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Amb. Ufuk Gokcen Headshot

Malala's Lessons for the Muslim World

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In 2009, Malala Yousafzai, a seventh grade student in the Swat district of Pakistan, made headlines around the world for exposing the inequities that young girls faced under the Taliban in her hometown of Mingora. She has become a symbol of peace through her continued advocacy for education of girls in her region and has been recognized by governments around the world for her important advocacy.

On Oct. 9, 2012, gunmen stopped a bus taking students home from school, asked for Malala Yousafzai by name, and shot her in the head.

In phone interviews following the attack, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban cited her role as an "advocate for the West" as the reason for her targeting and vowed to target her again if she survived.

The Pakistani Taliban is now resorting to other deplorable methods of intimidation by throwing acid on the faces of girls who seek education. The Taliban in Afghanistan has used the same scare tactics.

As the world reels in the face of such senseless brutality, it is easy to generalize the underlying ignorance and intolerance that motivated this attack to the rest of the Muslim world. The perceived rejection of "Western" values by this group of extremists can leave the impression that we are seeing the beginning of a new kind of despotism threatening the rights and lives of anyone who stands up for these values.

The OIC General Secretariat, the newly established OIC Independent and Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC), and around 50 Pakistani Ulema were among those condemning the cowardly act of shooting Malala as un-Islamic. However, at the grass roots level, civil society institutions of the OIC member countries, including women and youth, NGOs and clergy, should be more pro-active and vocal.

The small group of extremists, in contrast to 1.5 billion mainstream Muslims, can not represent any Islamic tradition. However, there is a danger. If not challenged, these inhuman terror methods could be emulated elsewhere, such as West Africa and Sahel.

Saudi commentator Tariq Maeena underlined in his op-ed published by the Gulf News that what was indeed disturbing was the absence of forceful rejection by established Islamic religious institutions and figures of such twisted practices and values. Is it possible not to agree? It is high time that ignorant and twisted minds hijacking and misinterpreting the Islamic values are confronted and challenged forcefully by the highest religious authorities.

At the intergovernmental level, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has taken the lead to improve the rights and opportunities of women within its member states. One of the central tenets of the OIC's Ten-Year Programme of Action is the advancement of women's rights.

Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary General of the OIC, reinforced the importance of equality and opportunity for women saying, "Women are an important segment of our societies ... Their advancement in all the areas is therefore imperative to achieve sustainable and balanced development, and to bring progress and prosperity in society."

The OIC's work on behalf women's rights have included the formation of the OIC Department of Family Affairs which addresses the issues of women, youth, and children and the creation of an Islamic Network of Women Scientists which encourages a greater involvement of women in both scientific and technological fields. The OIC has also partnered with the United States Departments of State and Health as well as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, civil society, and other international organizations to reduce the mortality rate of women during childbirth and to ensure children's health during the first month of their life.

Additionally, the OIC made the historic decision to establish the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) in June 2011. Not only does the mission of the IPHRC encourage the placement of women on the Commission, but it has made the rights of women and children its top priority. The 18 member Commission is currently chaired by a woman, Dr. Siti Ruhuaini Dzuhayatin, who is an distinguished lecturer of sociology from Indonesia and helped set up the first women crisis centre in her country. Meanwhile, women even in the most criticized OIC member countries are making historic progress, though in a gradual manner; and others in some member states are holding tight to not lose their rights and acquired standings in the transition to democracy. One common aspect in all these countries is that women are determined to have a stronger say in how their societies and countries are ruled, and they don't want to go back.

As the OIC focal point in the US-OIC engagement, one of my most pleasant duties was to co-sponsor a symposium in June 2011 with the US Department of State entitled, "Changing Mindsets to Promote Women and Girls in Science." While the United Nations recently marked the first International Day of the Girl Child, it is the duty of all of us to do more to enable millions of bright minds like Malala to have better prospects and bring down the false obstacles in front of women erected in the name of traditions or the misinterpretation or manipulation of religious teachings.