Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.

One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’ve heard that Malala Yousafzai gave a stirring speech to the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York last Friday (video here; written text here).

Escorted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and by UN Envoy for Global Education and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and adorned with the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s headscarf, Malala inspired the young audience with her message from which I quote two excerpts above. They correspond to the result of the Pakistani Talibam trying to kill her, and her stated goal of universal education, respectively

I want to stress something I’ve not seen in commentary about the speech: It was in the tradition of reformist religion.

To bear this out, my first point is that if you listen carefully, Malala begins with the Arabic phrase (not included in the written text) b-ismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm, and then follows it with its translation (to begin the written text), “In the name of God, The Most Beneficent, The Most Merciful.” This phrase is the “Bismillah,” which begins the Qur’an itself as well as most important documents in Islam.

Please note that the translation of the phrase is not: in the name of “Allah,” etc. Allah is not some tribal deity, but is simply the Arabic word for the universal concept of God. That leads to the second point: Among the luminaries the speech cites as worthy of emulation are Muhammad (of course), Jesus, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. To be sure, some more secular figures are invoked as well, such as Nelson Mandela and the founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah; however, there is no doubt here that Malala is religious, while ecumenical in her approach to religion.

But specifically she is a Muslim, and her demand for education for all, while universal, gets its thrust from opposition to a trend that purports to be Islamic, the Taliban who want education only for half the people
(and evidently not a very good education for that half).

And this is very different from the attitude of some others who purport to embrace reform in Islamic countries, which is, namely, to attempt to diminish the actual presence of religion. In Egypt in particular some prominent people, largely educated in Western countries where the tradition is that government is secular (at least nominally, however this may work out in practice), have imagined that they could reproduce that type of polity in the MENA region as well. (In this they ignore the fact that the tradition there for a thousand years of so has been the unity of religion and politics.) Thus they have seized upon the mistakes of the overtly Islam-associated government that came into place a year ago and demanded its ouster (which the military granted).

I am with Marx in believing that religion, like the state, will eventually wither away. However, this will not happen soon. (In Poland the socialist government after World War II thought it could reduce the prominence of religion, but only succeeded in enhancing the prestige of the reactionary Catholic Church.) In Egypt it looks like the result of recent events will be to drive the Muslim Brotherhood underground again, as it was under the Mubarak regime, where it will develop shadow institutions based on Islam and bide its time.

Meanwhile, rather than demand that Islam get out of government, Malala demands that violence and ignorance get out of Islam. Let’s hope she succeeds.