Monday, June 02, 2014

OPINION: West must gets its own glass house in order

The next budget should be an absolute shocker. Cuts to pensions and the dole and even a "one-off" tax – a temporary measure to pay for the deficit.

Still, if you don't like it, you can always leave before the next election. There are plenty of places with stronger economies and less fiscally oppressive regimes where you could claim to be an economic refugee. And you won't even get locked up while your application is processed.

Take Brunei. Its population is barely 406,000. Writing in the IFLR1000 (an international guide to commercial law and lawyers) in 2012, Bruneian lawyer Colin Ong notes: '

Tax advantages and incentives are comparable if not better than those offered by other countries in the region. For example, no personal income, capital gains, export, sales or payroll tax is imposed in Brunei Darussalam. 

Beat that, Mr Hockey.

If you obtain permanent residency and reach the ripe old age of 55, you'll get a nice pension. And regardless of age, there are plenty of other benefits. According to Hjh Rahmah Hj Md Said, deputy permanent secretary (professional and technical) at the Bruneian Ministry of Health, Brunei has universal healthcare coverage. She told delegates at a health forum hosted by the Asia Inc Forum in 2012 that men in Brunei had an average life expectancy of 75.5, only 18 months below that of Australian men.

Little wonder Brunei calls itself ''Darussalam'' (Abode of Peace). Bruneians are healthy and rich. The Sultan of Brunei, whose easy-to-remember name is Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien, has a fair bit of wealth including a private Boeing 747 and a luxury car fleet that would make John Laws extremely jealous. The sultan is surrounded by more female ministers than Tony Abbott.

Among them is the Bruneian attorney-general, known impressively as Yang Berhormat Datin Seri Paduka Hjh Hayati Pehin Orang Kaya Shahbandar Dato Seri Paduka Hj Mohd Salleh. She'll be responsible for overseeing implementation of the Shariah Penal Code Order 2013 that introduces draconian punishments for certain crimes, and applies only to Muslims. It won't apply to most Australian economic refugees. Unlike us, Bruneians don't treat economic refugees harshly.

The usual bleeding heart ABC/Fairfax types would have you believe that Brunei's tough-on-crime policies will make it an ayatollah's paradise and a living hell for anyone engaging in such innocent pastimes as having consensual sex (or less innocent acts of murder, stealing and rape). As if all sharia-based jurisdictions only concern themselves with penal sanctions, where citizens can be seen walking the streets limbless and/or headless (but certainly not legless unless they desire a good flogging).

One article for The Diplomat carried the misleading headline ''Brunei Imposes Sharia Law''. But as Dr Ong notes, Brunei has had parallel common law and sharia law systems in non-criminal jurisdictions for years. Sharia courts have

.. limited exclusive jurisdiction to hear matters of personal law relating to persons that belong to the Islamic faith on matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, maintenance of dependants and the estates of deceased Muslims. 

Dr Ong also mentions increasing use of sharia-based financial instruments. It isn't just all chopping and changing. This is hardly new. As far back as 1870, an English translation of the classic 12th century Islamic legal text al-Hedaya (“the Guide”) was commissioned by the Governor-General and Council of Bengal. It was a compulsory text in English law schools for those seeking to practise in colonial India. The British understood that their common law system was strong and flexible enough to accommodate Islamic (and Hindu) legal traditions in limited areas.

For 14 centuries, Muslim jurists have been borrowing from Roman, Judaic and other legal traditions. What passes as sharia today is really the illegitimate child of centuries of fornication between different legal traditions.

Speaking of fornication, it's impossible to be prosecuted for ''zina'' under the Sharia Penal Code if four witnesses to the actual copulation cannot be found. So no swingers' parties in Brunei, thanks very much. And Anwar Ibrahim's sodomy prosecution would be thrown out of court.

However, we should be concerned about the implementation of such punishments in any country. We know such punishments exist across south-east Asia for a range of crimes, including drug trafficking.

But unfortunately we in the West are no longer in a position to lecture others about human rights and capital punishment. We look somewhat silly lecturing brown-skinned Bruneians while happily participating with white-skinned Brits and Americans in wars that often involve the worst human rights atrocities. Our condescension may force Muslims to say that there is more to their faith than stonings and beheadings. But is there more to our allegedly liberal ideals than torture in secret prisons and indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo? Can we claim to be more free when, in the leader of the free world, 32 states and the US military and government all provide for the death penalty?

Indeed, where would Clayton Lockett prefer to be executed – Oklahoma or Brunei?

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Citizenship & Globalisation at Deakin University.

