Millennial of the Year 2013: Malala

Malala Yousafzai is our first annual Millennial of the Year. Just 16 years old, she has already made outstanding contributions to the common good. From refusing to surrender her own right to education in the face of intimidation and violence to becoming a champion for the education rights of all children, Malala has become a hero to people across the globe. Her thirst for knowledge and truth, her merciful nature, and her passionate commitment to justice for all are worthy of admiration and emulation, but it is her extraordinary courage that truly sets her apart.

For those unfamiliar with Malala’s story, she was attacked by the Taliban for her commitment to education:

The teenage girls chatted to each other and their teachers as the school bus rattled along the country road. Students from a girls’ high school in Swat, they had just finished a term paper, and their joy was evident as they broke into another Pashto song. About a mile outside the city of Mingora, two men flagged down and boarded the bus, one of them pulling out a gun. “Which one of you is Malala Yousafzai?” he demanded. No one spoke—some out of loyalty, others out of fear. But, unconsciously, their eyes turned to Malala. “That’s the one,” the gunman said, looking the 15-year-old girl in the face and pulling the trigger twice, shooting her in the head and neck. He fired twice more, wounding two other girls, and then both men fled the scene.

In the face of this persecution, she has refused to stand down. And she has refused to let hatred consume her. She has said, “I don’t want revenge on the Taliban, I want education for sons and daughters of the Taliban.” Here we see a mentality that radiates love and demands justice.

Malala is focused on issues that could transform global history and usher in an era of greater human flourishing and global justice. The education of girls is intrinsically good. But it also has the potential to reduce poverty, expand the protection of other human rights, and undermine repression and tyranny. It has the potential to unlock the creative altruism of millions of girls around the world. It is one of the most profoundly important causes of our era.

Malala’s courageous fight for girls’ education shows the promise and power of faith in action. Some contend that faith distracts people from what their real focus should be: improving conditions on earth. Setting aside the fundamental irrationality and incoherence of atheistic humanism as a worldview (of believing in both a strictly material universe and transcendent notions of right and wrong), Malala, a devout Muslim, shows that religious, integral humanism can be an even more powerful force for justice. Integral humanism moves beyond mere enlightened self-interest and directs its energy to the authentic good of others, to their flourishing as human persons. There is no firmer foundation for human rights. Malala’s faith is also the foundation of her extraordinary courage. Even in the face of death, she refuses to be stopped by fear. She knows that death is not the end and that love will have the final word. And this propels her to action rather than retreat.

Devotion to human dignity and justice for all. Faith in action. Countercultural courage. Malala embodies Millennial’s hopes for our generation. We’re proud to have her as our first annual Millennial of the Year. St. Ignatius challenges us to “go forth and set the world on fire.” Malala has. Will you join her?

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Award Criteria: The award goes to a millennial who made an outstanding contribution to human flourishing and the common good. Their actions reflect a commitment to the dignity and worth of the person.