An Open Letter to Malala in Oslo: Forward Together Against Fundamentalism

In the week Malala Yousafzai collects her prize in Oslo, Karima Bennoune writes, "Dear Malala, As you accept the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, please know how many human rights activists around the world -- especially women -- are grateful to you ..."

Dear Malala,

As you accept the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, please know how many human rights activists around the world -- especially women -- are grateful to you. They stand with you in your struggle for girls' empowerment and for unfettered access to education. In Muslim majority countries and in the diasporas, they also stand with you to fight against the extremism which blocks these advances. You are a true hero, and as you know, you are also one of a peaceful army of thousands doing this work.

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Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai gives a speech during the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10, 2014. (HEIKO JUNGE/AFP/Getty Images)

For so many of them, you are a source of great pride. "Oh, I am very proud of her, and of her winning at such a young age," Ani Zonneveld, President of Muslims for Progressive Values told me. "We are proud to have a Brave Girl like Malala. Thanks Allah," wrote Mirza Abdul Shakoor of Community Development Concern in Pakistan.

You are also a bringer of hope. Inam Bioud, a teacher from Algeria who survived the fundamentalist violence of the 1990s, declared you "an inspiration for me." In 1990s Algeria, the Armed Islamic Group, like Nigeria's Boko Haram today, threatened all who went to school -- teachers and pupils alike. For Inam, you are shedding light on this history: "All our suffering passed in silence. I am happy this girl is breaking the wall of silence. That is great."

Those whose countries are living such nightmares today are equally enthusiastic about the attention you bring to these issues. Iraqi writer Fay Naser effused:

I am happy because at last the world recognized women's struggle to get education. In Iraq, girls from a very young age are forced to get married before finishing primary school. Thousands of women are getting raped or getting sold. This girl is hope for women, a reminder that you have rights, that you must stand for your position, and not be silent.

In the West, Malala, you are known primarily as an education and child rights campaigner. But, you also understand that we cannot achieve these rights without pushing back against the fundamentalists of the world. Liberian Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee rightly noted that you represent those "many girls and even some boys who refuse to allow evil to grow in the shadows" and who are "rising and saying no to war, extremism and fundamentalism."

In this same vein, Sohail Warraich, a male defender of women's rights from Pakistan, who protested in Lahore after you were shot, wrote to say: "The Nobel peace prize being given to Malala is very comforting and happy news. It may not silence the extremists, but will encourage many engaged in the long struggle against extremism." The success of that struggle is a human rights imperative.

As you yourself said, "The extremists are afraid of books and pens, the power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women." What you have shown with your perseverance, what others have shown too, is that women are not afraid of them. Or at least, they are determined to overcome their fear because they know, as you said when the prize was announced, that they have a choice between not speaking up and being killed, or speaking up and being killed. Yet, you are the girl who lived. We celebrate this, even as we mourn those who did not.

When your win was first made public, Wazhma Frogh of the Afghan Women's Network voiced "hope that it will shed light on the struggles of millions of Afghan girls who have lost their lives on the way to school, been raped or deprived of education because of militancy and increased Taliban insurgency." That same month, in one province of Afghanistan alone, 40,000 girls were expelled from their classrooms when all girls' schools closed in the wake of Taliban attacks.

I think also of the Malala of Algeria who I wrote about in my recent book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism. Her story, sadly, did not have a happy ending. Amel Zenoune-Zouani was a 22 year-old Algerian law student who refused to abandon her studies in the face of Islamist violence. Dragged off a bus on January 26, 1997, she was murdered in the street. The militants from the Armed Islamic Group told the other passengers, "if you go to the University, the day will come when we will kill all of you just like this." Shortly before her death, contemplating the danger to herself and her student sisters, Amel told her mother: "if something happens to us, you must know that we are dead for knowledge."

When you go to the podium in Oslo, Malala, Amel's spirit will be with you. And I know you will keep fighting for the Amel's of today. She died for knowledge. It is up to us all to ensure that others, like you, are able instead to live for it.

Hence, as a person of Muslim heritage living in the U.S., I have two main hopes this week. The first is that your award convinces even more people of Muslim heritage to speak out against fundamentalism. If a school girl who has been shot in the face in Pakistan has the mettle to travel to Nigeria to lobby on behalf of the still missing girls there as you did, we too must raise our voices. And for those in the West who view most Muslims as fundamentalists, I hope your eloquent message reminds them that no one has done more to combat Muslim extremism than people of Muslim heritage themselves.

Above all, many of us hope you will feel great joy as you receive this much-deserved prize, and that it gives you even more of what you call "the power to go forward." We will go forward with you. The title of your book is I am Malala. Today, we want you to know that we are all Malala.

Karima Bennoune, is UC Davis law professor and author of “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism.”

This article first appeared on 12 December 2014 in the Huffington Post: An Open Letter to Malala