This week I have been reading the book, “I Am Malala.” It is the story of Malala Yousafzai, the young girl from Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban because she stood up for the right of girls to receive an education. It is a remarkable story about the courage that resides in both Malala and her family. As she recounts the takeover by the Taliban in her area of Pakistan, she mentions that a man named, Fazlullah, led the Taliban. The takeover by Fazlullah and his men included, among other things, the destruction of art, the suppression of music, and the effort to stop education for girls. In telling her story, Malala writes:
If I am speaking for my rights, for the rights of girls, I am not doing anything wrong. It’s my duty to do so. God wants to see how we behave in such situations. There is a saying in the Quran, “The falsehood has to go and the truth will prevail.” If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?” I wondered. I prayed to God every night to give me strength.
I find the wisdom and courage of this 16-year-old girl from Pakistan to be deeply inspiring. In reading this story, it is obvious that some of her own inner strength comes from her Father, Ziauddin. He is an educator who strongly advocated for the educational rights of young girls and opposed the oppressive rule of the Taliban. Malala writes that her father was also deeply troubled by the fear and silence of so many others. She mentions a poem, kept in his pocket, from which he drew inspiration. It was by Pastor Martin Niemoller who lived in Germany during the days of the Nazis.
First they came for the communists,
And I didn’t speak out because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
And I didn’t speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
And I didn’t speak out because I was not a Catholic.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me.
Just like numerous other preachers, I have quoted Niemoller’s words from the pulpit as encouragement for people to speak up and to act. When I read these words as part of Malala’s story, it became clear once again, that this is where the differences between religions fall away, when we work together for justice, for human rights and for the dignity of all people. I find myself being inspired by a young Muslim girl who was born on the other side of the world, thirty-five years after I was born. Her own inspiration, in part, comes from a Christian pastor who stood up to injustice and inhumanity more than fifty years before she was born. The common factor is the standing in opposition to cruelty and injustice and standing up for human rights and equality.
In our world, it seems all too often that religious faith erects walls that keep people from working together toward a better day. I don’t have space to critique all the reasons why this is so, except to say that I believe fundamentalism of any sort - religious, political, atheistic - is one of the greatest dangers to our world’s well-being. What those of us with a different mind need to do is find ways to cooperate and work together toward a better world where all people are treated with respect and dignity and all have equal access to food, shelter, education, etc. No matter what differences might exist in beliefs and doctrines, we can still draw inspiration and strength from each other to do what is right on behalf of all others.
I believe that whenever and wherever love and compassion are shown, the way of God is present. It does not matter if it is a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or a non-believer who expresses that love and compassion, whoever it is, God is present in their actions. The same is true for kindness, generosity, speaking up for the weak, standing with the oppressed - no matter who is doing the work, it is the work of God.
Thanks Malala for your wisdom and courage. And for sharing your story. You have been my teacher this week and for that I am grateful.