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Why Was Malala Yousafzai Missing from the Debate?

Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for advocating for girls’ right to education, has done more to de-legitimize Taliban rule and the radical Islamist ideology for which it stands than any Western diplomat or multimillion dollar de-radicalization program. How disappointing it was, then, that in last night’s debate, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney saw fit to pay tribute and provide a shout-out to this bold little girl.

Obama argued that his administration strategy was predicated on fighting radicalism:

Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. And what we’ve also done is engaged these governments in the kind of reforms that are actually going to make a difference in people’s lives day to day, to make sure that their governments aren’t corrupt, to make sure that they’re treating women with the kind of respect and dignity that every nation that succeeds has shown and to make sure that they’ve got a free market system that works.

The words are empty, however, as the Taliban declares itself on the verge of a great victory, and when the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to send women back centuries. Even in Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of Obama’s closest friends, has seen the situation of women decline precipitously. To this, Obama appears oblivious.

Romney, for his part, affirmed Obama’s political deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan: “Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014, and when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014,” he said. Regarding Pakistan, he added:

We’re going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a more stable government and rebuild the relationship with us. And that means that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met.

Romney also had the perfect opportunity during his discussion of radicalization and the Arab Spring:

A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the — the world reject these — these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this: One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we — we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law.

The fact of the matter is that Malala is not some contrived campaign anecdote which both candidates use to appear more down-to-earth. She is a truly powerful symbol whose very name delegitimizes the extremists. Just as Chechen jihadists saw popular support for their cause collapse when they attacked the school at Beslan, so too the Pakistani Taliban realize what a terrible mistake they have made. That neither Obama nor Romney take advantage of their mistake to embrace this symbol of resistance against Islamist tyranny reflects badly on their vision and on their commitment to win the ideological war, which may very well define the 21st century.


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