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.


Malala wins the Sakharov Prize, Nobel Peace Prize Next?

Malala Yousafzai, the courageous 16-year-old who has championed education for all in the face of Taliban thuggery, has been awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. This comes in the wake of her appearance on The Daily Show last night, where her generosity of spirit was once again on display, as it was in her extraordinary speech at the United Nations earlier this year.

Tomorrow the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced. There are a number of strong candidates, including: Denis Mukwege, medical director of Panzi Hospital in eastern DRC; Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s Attorney General; and a number of human rights and democracy activists from Russia, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere. There are also a number of candidates who would be embarrassingly awful selections, including: Vladimir Putin, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning.

Malala meanwhile seems to be the perfect choice—someone admired by those whose top priority is human rights and also by those who value nonviolence above all else. The education and empowerment of girls and women around the world would make a tremendous contribution to the global common good. Malala may be young, but that just makes her incredible courage, poise, and compassion even more extraordinary. Mukwege would be an outstanding and truly worthy selection, but my personal preference is for Malala.


Malala at the UN: Education for All

Today is Malala Day, named after the extraordinary, courageous Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai.  Malala remains a fierce proponent of education for all, even after being shot in the head by members of the Taliban and seeing her friends murdered.  As she said earlier today, “They thought that the bullet would silence us…but they failed.”

Malala was honored by the UN today and responded by giving one of the great speeches in UN history.  She began by thanking God and reminding us that all people are equal before God.  She highlighted the efforts of human rights activists around the world and signified her commitment to speak for the voiceless.  She denounced poverty, ignorance, injustice, racism, and the deprivation of basic rights.

The speech revealed the generosity of her spirit, as she spoke without malice toward the Taliban, instead putting forward a vision of peace and justice.  She endorsed the philosophy of nonviolence and expressed her commitment to love and forgiveness.

At the same time, she pulled no (rhetorical) punches in denouncing the terrorists’ myopic worldview.  She challenged their interpretation of Islam and understanding of God.  She discussed the power of education and pointed out how much it frightens the extremists, especially the education of women.

She called upon the governments of the world to ensure free, compulsory education for every child.  And she asked “the developed nations to support the expansion of education opportunities for girls in the developing world.”  She noted, “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.” And she called upon her “sisters around the world to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.”

She ended with this passionate plea:

So let us wage, so let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.

The full speech can be viewed below: