Malala Yousafzai has been an iconic and inspirational figure in the fight for women and girls’ education around the globe ever since the Pakistani girl survived her attempted assassination at the hands of the Taliban in 2012. She had been targeted and shot in the head because of her work advocating for education for girls. Two years later, she would become the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Currently attending Oxford University for her undergraduate studies, Yousafzai is almost globally recognized as a hero (Constable). Except, of course, in her home country of Pakistan.
That is because, since the attempt on her life, conspiracy theories have risen out of Pakistani media, politics, and culture that allege Malala Yousafzai is a spy for the CIA or orchestrated her own shooting for fame (John). Adherents to these beliefs range from the poor to rich and disenfranchised to the powerful in Pakistan, with students, journalists, and even some parliamentarians disapproving of her and declaring she staged her attack (Kugelman). Information on this belief comes from Pakistani social media groups (most of the Facebook pages have since been shut down) and figures in the media like Tariq Khattack, who said the following regarding her Nobel Peace Prize: “It’s a political decision and a conspiracy. She is a normal, useless type of a girl. Nothing in her is special at all” (Khan). This belief erupted within a month of her shooting (Leiby), although it became particularly popular after Yousafzai began receiving so much attention and recognition from Western media, with the biggest spikes coming with her Nobel and admittance into Oxford University (Kugelman). This belief persists to this day and it is extraordinary and noteworthy because there is absolutely no credible evidence supporting it and, additionally, the maligning of Yousafzai in her native country stands in stark contrast to both her glowing international reputation and the immense charitable work her foundation oversees in Pakistan (Kugelman).
The evidence against the belief is the universally-accepted chain of events: that she was targeted by the Taliban because she was promoting both girls’ education and anti-Taliban ideas through her interactions with Western media like her BBC blog. Then, in retaliation, the Taliban ordered her murder and she was shot once in the head on her school bus ride home from school on October 9, 2012 (Tohid). She was then flown to the United Kingdom for further treatment later that week, where she has taken up residence.
The evidence that Malala Yousafzai is, in fact, a plant by the CIA is all circumstantial or projected. There are variations here, with some claiming she is a spy for the CIA and others claiming it was the CIA who shot her, making her an unwitting but still-dangerous part of an American plot: “America created Malala in order to promote their own culture of nudity and to defame Pakistan around the worlds” (John). Evidence offered up is the photograph of her meeting with U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke – because surely that could be the only reason she would meet with him. Others posit that the attack was meant to stir up anti-Taliban sentiment and make American drone strikes more palatable to the Pakistani people (Leiby).
The most important cognitive contribution is confirmation bias. This is noticeable in the usage of a photograph of Yousafzai with a U.S. envoy as evidence that she colluded with the U.S. and her association with the West being seen as incriminating. That stems from Pakistanis deep distrust of Western governments and institutions – the more Yousafzai was embraced by the West (such as her admittance to Oxford, Nobel Peace Prize, and book sales), the more she was interpreted as an agent of the West. There is also confirmation bias present in the activities of her family and father, in particular. In 2013, her family had retained the American public relations firm Edelman to help manage her image – this served as proof to those with confirmation bias that the shooting had been orchestrated to give her fame (Kugelman). Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is associated with the Awami National Party, a leftist secular organization that receives little support in Pakistan. After independence, the Red Shirt movement (which is linked to the Awami National Party) was dubbed as traitorous, another unfavorable association for Yousafzai. (Khan). The most egregious example came from a satirical article published by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that claimed Malala is a Caucasian girl from Hungary and had been shot by an actor who looked suspiciously like Robert De Niro, at the behest of the CIA (and, of course, the informant only acquiesced to being interviewed while wearing a Spiderman mask). Oh, and this was to justify the invasion of North Waziristan by American capitalists after the diamond-infused dinosaur bones in the region. Yet, even with all of that, confirmation bias led so many Pakistanis to believe the article and attack Yousafzai based on it that the website had to publish a retroactive disclaimer that the piece was satire (Paracha).
Perhaps most important to understanding this belief system are the most complicated aspects of the populace – Pakistani political systems, cultural norms, and social mobility. Most of the believers seem to come from the increasing middle class in Pakistan, which is largely conservative and anti-Western. Although this demographic is increasing because of some urbanization in Pakistan, it is still incredibly difficult to raise one’s social status. As a result, some may resent how quickly Yousafzai “ascended” the ladder of social mobility. If this seems outrageous to believe, it is important to note that 40% of Pakistan’s children in the lowest economic quintile will likely stay in that class for the rest of their lives (Kugelman). In that sense, there is also likely somewhat of a social comparison bias at play.
Although there is not specific evidence for the belief that Malala Yousafzai’s attack was orchestrated by her or the CIA, those who want to believe are able to justify themselves by pointing to all of the strands and coincidences they believe prove her inauthenticity. Their conservatism and opposition to Western cultural imposition, her status as a woman in a still extremely patriarchal society, and jealousy at how quickly she climbed the social ladder all contribute to an anger, resentment, and distrust of Malala that manifests in the belief that her attack was orchestrated for personal gain.
Constable, Pamela. “She’s a Nobel Winner Heading to Oxford. But ‘Malala Hate’ Is Still Real in Pakistan.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Sept. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/09/05/shes-a-nobel-winner-heading-to-oxford-but-malala-hate-is-still-real-in-pakistan/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9913be1de556.
John, Arit. “Breaking Down the Malala Conspiracy Theories.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 29 Oct. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/10/breaking-down-malala-conspiracy-theories/309985/.
Khan, M Ilyas. “The Antagonism Towards Malala in Pakistan.” BBC , BBC News, 10 Oct. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29568637.
Kugelman, Michael. “Why Pakistan Hates Malala.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 15 Aug. 2017, foreignpolicy.com/2017/08/15/why-pakistan-hates-malala/.
Leiby, Michele Langevine. “Attack on Schoolgirl Fuels Pakistani Conspiracy Theories.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Oct. 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/attack-on-schoolgirl-fuels-pakistani-conspiracy-theories/2012/10/23/20600b3c-1adf-11e2-bd10-5ff056538b7c_story.html?utm_term=.edf8d9eb1568.
Paracha, Nadeem F. “Malala: The Real Story (with Evidence).” Dawn, Dawn Newspaper, 11 Oct. 2013, www.dawn.com/news/1048776.