Friday, May 30, 2014

OPINION: Aussies doing their best to upset key neighbour

Abbott's emphasis on the 'Anglosphere' as the focus of Oz's foreign policy confirmed suspicions that Australia saw itself as a Western colonial outpost in the Asia-Pacific. 

Indonesia has withdrawn its ambassador from Canberra following revelations that Australian intelligence operatives bugged the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), his wife and a number of senior ministers in August 2009. Details have only been released recently by the Guardian newspaper and Australia's public broadcaster ABC. It was part of the intelligence information revealed by Edward Snowden, former contractor to America's NSA.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is publicly downplaying the issue. But surely he knows just what a huge diplomatic disaster this is. Indonesia is Australia's closest neighbour, and two-way trade between the two countries last year amounted to A$15 billion ($16.9 billion). In Parliament, Abbott some days back described Indonesia as an "emerging democratic superpower in Asia" (perhaps distinguishing Indonesia from the not-so-democratic China). Abbott also described SBY as "one of the best friends that we have anywhere in the world".

Abbott's stated respect for Indonesia has not, however, been reflected in Australia's recent dealings involving asylum seekers which have largely been driven by partisan domestic political considerations. The Abbott asylum policy, reflected in the simplistic formula of "stop the boats", could only ever work with the co-operation of Indonesia.

The policy is being treated as a military operation, as if 50 dishevelled asylum seekers on a boat somehow represent a security threat requiring a 3-star general. The secretive implementation of this policy, with the Immigration Minister and the general providing vague weekly briefings to journalists, reached such heights of stupidity that Australian journalists found more information about the policy from their Indonesian colleagues at the Jakarta Post than from their own Government.

Time and again, Indonesian officials expressed frustration with Australia's unilateral approach to the issue of asylum seekers which affected both countries. Abbott's policy included the Australian Navy turning back tiny fishing boats carrying asylum seekers "when it is safe to do so". The fishing boats would then return to Indonesia. Abbott insisted that Indonesia would co-operate, ignoring Indonesian concerns about both the human rights implications and of the immense social pressures this would have on the more crowded and poorer nation.

It was as if Indonesia was at Australia's beck and call. Tony Abbott's emphasis on the "Anglosphere" as the focus of Australia's foreign policy confirmed commonly held Asian suspicions that Australia saw itself as a Western colonial outpost in the Asia-Pacific region, as the deputy sheriff of the United States.

Australian politicians of all political stripes are so focused on the West that they forget their own geographical location. Understanding of Asian cultures in Australia is poor. Indonesian language instruction, once a primary feature in Australian secondary schools, has all but disappeared. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does an excellent job running cultural and other exchange programmes, but these are to build person to person contacts, not replace the bilateral policy process.

Some in Jakarta are quite happy to attack Tony Abbott's domestic standing by undermining his efforts to stop the boats. At the time of writing, a member of the House of Representatives' Commission on defence, foreign affairs and information had told the Jakarta Post:

We are in a better position than Australia. This issue [boat people] could be utilised as a bargaining chip in demanding an apology from Prime Minister Abbott. 

Abbott's response has been to virtually scoff at any suggestion of an apology.

Every government gathers information and every government knows every other government gathers information. 

True, but not everyone gets caught. When it comes to such spying methods, Indonesia is hardly in a position to cast the first stone. As News Limited points out:

When he retired in 2004 Indonesian spymaster General Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono revealed his agency had not only tapped Australian civil and military communications and politicians' phone calls during the 1999 East Timor crisis, but had also unsuccessfully attempted to recruit Australian officials as double agents.

The official Australian response at the time was muted.

All this fracas coincides with a visit to Jakarta by Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Indonesians don't exactly have fond memories of Dutch colonisation which began in the 16th century. Following Japanese occupation during World War II, Dutch forces attempted to re-establish colonial rule. Most Western countries supported Dutch claims. Australia's Labor government under Prime Minister Ben Chifley openly supported the nascent Indonesian nationalist movement.

Why did Australian leaders at the time support Indonesia, even going to the extent of criticising their closest ally, the US, for supplying material and moral aid to Dutch forces in the archipelago? Simply because Australia realised that its security and its national interest lay in an independent, strong and proud neighbour. Indonesian independence reinforced Australian independence.

There are still some in Canberra who see Indonesia as a potential threat. Which is all the more reason to keep Indonesia on side. You keep your friends close and your potential enemies closer.

• Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer and an award-winning Australian author. This article was first published in the NZ Herald on Friday 22 November 2013.

