favor in passing her over, at least for now. More to the organization's purpose, it may have been doing all of us a favor. The young woman's power as a symbol is undeniable. In the past months, though, the Western fawning over Malala has become less about her efforts to improve conditions for girls in Pakistan, or certainly about the struggles of millions of girls in Pakistan, and more about our own desire to make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy with a celebrity and an easy message. It's a way of letting ourselves off the hook, convincing ourselves that it's simple matter of good guys vs. bad guys, that we're on the right side and that everything is okay.

But everything is not okay, and it's certainly not simple. The West has a lot of hard questions to grapple with, particularly given our own not-insignificant hand in Pakistan's problems and the clear sense that we are not welcome. Awarding Malala the highest honor in peace-making, at the pinnacle of the campaign to remake her into a Western celebrity, would have validated that effort, deliberately or not. It would have reaffirmed that too-common Western habit that, by giving a powerful symbol a greater platform and lots of accolades, we'll have fulfilled our duty. Like a sort of slacktivism writ large, awarding Malala the Nobel would have told us what we wanted to hear: that celebrity and "awareness" can fix even the worst problems. It would have made us less likely to acknowledge the truth, which is that it takes decades of hard work, not to mention a serious examination of our own role in the problem, to effect meaningful change.

It can sometimes feel as if the entire West were trying to co-opt Malala, as if to tell ourselves: "Look, we're with the good guys, we're on the right side. The problem is over there." Sometimes the heroes we appoint to solve our problems can say as much about us as about them. Malala's answer is courage. Our answer is celebrity.

None of this is anywhere near Malala's fault, of course. But the Nobel Peace Prize, after all, is not purely about merit; it's also an aspirational prize meant to itself encourage peace by conferring legitimacy and attention on an effort that needs it.

This year's went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a small agency that has overseen the destruction of 80 percent of the world's declared chemical weapons, including the entire South Korean and Indian stockpiles. It is dull and uninteresting and has made the world a significantly and demonstrably better place. It is currently facing enormous challenges in Syria, where it's trying desperately to dismantle vast stockpiles of chemical weapons. This mission is not sexy and it doesn't make people cry on daytime TV, but it's important, has the immediate potential to save large numbers of lives, and could really use the world's support. Given how little interest most people show in Syria's very complicated and messy conflict, much less the humdrum institutions working to make it better, the Nobel might help.

The OPCW cannot hold a candle to the human appeal of Malala, who is truly and accurately recognized as the personification of many of the qualities we most prize in a human being, who at an impossibly young age has demonstrated more character and strength and courage than most of us will ever know. She is an inspiring young woman and a powerful symbol. She has faced down some of the most daunting problems of one of the world's most troubled countries and not only survived, but come away even more committed to the most cherished ideals of our world.

Still, as University of North Carolina assistant professor Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a careful and thoughtful piece on the Nobel decision, Malala "is but one courageous person." Tufekci continues:

Fortunately for the world, there is no shortage of such brave, courageous individuals. In fact, there is an abundance of them, especially in poor, authoritarian countries. If you think Malala is rare, that is probably because you have not spent much time in such countries. Most Malalas, however, go nameless, and are not made into Western celebrities.

Tufecki also explains why she was uncomfortable with Jon Stewart's declaration that he wanted to adopt Malala: It was "a striking sentiment in which our multi-decade involvement in Pakistan is reduced to finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore." We've already adopted her, in a metaphorical sense, and in so doing have asked her to implicitly absolve us of any further responsibility.

The hard truth we don't want to acknowledge is that the world's most difficult and intractable problems, from gender violence in India to civil war in Syria to discrimination against girls in Pakistan, are not camera-ready. They do not cry out to be adopted by Jon Stewart or given a hug by Queen Elizabeth II. The solutions, if they even exist, are not slogans and they don't make you feel warm and fuzzy. If your discussion of how to mitigate some of the world's most challenging problems can make a TV audience say "aww" on command, then you're probably talking around the problem.

The world is just not that simple, even if we desperately want it to be. Malala has never tried to make her efforts in Pakistan about herself – that's something we've foisted on her. There's little doubt that this amazing young woman has a life of accomplishment ahead of her, one that could bring tremendous and important change on the ground in Pakistan. But what we are trying to make her up to be, by no fault of her own, is something very different: a savior on our behalf, a happy face on an unhappy situation, a way to think about Pakistan that lets us go back to ignoring the problem.

The point of the Nobel Peace Prize is not to make Western TV viewers feel inspired and comforted, it is to promote peace. By awarding the prize to Malala at this early moment, the Nobel committee would be abetting our effort to turn some of Pakistan's deepest problems into just another Hollywood-ready drama with an easy-to-follow narrative and a happy ending. That's an enormously gratifying and feel-good message, but it's a distortion, and one that ultimately makes it much easier for us to turn away from Pakistan's deeper and more uncomfortable problems, which extend to our involvement there. That in turn makes it less likely that Malala's mission, of helping young girls in Pakistan, will go fulfilled. Helping human beings who are in conflict, not validating our feelings, is the Nobel's mission.

Ask yourself this: Before Friday morning's Nobel announcement, had you ever heard of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons? Did you spend a lot of time thinking about chemical weapons, who has them, how to get rid of them, what practices have worked and what sorts of international support they require? The answer to all of those is probably "no," but Friday's award has a chance at changing that a bit, or at least providing incentives for the world to encourage more of the OPCW's successes.

In passing her over, the Nobel committee gave Malala a chance to transcend celebrity and symbolism, to be a part of demonstrable change. Decades from now, should she become Pakistani Prime Minister Yousafzai, as she says she hopes to do, the purity of symbolism she represents today would surely be complicated by the hard realities of governing, as even Mahatma Gandhi's was. But when she traveled to Oslo and accept a Nobel Peace Prize, she could point to more than her own life but to schools she'd built, the lives she'd changed and the peace she'd made.

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Caitlin Dewey · October 11, 2013