If, as has been said often over the past decade, the war against terrorism is a war for the hearts and minds of people in the Islamic world, then 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai may represent the tipping point.
Yousufzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl, was deliberately attacked while returning home from school in northwest Pakistan last week because she dared speak out in favor of education for girls and in opposition to the Taliban's tactics in the disputed Swat Valley. The attack succeeded in severely wounding the girl with a shot to the head, but not in killing her. She has been transported to a hospital in England that is well-equipped to deal with such injuries, and doctors believe she has a chance at a full recovery. The Taliban, meanwhile, has vowed to finish the job because the girl was promoting "Western thinking."
The Taliban's atrocities through the years are well-documented, from blowing up schools to forcing men to grow beards, to physically abusing women who don't comply with their rules. They have destroyed religious artifacts dating 1,700 years old or more, and they have no regard for human life or the freedom to dissent. Women are treated as subhuman.
Yet each new atrocity that gains worldwide attention seems to be forgotten in a few days. Even in the United States, where the attacks of 9/11 killed thousands, people have grown weary of sending soldiers to fight the Taliban and like-minded terrorist groups in Afghanistan, and argue over whether military action has strengthened the enemy's ability to recruit.
But in Karachi last weekend, tens of thousands of people rallied in the streets in support for Yousufzai. They were organized by a political party whose leader called her the "daughter of the nation."
Granted, the rally paled in comparison to recent anti-American rallies in protest of an obscure YouTube video seen as disrespectful to the prophet Mohammed. But those rallies were suspect in a region where courage often is punished. Yousufzai's bravery and the Taliban's savagery, on the other hand, sparked genuine feelings worldwide, as expressed via Twitter and Facebook.
The Pakistani government, struggling as usual to hold together a divided nation, now finds itself in a difficult position. Some arrests were made in connection with the shooting, and there is hope the government will redouble its efforts to eradicate the Taliban. But the Associated Press quoted leaders of the nation's main Islamic parties offering tepid criticism of the attack while trying to redirect the conversation to criticisms of U.S. drone attacks against civilians.
That is where the hearts and minds of the people come into play. People may legitimately debate the effectiveness of military action, but there can be no debate over the moral depravity of the Taliban, nor over its intentions should it gain power. People who live under its control know of its abuses and its close ties to terrorism in all its forms. Efforts to draw conclusions by counting people who show up at rallies in Pakistan must do so by taking into account the fear of retaliation, which young Yousufzai surely understood, underscoring her bravery.
Her cause is for the most basic of human liberties. Her recovery should be a rallying cry for freedom-loving people everywhere.