Stupid Australian tourist.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

OPINION: At least God has the Commonwealth on His side

There was a time when the Liberal Party stood for the "forgotten people", the people who didn't have a union or truckloads of cash and capital to back them up. Vulnerable individuals.
The 2014 budget hasn't given young and future voters much to cheer about. A swag of youth-related programs have been slashed, especially in regional areas. Often these are places where businesses are shutting doors, where workers are being laid off and where the only jobs available often involve flipping burgers in return for a few dollars.

And if you are unlucky or too depressed to do this kind of work, you may find yourself with no income source for six months. Apart from your parents, that is. Conservatives are all about family values, you know.

You might choose to study. No upfront fees! What a bargain! And enough debt to make getting married, having babies and putting a roof over their head almost impossible.

There was a time when the Liberal Party stood for the "forgotten people", the people who didn't have a union or truckloads of cash and capital to back them up. Vulnerable individuals.

But that seems like ancient history today. There are plenty of vulnerable individuals today, especially with union membership falling. But instead of providing opportunity, modern Australian liberalism is all about kicking vulnerable individuals in the guts.

So to whom can young vulnerable individuals turn? What should they do? Jostle a few past and present female MPs? Hold placards upside down on national TV?

Hiding in the detail of Joe Hockey's 2014 budget is a clue. Young people could do with a dose of good old-fashioned religion. An injection of taxpayer funds to empower God is what's called for.

John Howard injected $90 million into a pastoral care scheme. Howard knew public school teachers were spending too much time sorting out the great unwashed kids whose parents were too selfish to invest in decent grammar school education. Too much money for beer and cigarettes, and not enough for chapel, Latin classes and rugby.

Money for wealthy public schools also got shared among the poor struggling private schools. The result was that all schools could claim funding under the National School Chaplaincy Programme.

The scheme was a huge success. By July 2011, a 28 per cent of state schools had taken the dosh. Writing in Inside Story on July 21, 2011, Monica Thielking and David Mackenzie noted:

The initiative had its critics, but generally the education sector welcomed the additional resources.

Also happy were the chaplaincy providers, most of whom were faith-based. Here was a chance to spread the word.

One spokeswoman from ACCESS Ministries was quoted saying:

[I]n Australia we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel. Our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples.

This missionary zeal was nothing new. Back in the 1980s my school was making us year 10 boys spend one hour each week for an entire term being indoctrinated by Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?.

This series of videos presented the European Enlightenment as an atheistic tragedy, the French Revolution as a series of guillotines (OK, he got that one right) and modern "secular humanism" as responsible for everything from the Holocaust to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Schaeffer's solution? Bring God back into public life, into the public square, into government. Spoon-fed theocracy. That's where my parents' school fees went.

Seriously, though, the chaplaincy scheme is a good idea so long as governments recognised that not everyone believes that the Son of God was sent to die for our sins. And that some youth problems are too tough even for prayer.

The very hint of the Commonwealth funding direct preaching in schools (even if this isn't generally the reality) doesn't sit well with voters. Even if Chris Pyne and Tony Abbott scream until the Christ comes home that states and territories are funding less godly counsellors and psychologists.

Which is exactly what is happening. An extra $245 million has been found in the budget for the chaplaincy program. But schools don't have the option of having a not-so-religious social worker to fill the role.

When it comes to our kids' pastoral needs, at least God has the Commonwealth on His side. But not in other areas of school life.

Chris Pyne has already indicated he wants a reviewed curriculum for schools which puts emphasis on Anzac Day and our Western civilisation. God's children mustn't be pacifist and certainly mustn't have a black-armband view of the past, even if His son was a Palestinian Jew.

The culture wars are alive and well in our schools. God help our kids.

Irfan Yusuf is an author and PhD candidate at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on Saturday 24 May 2014.

Friday, December 06, 2013

IMAGES: Taiwanese religion

Images from the ancient city of Tainan located on the southern end of the island.

Monday, November 18, 2013

OPINION: Coalition's change to racial vilification laws kowtows to media mates

Political conservatism is such a wonderful thing. The status quo is worth maintaining because it obviously works. If it didn't, people wouldn't allow it to remain the status quo. But if you find the status quo doesn't work, change it gradually. It recognises that the populace are human beings not accustomed to radical change. Evolution always makes more sense than revolution, unless your preference is the rule of guillotines.

Since 1975, the Commonwealth has had in place the Racial Vilification Act, which seeks to implement our international legal obligations including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Twenty years later, the act was amended to introduce provisions on racial hatred.

These provisions, contained in Section 18C, make it unlawful for someone to publicly do something that is reasonably likely to offend, assault, humiliate or intimidate someone or a group. Now it isn't just any action that could be unlawful. It must be an action that is done because of the other person or group's race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

The provision makes such an action unlawful but not necessarily a criminal offence. An offended party or group must first make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, which will then try to conciliate the matter.
The provisions were passed with the support of the Keating government and the Howard-led opposition. Tony Abbott sat in the same Parliament.

In its 2008-09 publication Federal Discrimination Law, the body we now know of as the Human Rights Commission stated: ''Racial hatred provisions were introduced into the RDA in 1995.

''The majority of cases decided under the RDA in recent years have involved consideration of those provisions.''

In other words, Section 18C has represented the vast majority of cases decided by the Federal and other courts. This in itself is not a bad thing. Judicial decisions make up a fair chunk of our common-law system.

So what is the purpose of such, or indeed, of any law? During his first speech on August 14, 2000, Senator George Brandis spoke of the importance of civil and other liberties. ''It follows from what I have said that the first duty of any government is to protect the liberty of the citizen to choose his own ends - and that includes protecting the liberty of the citizen from government itself.''

But as a relatively ''wet'' or ''small-l'' liberal, Brandis emphasised that ''of all the obligations of government, perhaps the most fundamental is this - the obligation to protect the weak from the strong''. No doubt this is exactly what parliamentarians at the time had in mind. The legislative consensus was that individuals and groups can be, and often are, subject to vilification by the more powerful. Such vilification has real effects on the lives of real people.

This begs the question as to why the provision has all of a sudden become known as the ''Andrew Bolt law'' and why it is all of a sudden so contentious?

 When it comes to the strong versus weak binary, Bolt was hardly in the category of the latter. He is the main columnist of the most widely read newspaper in the country. He has a TV show which, despite poor ratings, still commands a bigger audience than all the allegedly ''white'' Aboriginal complainants in the Bolt case combined. He has the ear of Coalition parties.

On December 7, 2009, Bolt blogged: ''Our traffic last month smashed all our previous records. The blog registered more than 2 million page impressions from more than 300,000 unique browsers.''

In the rare event Bolt's writings land him in a spot of legal bother, he has the benefit of in-house lawyers and external counsel all paid for by Rupert Murdoch.

The existence of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act hasn't stopped Bolt from vilifying Africans, refugees, Muslims, Lebanese and other groups. Nor has it stopped the moderators of his blogs from publishing violent, paranoid, racist and even genocidal remarks.

Yet now, for the benefit of Bolt and his employers, Brandis is prepared to abandon his own principles, allowing Bolt to use his substantial power to trample on the weak and vilify minorities.

On May 7 this year, Brandis asked an audience at Gerard Henderson's Sydney Institute: ''Who defends freedom of speech in Australia today? Is it really to be left to a few conservative commentators like Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen; a couple of think tanks like the Sydney Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs; and the Liberal Party?''

Perhaps a better question to ask would have been: Why should an allegedly conservative government introduce revolutionary legal measures to protect the ''right'' of powerful columnists and shock jocks to abuse their freedom of speech to vilify others?

Sadly, this is nothing new. Readers may recall the adverse 2007 report of the Australian Communications and Media Authority about Alan Jones. ACMA's 80-page report had criticised Jones' broadcasts in the days leading up to the 2005 Cronulla riots.

What was the Coalition government's response? Then-communications minister Helen Coonan effectively threatened to gag the independent watchdog she appointed. Coonan, a former barrister like Brandis, said: ''Alan Jones has made an indelible mark on broadcasting during his long and outstanding career and I encourage the industry to address any concerns that they might have with the current code with a review to ensure it best reflects community standards.''

So if your buddies in the media fall foul of the law, no worries. Just change the law.

It doesn't sound like responsible, let alone conservative or liberal, government to me.
  • Irfan Yusuf is a lawyer, author and former Liberal candidate. First published in the Canberra Times on 18 November 2013.

Friday, November 08, 2013

CRIKEY: Should freedom of speech extend to God? A blasphemous debate

Federal Attorney-General George Brandis SC wants to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to make it harder for people to make a legal complaint about race hate speech. The provision was introduced in 1996 during the last days of Paul Keating and with the full support of then-opposition leader John Howard.

When in opposition and during a speech to the Sydney Institute on May 7, Brandis proclaimed: “Who defends freedom of speech in Australia today? Is it really to be left to a few conservative commentators like Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen; a couple of think tanks like the Sydney Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs; and the Liberal Party?”

