Malala Yousafzai, Kailash Satyarthi and the importance of religious reform

Malala Yousafzai, Kailash Satyarthi and the importance of religious reform October 11, 2014


The selection of Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi as co-recipients of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was widely hailed as a victory for the human rights of children, and especially girls. I was personally thrilled with the choice, having been charmed by Malala’s many interviews following the publication of her autobiography, I Am Malala. I am also happy to learn of Kailash Satyarthi and his three decades of work to end child slavery in India. I and many of my friends are deeply committed to this cause.

The Nobel Committee set off a measure of controversy over their specific mention of the two recipients’ religions—a Hindu and a Muslim—stating that it was “an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”

The criticism of this mention seems silly to me for two very obvious reasons. Religion is the source, or at least the justification, for so much violence in the world. The peacemaking efforts of two people who speak freely about their religion, is clearly part of the attraction of their stories. Secondly, they have not made religion a part of their work. They speak about religion as the context in which they work, part of the challenge they are seeking to overcome, and sometimes as a motivation for what they do, but Malala is not trying to make converts for Islam. She is challenging the misogyny that has taken root in modern Islam and advocating for the educational rights of girls—something that has been restricted in much of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

I’m a pragmatist when it comes to religion. Christianity may be waning in the West, but it has certainly suffered significant setbacks before and it always finds a way to survive. In many other regions of the world, religion is as vibrant and robust as ever, for better or for worse. If I had to guess, I’d say religion is a reality that we’re going to be living with forever.

Because I take this to be an unremarkable statement of reality, I am supportive of any and all efforts to reform religion—to help it serve the common good while mitigating its potential for harm. Doing away with it is, in the first place, unrealistic, and in the second place, likely to do as much damage as good. I realize this last statement will be met with severe criticism and deserves to be explained at length. It will have to suffice for now to simply say I believe religion would be replaced (and is even now often replaced) by nationalism or some other form of tribalism. Remove religion and human beings would go on killing one another and destroying the planet for different reasons or with different justifications.

People’s religious identities, much like their other sorts of identities (national, sexual, etc) are deeply engrained. It is difficult for anyone who has not been held in the grip of religious identity to appreciate just how deep the roots are. For many atheists, religion functions like a piece of software. If it’s not getting the job done, just delete it and install something new. But religion, for many, if not most, people, is more like firmware. It is the operating system which cannot be deleted without reformatting the entire computer.

Malala Yousafzai is a particular kind of reformer. She is a reformer from within Islam. She may not succeed in the long run. Like other reformers before her she might die trying. Nevertheless it is her right to try, no matter how fruitless any of us may think her efforts will be. Her courageous work, regardless of the outcome, is an inspiration to people everywhere.

For years I was committed to reforming my brand of Christianity from within. The challenges and risks involved in my work and Malala’s are light years apart, but there are enough similarities that I feel a kinship with her. I believed that I could be a part of a coalition of progressive thinkers who could change the system. I believed that I was calling my church to its true self. I believed that the oppressive aspects of the faith were not the essential part. I failed in that endeavor, but many of my friends and colleagues labor on toward the goal of reform. From where I now stand I feel that they will not succeed. I also feel that, unlike Malala’s mission, the reformation of one tiny segment of fundamentalist Christianity simply isn’t worth the effort. But I remember the passionate desire to make a difference and I encourage my friends and former colleagues in their valiant efforts. They are indeed making a difference in the lives of people who, come hell or high water, will remain in their religion. At the same time, I would remind them that there is life outside that world and that failure in that specific effort is not failure in general.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali claims that the only way to freedom for Muslim women is to renounce their faith and culture. Malala is fighting for the reformation of her culture from within. As long as Islam is here to stay, we need both approaches. Muslim women (and men) need to know that there is freedom outside Islam, but Muslim’s also need to know that they can fight the oppression from within Islam, especially since so few women will have the opportunity to escape from Islam the way Hirsi Ali has done.

When it comes to change, some of the most important voices have come from people like Malala who have remained inside the system they are striving to reform. We must encourage them to fight on while embracing those who simply cannot or will not struggle inside a system of belief and practice that has done them so much harm.

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