Malala’s Book: A Manufactured Controversy

I’ve been reading Malala’s book and although I’m not finished with it yet, I can say that there is nothing in it that anyone with any common sense would find offensive to Islam. In fact, the whole book is imbued with Malala’s love for Islam and her respect for her Pashtun traditions. To the frustration of many in the West, Malala continues to profess her love for her religion and her culture, and some of her supporters think that she should abandon Islam in order to be a true heroine in their eyes. It’s safe to say that will probably never happen. Malala is a Muslim, and that isn’t going to change.

Let’s take one of the contentions that in this book, the name of the Prophet appears without the respectful phrase “peace be upon him” after every mention of his name. In Muslim countries this is a common custom and is often abbreviated to PBUH for short. In Western, non-Muslim countries, this is unheard of. It would be the work of copy-editors and proofreaders to insert or remove that phrase or acronym, and if you know anything about the process of getting a book ready for publication at a large publishing house, you’d know that they prepare a style sheet that they use as a guide to make sure there is consistency with names, phrases, capitalisation of words, etc.

Someone in the editing process probably decided that it would be simpler and easier for non-Muslim readers to see “the Prophet” without the PBUH added every time. This is a decision made based on the expected readership of the book, and while it may not be au courant with what we do in the Muslim world, it is ridiculous to blame this on Malala.

Once a book enters the stage of proofs and production, it is out of the author’s hands. In this case there were two authors – Christina Lamb, the British journalist (who is responsible for filling in the historical and political background to complement Malala’s personal story) and while Malala may have very well wanted to have PBUH inserted into every instance, the decision was not in her hands at later stages of production. If you’re so worried about that, I urge you to say “salallau alehi wasalam” every time you see the word “Prophet” in Malala’s book (which really isn’t more than a handful of times), and indeed every time you hear it, such as when it is recited in the Azaan (call to prayer) five times a day.

The detractors have also brought up the shibboleth of Salman’s Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, stating that Malala wrote about the book in a positive way. This is not correct. The book describes the controversy and how it erupted in Pakistan, stoked in a very deliberate way, and then goes on to describe how her father and his young colleagues, only twenty or so themselves at the time, debated how best to deal with the book.

Let’s look at the passage in some detail:

The book was called the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, and it was a parody of the Prophet’s life set in Bombay. Muslms widely considered it blasphemous and it provoked so much outrage that it seemed people were talking of little else…

My father’s college held a heated debate in a packed room. Many students aregued that the book should be banned and burned and the fatwa upheld. My father also saw the book as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech. “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book,” he suggested. He ended by asking in a thundering voice my grandfather would have been proud of, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam!”

In short, her father, writes Malala, found the book offensive, but thought that rather than burning it in protest, it would be better to read it first to understand exactly why it was offensive, and then answer with another, better book they could write themselves. And he said that Islam was too strong to be harmed by a fictitious book.

It’s easily seen from the above passage that instead of considering The Satanic Verses as freedom of speech, Malala’s father believed that Muslims had the right to freedom of speech and should exercise that right by answering a blasphemous book with a BETTER book: A rather sophisticated response, if you ask me, for someone so young, and a refreshing change from those who want to wreak destruction on everything around them because their feelings have been hurt. Burning and banning a book will not make unwritten what has been written, so far better to counter the negative with a positive, rather than more negativity, violence, and destruction.

Certainly this topic and others, such as Zia’s draconian policies, distortions of Islam and Sharia, and so on and so forth, are delicate ones and one wonders whether or not Malala’s story would have been better served by leaving those out of the book. But it’s obvious that Malala’s detractors are trying to stir controversy where really, none exists. They are trying to present the book’s endorsement of protecting minority rights as un-Islamic. What could possibly be their motivation? Love of Islam, or the need to bolster their patriotic credentials and get some television time and column space in the process? Anger that it’s Malala’s face on a book that’s flying off the shelves all over the world, and not their own?

I’ll let you be the judge of that. In the meantime, if you want to criticize a book, try reading it first. You might actually learn something in the process.


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