Malala Yousafzai, the girl shot by the Taliban, is many things to many people. To some she's an inspiration, a dynamic activist for girls' rights and a symbol in the fight against extremism. To others she's Jane, the Hungarian child of Christian missionaries working for the CIA.
At least, that's what a few thousand gullible people were led to believe after Dawn Newspaper, a Pakistan-based English language newspaper, published a satirical piece last week meant to shame the country's Malala truthers. In the piece, Dawn sends seasoned reported to Swat, the region Malala called home. There they find a doctor who claims to have a sample of her DNA (her earwax), which shows that she's of Hungarian descent. And the Taliban operative who tried to kill her was actually an Italian who looks a lot like Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver.
The piece is very obviously a satire (at one point the author "interviews" a guy who'll only speak to them with a Spiderman mask on) but some people fell for it, because the idea of Malala hiding something is in line with their own misguided hatred. The sad truth of Malala's story is that she's a polarizing figure in her home country, not necessarily because of her actions, but because of Pakistan's cultural norms and distrust of the West. All of these theories are false, but they're rooted in real suspicions.
The Theory: Malala has actually been bad for Swat school girls
The Basis: Unfortunately there's a grain of truth to this, if only because the memory of Taliban rule is still strong in the Swat valley region where Malala lived. Though her peers may support her, they aren't eager to be associated with her for their own safety. "We are all very happy in our hearts," Quratulain Ali, a friend of Malala, said to Reuters regarding her Nobel nomination. "But we don't often speak about it openly. There could be danger for us also."
The Theory: Malala is just a drama queen
The Basis: "How can a girl survive after being shot in the head?" asked one Pakistani student during an interview with The New York Times published last week. "It doesn’t make sense." He called it a made for TV movie. On social media some people refer to her as "Malala Dramazai," alleging that she staged her shooting to get a visa to a Western country. Last week The Telegraph summed up the resentment with this:
Why, many people wonder, has [Malala] – and two other friends caught up in the shooting – been allowed into the UK visas when hundreds of other people are maimed or killed by terrorists each year?
Mustafa Shah, a teacher at the Degree College Swat, said: “All the three girls have gone for free education but what about thousands others who are at still at the sharp end, travelling to and from school every day?”
There are also some who are feel Malala doesn't speak up enough against America's use of drone strikes. One photo from the "I Hate Malala. An American Agent" Facebook page shows Malala with the following text over it: "How many of you would know my name... if I was murdered by a U.S. Drone Strike?" That ignores the fact that Malala has inspired people around the world to support girls' education, but Malala's goodness doesn't excuse drone strikes.
The Theory: The Americans were behind her shooting/she's a CIA plant
The Basis: By speaking to Western media outlets Malala is going against a culture that encourages women to stay out of the limelight. More importantly, she's going against a culture that's suspicious of Western influence and Malala is brave for doing it, knowing how her community would react.
"America created Malala in order to promote their own culture of nudity and to defame Pakistan around the world," Maulana Gul Naseeb, a prominent figure in the JUI-F, one of Pakistan's leading religious political parties, told Agence-France Presse. A Member of Pakistan's National Assembly called Malala's rise to fame a "drama" orchestrated by America to defame the Taliban.
Distrust of America and the West goes beyond Malala. As the Christian Science Monitor reported last week, 20 medical aid workers delivering polio vaccines in Pakistan have died since 2011, in part because of radical Islamic propaganda claiming the vaccines are meant to reduce the Muslim population. In Malala's case, the suspicion against her is a combination of, as The Times put it, "sensitivity at Western hectoring, a confused narrative about the Taliban and a sense of resentment or downright jealousy."
(Conspiracy theory memes via I Hate Malala. An American Agent Facebook page.)
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.