07/24/2013 11:39 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

One Voice Can Change the World


Even before she addressed the United Nations, Malala Yousafzai's courage and integrity astonished me. But now that I've heard this young woman's speech, it wouldn't surprise me if she becomes a catalyst for social change in Pakistan as well as beyond its borders. When the United Nations declared her birthday "Malala Day," it seemed utterly appropriate, and the talk of a Nobel Peace Prize doesn't seem unwarranted. With her wisdom, poise, serenity and intelligence, this 16-year-old girl has many characteristics of a future Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. It wasn't hard to be enthralled by her courage after the Taliban shot her in the head and neck for advocating education for girls in her native Pakistan. Six months after this brush with death, bold as ever, she returned to school and redoubled her advocacy for worldwide equal rights to an education. It's no wonder David Guggenheim plans to film a documentary about her.

In her speech to the United Nations, she struck three central themes, two of them overt and the other infused throughout everything she said. The first was the right of all people to an education, including women in countries where they continue to be treated as second-class citizens. The second was her call for universal peace and the unity of all people: the abandonment of violence in human affairs and the establishment of equality for all. The third was really embedded in the wording and tone of everything she said: it was her invocation of God in an overtly non-sectarian way, untied to any specific religious tradition. Throughout her address, she referred to political and religious figures from around the world -- in effect, calling on her listeners to become activists infused with a love of God. She invoked the founders and messengers of various different faiths and philosophies rather than the institutions built around them. A deeply personal relationship with God inspires her, even though she was nearly murdered by an institutionalized ideology built around the teaching of a visionary she admires -- Mohammad. This is a young woman who has seen through the evil and hypocrisy in many forms of organized religion and yet whose faith in God has been empowered by what this extreme branch of organized religion inflicted on her. Here is a key sentence in her address: "The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born." For Rosa Parks, it was a bus. For Gandhi, it was a train. For Malala, a schoolroom... and a bullet. In that sentence we may be hearing Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha -- "soul force" or "truth force" -- finding a new agent in the world. I hope so.

Another golden thread sewn through her talk was a distinction between genuine and humble individual faith and the extremism that often grows from organized religion -- and generates so much vocal antipathy toward faith itself. Extremists tried to kill her. Yet her quiet, humble, nonviolent faith in God lays the groundwork for her mission, and she cited all of the people who showed her the path she has started to walk already in her teens: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammad. It was wonderful to hear her profess the commonality of compassion and wisdom at the heart of all the world's major faiths even as she advocated a form of non-violent advocacy for change that arose from various corners of the world as well: from Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, King and Mandela. Her message crystallized into one sentence: "One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world."

This is a schoolgirl who is still doing her homework most nights, and yet I, for one, await her next appearance in public with great anticipation. I need to hear what this teenager has to say. I believe Malala is an utterly remarkable and inspiring human being. And when it comes to education, she clearly has much to teach us all. This "old soul" is only getting started.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.