Taliban renews threat against Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai as Nobel decision nears

October 8, 2013

The Taliban has issued a new threat against Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was shot in the head by one of its fighters a year ago after she refused to halt her efforts to expose the plight of schoolgirls in northwestern Pakistan.

In a telephone interview late Monday night, a top Taliban spokesman said the group will continue to look for opportunities to harm the 16-year-old girl so long as she remains an outspoken critic of efforts to impose strict Islamic law in Pakistan.

The threat comes amid speculation that Yousafzai, who sought refuge in England last year, is a leading contender to win the Nobel Peace Prize when it is announced Friday. She is the youngest person ever nominated for the prestigious honor, and if she won, would be only the second Pakistani in history to be recognized by the Nobel prize committee.

Yousafzai’s family and friends say that winning the Nobel Peace Prize would represent a milestone for efforts to draw attention to the problems women and children face in Pakistan’s male-dominated culture. But some Pakistanis remain skeptical of Yousafzai’s motives, highlighting the broader societal split over the country’s ideological future.

“Malala has been able to tell the world what is happening to Pakistan and how we are suffering,” said Kashmala Tariq, a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and a frequent critic of the government’s policies toward women. “It has brought the eyes of the world to Pakistan.”

Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban while travelling to school last year in Pakistan, speaks at the United Nations. (United Nations/The Washington Post)

After Yousafzai defied a Taliban campaign to shutter or bomb hundreds of schools in Pakistan’s remote Swat Valley, a gunman boarded her school bus on Oct. 9, 2012, and shot her and two of her classmates. Yousafzai survived after being flown to London for treatment and within months was one of the world’s most recognized humanitarians.

Over the past year, Yousafzai has spoken at the United Nations, had a New York-based charity for girls named after her, was a runner-up for Time magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year and has been honored by dozens of organizations, including the Clinton Global Initiative.

“We feel proud,” said her cousin Shahid Khan, who lives in the Swat Valley. “She has been a voice for peace, love and education.”

But with Yousafzai in the spotlight this week, including the launch of her autobiography on Tuesday, she is under a renewed threat from Taliban leaders.

In July, a senior Taliban commander wrote an open letter to the teenager, saying he regretted her shooting and asking her to return to Pakistan. On Tuesday, however, the group’s spokesman suggested that she will continue to be targeted unless she gives up her “secular ideology.”

“If Malala stops the spread of negative propaganda against the Taliban and also stops following secular ideology, the Taliban will not harm her,” said Shahidullah Shahid, the spokesman. “And if Malala keeps following secular ideology and continues her propaganda against Taliban and Islam, then [Taliban] fighters will wait for a suitable opportunity to target Malala.”

Although her shooting sparked angry protests last year, Yousafzai remains a controversial figure in Pakistan, where many voice deep suspicion of outsiders. As her profile has grown, Islamic scholars have suggested that she is trying to shame the country, and even some more mainstream politicians have questioned her connections to Western organizations.

Ibrahim Khan, a senator and leader of the Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, predicted a muted national response if Yousafzai becomes the first Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize since physicist Abdus Salam in 1979.

“She is now being used — rather, misused — in the West by portraying a wrong image of Pakistan as a violent and anti-women society,” Khan said. “If Malala is given awards or rewards for using her name to defame Pakistan and Islam, then I will have to condemn it.”

But Yousafzai shows no sign of fading from the spotlight. In interview with the BBC this week in preparation for the launch of her book, “I Am Malala,” she said she hopes to return to Pakistan one day to seek public office.

“I will be a politician in my future,” she said. “I want to change the future of my country, and I want to make education compulsory.”

Zahid Khan, a friend of Yousafzai’s family, said he hopes that she doesn’t return anytime soon.

“There is pride for her, not only in Swat, but the whole country,” said Khan, who also was shot in the head by the Taliban last year. “But the threat is real.”

Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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