THE BLOG
10/16/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Malala Yousafzai and the Future of Islam

The award of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year old Pakistani female and youngest-ever Nobel laureate, in tandem with India's Kailash Satyarthi, 60, a prominent activist for children's rights in his own country, has various contexts.

One such involves Pakistani-Indian conciliation in the face of shared challenges. As the Nobel Committee affirmed, it "regards [the dual Prize] as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism."

"Extremism" touches on a wider aspect of the 2014 Peace Prize: the future of millions of women in the Muslim global community, or umma.

Malala Yousafzai suffered an attempted murder two years ago, at the hands of the Pakistan Taliban, for her efforts to defend the education of girls. The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban resemble the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) in Syria and Iraq. They abase women, impose extreme Islamic religious law and extirpate civil justice, and foster hatred of Shia Muslims and other minorities. On October 14, correspondents Farhan Bokhari in Pakistan and Victor Mallet in India reported in the London Financial Times that six Taliban leaders have declared their allegiance to the Islamic State.

We may see in the Taliban and Islamic State, on one hand, and Malala Yousafzai, on the other, two poles in the current state of the Muslim umma. While the radicals proclaim a simple, fundamentalist solution for all human problems, Malala Yousafzai is a complex person. She is not a "reformer of Islam" or an apostate, but has indicated her belief that the improvement of Muslim women's lives may take place within a religious environment. For example, she began her July 12, 2013 speech to the United Nations with the Islamic blessing, "In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful." The atheist Richard Dawkins commented about her Muslim faith on twitter, after news of the Prize, "Yes she's religious. For now."

She is, furthermore, sympathetic to leftist politics, having, additionally in 2013, thanked a Marxist group in Pakistan for "introducing me to Marxism and Socialism" and declaring "Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation." When she met with President Barack Obama in 2013, she blamed the use of American drones for increasing terrorism in her native country.

Likewise, she is critical of Western popular culture. She told the British newspaper The Guardian earlier this year, "What I get a bit angry about is the image of women. It gets quite difficult for me when I listen to pop music. I don't often understand the words, but when someone translates them to me, I think, 'What is this song representing? That women are just there to be treated like objects?'"

Fidelity to Islam, enthusiasm for socialism, opposition to U.S. policy in South Asia, and distaste for Western popular trends might not contribute to Malala Yousafzai's reputation among non-Muslims, especially in the era of the Islamic State. The contradictory aspects of her personality may be typical of adolescence, especially when one is suddenly famous. Few can predict accurately what aspects of a young person's life, from religion to politics to cultural taste, may change with maturity. Dawkins' apparent confidence that Malala Yousafzai would depart from Islam seemed presumptuous at best.

But the courage and worth of her campaign for education of young women cannot be doubted. Nor can its Islamic legitimacy.

Notwithstanding the abominable condition of women in many Muslim, as well as non-Muslim, societies around the world, Islam includes important factors for women's rights. One of the fundamental changes in Arabia after the revelation of Muhammad was the abolition of the abhorrent practice of female infanticide, which had been common since girl children were considered a burden. As stated in Qur'an (81:8-9), at the end of time, "the female child who was buried alive will ask for what crime she was killed."

The extremist enemies of Malala Yousafzai, and their parallel groupings around the Muslim world, are also less predictable than Westerners assume, and display ideological discrepancies that may facilitate their defeat by moderate, traditional, conventional, spiritual, and even conservative Muslims and their Western allies. Malala Yousafzai may be viewed as an examplar of all these anti-radical trends: she is moderate in her methods, traditional in her defense of Islam, conventional in wearing the head-scarf (hijab), spiritual in her view of religion, and conservative in her attitude toward Western cultural habits.

With the conflicting directions in which she may go, Malala Yousafzai represents a microcosm of the problems of the Muslim umma. We may hope that her Islam, and not that of the supposed Islamic State, will prevail. For her to leave Islam would be to abandon millions of people who need her.