Harsha Nahata: Unity from tragedy

By Harsha Nahata, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published October 16, 2012

This past week, the story of Malala Yousafzai has dominated most major news networks. The 14-year-old girl was shot by Taliban militants for raising her voice against their repressive policies. She was advocating for the simple right to eduaction. Apparently, the Taliban saw her as a threat — she was shot at on her way home from school last week. Yousafzai is currently being treated for her wounds in the United Kingdom.

What happened with Malala is nothing short of a tragedy. But maybe the only positive that comes out of tragedies like this is an opportunity for us all to rally together, to unify. And in this case, that is exactly what has been done.

The international community has responded with unanimous condemnation, and multiple nations have offered help with Malala’s treatment. Starting with an airlift offered by the United Arab Emirates to her final treatment in the United Kingdom, there's been an overwhelming outpouring of support worldwide.

The strongest voices of condemnation have come from within Pakistan itself. From lawyers, to media, to religious clerics to the citizens of Pakistan, there has been sharp criticism of the Taliban’s targeting of Malala. People have taken to the streets in protest to show their support. Lawyers took a day off from court to join in the protests. More than 50 Islamic scholars from the Sunni Ittehad Council condemned the attack. Deseret, a Pakistani newspaper, ran an editorial on Tuesday, Oct. 16, calling Malala a Pakistani hero. In fact, Pakistani media has so strongly condemned the attacks as to elicit threats from the Taliban themselves. Even Pakistani President Zardari condemned the attack.

The outcry hasn’t been limited to Pakistan. Around the world, news media, political figures and the public have voiced outrage over what happened to Malala. Beyond the contentious relationship that India and Pakistan might share, there were even protests in India against such horrific actions by the Taliban.

In a way, this outcry is expected. You might be wondering why I’m spending so much space describing something so obvious. Who wouldn’t condemn such a horrific act? Regardless of what one may believe politically, ideologically or religiously, it’s easy to agree that targeting a 14-year-old girl is hardly an acceptable practice. But what’s significant is exactly that — that across national borders, religious ideals and political differences, with the case of Malala Yousafzai, we all found something to agree on.

In fact, if we look deeply, there are a lot of somethings we agree on. Most would agree that every child, boy or girl, should have access to education, that people should be free to speak their mind without fear of being killed, that people should be able to work, earn a living and provide for their families. In short, in some ways, we can agree that there are basic things that go into a quality standard of living that everyone should be able to enjoy. We only disagree on the best way to get there.

And that’s what tragedies such as this show us. They show us that we might be fiercely different in many of our beliefs, but often time we’re all fighting for the same thing: a better tomorrow than we have today.

There’s a lesson in the story of Malala. A lesson we can apply to the political situation in the United States. There are lots of political and social issues we argue about today. And given the partisan political climate of the United States, you’d think that the Republicans and Democrats agree on next to nothing.

But in the end, both parties want the same thing — a better future for this country. None of the candidates disagree that we want American youth to have top quality education, that we want people to be employed, that we want safe and structurally sound roads and infrastructure, that we want to return to having the best and most competitive workforce in the world. We don’t disagree on these end goals; we only disagree on how to get there.

In the midst of an election season, politicians would rather have us focus on what we disagree on than what we see eye-to-eye on. But the truth is, if we keep focusing on what we disagree about, we won’t ever be able to solve the problems at hand.

It’s sad that time and time again it takes us a tragedy to realize this, but underneath all the ways in which we identify as different from one another, there are basics that we can agree on. And in this election season, keeping in mind Malala’s story, perhaps we should look for the areas we agree on so we can make valuable compromises.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.