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Don't Let the 'Malala Moment' Pass

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By Sonia Nassery Cole

A 15-year old girl lies in a London hospital, air-lifted from Pakistan after an assassination attempt. Malala Yousafzai's "crime"? Believing that girls deserve the right to education. The attack was apparently ordered by a Taliban leader whom the Washington Post wrote is "infamous for his long campaign against female education." Thousands marched in cities across Pakistan in protest as pictures of this brave young girl became a rallying symbol. But less than two weeks later, the New York Times wrote that the "Malala moment" has passed, and the country has drifted back into religious extremism, conspiratorial paranoia, and chaos. Is this region, which has witnessed so much bloodshed, including the final sacrifices by American and allied servicemembers, beyond hope? Is extremism the inevitable conclusion of religious Muslims, or a perversion of Islam and a minority view within Afghanistan and Pakistan? I believe passionately that the latter is true, and I say this as an Afghan American facing death threats for my advocacy work for Afghan women.

I have spent three decades involved in Afghan relief and giving voice to the voiceless people of Afghanistan, first in response to the Soviet invasion, and then to the tyranny of the Taliban, which hijacked Islam and claimed authority under the name of my religion. I spent over two months in Afghanistan in 2010, filming the first feature film to be entirely shot there in my lifetime. Black Tulip was made for simple reasons: To show the world how real families live in my country, and how true Muslims practice Islam, a religion which is the antithesis of the Taliban's terror.

Extremists' hardened hearts may never change, but the real battle is for the majorities in both this conflict region and in the West. I believe that we must not let the Malala moment pass. We need to recognize the common aspirations of most families in every country; to refuse to let any religion be hijacked; and to insist on giving all individuals both basic human rights and education, which is the path to understanding and personal improvement. In the region of my birth, as Malala's plight makes clear, women are both the battleground and our greatest hope.

As the West moves to end its military role in the region, it is all the more important that commonality is understood and nurtured. It is shocking to us to see quotes from Pakistanis wondering if Malala was really the victim of the Taliban or of some American plot. Unless one assumes a mass psychosis, such thinking must be seen as coming from a Pakistani media that too often whips up hatred rather than searches for truth, and a national mood that is understandably angry and preoccupied over civilian deaths from U.S. drone attacks, yet forgetful of the decades of U.S. humanitarian and economic aid. I believe that most people in the region understand and appreciate America's help, but it is easy to question a nation's intentions when you fundamentally do not know its people or its values. And that problem goes both ways.

The comments of my native-born American friends who have seen Black Tulip have been both heartwarming and surprising. "Thank you for giving me a window to a world I have never seen before. With all of the media coverage of the war, this was the first time I really saw Afghanistan in its beauty and culture -- it makes the reality of what we're fighting for and identifying the enemy so much more powerful," one friend told me. "I had no sense of how a Muslim family in your country really lives -- what they eat, how they relate to one another, what their daily lives are, " another said. This hasn't been the role of our media -- all we see are men with guns and women with burqas -- and headlines are grabbed by the outrageous, not the ordinary. And for a generation, it hasn't been safe to film in my country, so how could these stories of ordinary life be told? That's why we stayed and kept the cameras rolling, even when the Taliban threatened us.

The stakes for my film crew and me were personal, but the larger effort really impacts us all: Our enemies want to keep us strangers to one another, just as they needed to silence young Malala. Terror by definition works on our fears and forces us to retreat away from others in a desperate effort to stay safe. Thousands of Pakistanis and Afghans chose a very different approach when they took to the streets in mass demonstrations against the Taliban attempt on Malala's life and the broader effort to force women into a kind of slavery. It is hard to maintain this public passion knowing the likely retribution of a brutal enemy. That's why the West must bolster moderate voices and ensure access to education, which unquestionably is the ultimate change agent.

If we turn our back on this struggle, we betray those Americans who have already given their lives. We write off a generation of women who could bring stability to countries too long victimized by violence, and we threaten our own safety by allowing a major world religion to be perverted by fanatics into a rationale for harming us. These are big stakes. Knowing them, Malala continued to speak and write despite death threats. Those stakes motivated us to create Black Tulip in spite of the risks. Let us all keep those stakes vividly in front of us, vowing not to let the Malala moment pass.

Sonia Nassery Cole is an Afghan American activist who founded the Afghanistan World Foundation in 2002. She is author of Will I Live Tomorrow? and director of Black Tulip, which was Afghanistan's official entry for the 83rd Academy Awards. The film premieres in theaters and on demand this week.