“I raise my voice not so that I can shout,” Malala Yousafzai said, “but so that those without a voice can be heard.”
In awe of her commitment to education for every child; in awe of the beauty of her intellect, courage, activism, and boundless energy, I’ve been a Malala devotee for years.
She began her activism early. When she was 11 her father, a school teacher, took her to a local press club in Peshawar, Pakistan to protest government school closings. There she gave her first speech, “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education,” which was publicized throughout Pakistan and got the attention not only of the nation but of the Pakistani Taliban who opposed education for girls.
I remember being shocked hearing a news report, on October 9, 2012, that a Pakistani Taliban gunman had targeted and shot a 15-year-old Malala as she rode home on a school bus after sitting for an exam in Swat Valley.
According to press reports the gunman shouted: “Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all… She must be punished.”
How the ignorant, possessing no intellect of their own, fear education; fear the power of the intellect, fear the uninhibited curiosity of children.
On October 14, 2012, just five days after the attack, I sent an email to administrators whom I knew at one of America’s finest boarding schools with the subject line “Bring [Malala] here …,” advocating for her admission just as I had successfully advocated for a young Afghan woman a few years earlier.
My entreaties on behalf of Malala – who two years later would become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize Laureate ever – fell on unsympathetic ears and she went somewhere else.
My entreaties on behalf of others continued uninterrupted and I went on to advocate on behalf of more Bosnian, Palestinian, Afghan, Pakistani, Yemeni, and other students, mostly from the Global South, most displaced by conflict.
Today, students I support are no longer just in Sarajevo, Kabul, and Sana’a: They are in Jacksonville, Austin, and Concord, and they need our help.
They are our children and they’re being threatened by deniers of the intellect lurking in libraries near us, lurking in schools, lurking in town halls and in our Public Square and all intending to cause us harm.
Our children’s future is being threatened by people figuratively burning books, literally attempting to close libraries.
Today, we are confronted by Americans living not in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a diverse, aspirational world, but in Governor Ron DeSantis’ Christian nationalist neighborhood, a gated community open to white supremacists and their enablers.
They are not using guns as Malala’s assailant did – yet – but I believe that the rise of our own indigenous American Taliban is trying to deny access to knowledge and experience to people who care about truth, social justice, climate justice, and the inherent dignity of all human beings.
Today, it appears to me, we are living amidst barbarians and vulgarians, amidst people who deny the humanity of people unlike themselves, deny humanity to people who believe in the beauty of the intellect, and it frightens me.
What darkens their souls, I wonder? What brought them to such disbelief and cruelty?
How did they come to believe that public education does not benefit America’s social order, benefits refugee children as well as children who are recipients of generational wealth. Humanity long ago discovered that it is useful to have an educated population, that when everyone is educated everyone benefits.
I don’t like living in a country with bunches of ignorant people, with bunches of cowards, vulgarians and barbarians who provoke cultural conflict, who deny the intellect, in order to sustain their own power.
We must refuse to concede this land to them.
I’m not going anywhere, and neither are our children, and I look to them, young people whose capacity for curiosity, love, and discernment cannot be repressed, to rise, as did Anna Elizabeth Dickinson in 1860, as did Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, as do Malala and Greta Thunberg today, to oppose those who would suppress their rights and choices.
I believe that we are at this point because we have failed, as a nation, to listen to the voices, historical and contemporary, of those who tried to warn us of the dangers of the strong anti-democratic, nationalistic, racist and antisemitic hordes advancing from the right.
Too many who failed to listen to those voices believed – some to this moment – that we can find common ground and heal this nation, that we can do interventions and workshops, train communities to be attentive to racist and caste impulses, that values could be aligned for a common good.
That’s too privileged and white for me.
I believe that beauty of the intellect is something that comes alive in in the hearts of all people everywhere and is not rationed or apportioned by accident of birth or on the basis of being white or light-skinned, by being cis-gendered or LGBTQIA+, by being monotheist, polytheist, or secular humanist.
It is the gift with which we are all endowed.
If we wish to survive as a free people, as a nation where all people are created equal, we have no choice but to confront the pirates of intellect who, to paraphrase Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl, possessing no intellect of their own, are attempting to rehabilitate their ignorance with intolerance.
No choice but to raise our voices so that our children’s voices can be heard.
Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.