Malala Yousafzai was 11 years old when she inadvertently became the voice for millions of Muslim girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan who want to attend school.
In a moving 2009 New York Times video and her blog on living under Taliban occupation in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, Malala dared to share her deepest aspiration: freedom to learn.
Now, Malala, age 14, is clinging to life after being shot in the head and neck by Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan. As she and a few other eighth-grade girls rode their school bus home, the men stopped the bus and demanded, “Which girl is Malala?” The gun was raised. They shot her, as well as two other girls.
Inconceivable. A young girl targeted by grown men whose religious framework somehow translates into gunning down children because they want to be in school. Openly advocating for girls’ education and wanting to help other Pakistani girls fulfill their right to attend school was her only “crime.” Malala and her family are devout in their Muslim faith, with pictures capturing Malala’s face framed by a traditional head scarf and kneeling on her rug offering prayers to Allah. No apostasy here. Just a desire for education.
As the mother of two daughters, I find the horror of this act piercing. It is also unfathomable. On the same day Malala was shot, my daughters were sluggish about getting to school, wishing their three-day weekend had been longer. Malala’s tragic story was fresh on my mind; I wanted to take them to task for complaining. Yet, inevitably they would hear it the same way we heard our parents tell us to “clean our plate” because children all over the world are starving. It is just too far removed from our children’s experience. Dying for education just doesn’t compute, and for that, I am grateful.
Which brings me to American exceptionalism. Somehow, many Americans have grown uncomfortable with the belief that American society is better than others. So instead we tout American tolerance. Thinking we are educated, worldly, and open-minded, we hold vague notions that every society has its own values, religion, and culture, and no one way of doing things is superior to any other.
Enter Malala. She crystallizes the debate, and for a moment, we are silent. The familiar “I’m okay, you’re okay” notion that all moral codes and cultural norms are to be respected and appreciated for their vast variety is found hollow.
America is many things. It has not always gotten everything right. But, as Heritage scholar Matthew Spalding explains, “America is exceptional because, unlike any other nation, it is dedicated to the principles of human liberty, grounded on the truths that all men are created equal and endowed with equal rights.”
We hope and pray for Malala. We hope for the ideals her simple voice embodies. We hope America’s leaders abandon the “all nations are equal partners” approach and, as noted at by Heritage analyst Lisa Curtis at today’s Heritage event on Pakistan, “commit to supporting Pakistani civil society members who are risking their lives to stand down extremist ideologies and to stand up for the rights and freedoms of all Pakistanis.”
Beyond all of that, our part as American citizens is to remember that the freedoms our daughters and all of us enjoy are, indeed, exceptional. It isn’t conflated national egoism to say so. It is fact.