But at an IQ2 debate in Sydney last night, St James Ethics Centre executive director Simon Longstaff reminded us of another area of free speech that needs protection: insulting and lampooning religion and religious figures is still a criminal offence in most Australian states and territories. Laws allowing prosecution for blasphemy still exist in 21st century Australia, though under the common law such laws only protect the sentiments of Christians.

True, like the laws used to prosecute Andrew Bolt, blasphemy laws are hardly ever used. You’d think that the mere possibility of blasphemy laws being enforceable would be something for Brandis to immediately address. But then that would take away the chance for Tony Abbott’s favourite priest to seek injunctions against art galleries.

Longstaff chaired a debate entitled “God and his prophets (or his prophets for the less devout) should be protected from insult”. Malaysian Opposition Leader and former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim was supposed to speak in favour of the motion, but he had to pull out at the last minute after prosecutors decided to appeal the quashing of his conviction under Malaysia’s medieval sodomy laws.

Julian Burnside QC was a last-minute replacement for Anwar. Joining him on the affirmative team was Uthman Badar, a PhD student in economics from the University of Western Sydney and a man whose freedom of speech our erstwhile government wants to take away by banning Hizb ut-Tahrir (“the Party of Liberation”), the organisation Badar represents in Australia. On the negative side was engineer Yasmin Abdel Magied and the awesome Thomas Keneally.

Believe it or not, the affirmative were not arguing that blasphemy should be an offence. They weren’t interested in using the law. Their focus was on what should be socially acceptable. Badar argued the starting point of any discussion on this topic should not be free speech — which he claimed was not a universal value but rather an ideological fetish often used by Western pseudo-liberals to brandish those regarded as inferior. Instead, the starting point should be civility. Unless you are rude and depraved, you don’t go out of your way to insult others. All too often freedom of speech is not about freedom of expression but rather the freedom of the powerful to offend others and incite discord.

Badar argued that, in Australia, Jesus is fair game but not the Anzacs. When you insult someone by attacking things they hold dear, you aren’t just screwing social cohesion; you’re also making a fool of yourself by projecting your own insecurities. Rupert Murdoch must be paying Bolt top dollar to go through all that.

Badar’s argument appeared sound enough, but it missed the point. The topic was about protecting G/god and H/his P/prophets. Yasmin Abdel Maguid pounced on this weakness by asking how pathetic creatures like us could protect so mighty and perfect a creator. And she argued that how you respond to an insult is really up to you. Free speech and religion must never be seen as mutually exclusive. None of the prophets (including Muhammad) insisted on protection from insult.

Burnside cited one of his law lecturers: “Your freedom to swing your fist stops at my nose.” My humble criminal law lecturer at Macquarie Law School would have argued that punching someone in the nose was not just a matter of offence. Burnside also spoke about anonymous letters he received which offended him, even though they were directed at Muslims. The same letter writer would claim Muslim extremists supported the ALP.

In response, Keneally argued that one man’s criticism is another man’s insult. OK, I admit there was more to the arguments of both Burnside and Keneally than that. They both argued that Muslims and other minorities needed protection from collective insults. But I wondered whether they were both underestimating the ability of minorities to form alliances and take the fight to the bigots. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic.

Plus I have to wonder what is more offensive — a 12-minute amateurish YouTube clip, or Murdoch claiming Muslims have lower intelligence because they marry their cousins? And should I be offended? Or should I just laugh it off as the idiocy of one businessman and not reflective of the editorial line of his powerful newspapers?

Around 80% of the audience supported the negative argument. I’m not sure how God voted, but then I couldn’t see Him anywhere amongst the crowd.

Monday, October 21, 2013

OPINION: Even cynics can't deny bravery

Claims among dubious Pakistanis that Malala Yusufzai is now Western puppet ignore her ongoing heroism. 

Malala Yusufzai hails from the Swat Valley, a region known as the Switzerland of Pakistan and once a popular destination for middle class Pakistani holiday makers and international tourists. Swat is home to ethnically Pushtun people known for their conservative cultural and religious mores but also for their hospitality. Washington Post correspondent Pamela Constable notes in her book Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself that ambitious Swati Pushtuns "fled to construction jobs in the Middle East; those who stayed behind were described as dreamy and tolerant".

Malala (also pronounced Malalai) is a common name for girls in these parts. It was the name of a famous heroine who spent her wedding day on the battlefield tending to the wounded men of her tribe who fought the British forces at the Battle of Maiwind in July 1880. With no one left to raise the flag, she grabbed it and sang a few couplets of freedom before being struck down by British troops. Spurred on by her bravery, the men made a final assault and defeated the British foe.

That heroic Malala rated no mention in British war chronicles, but she became a heroine for her people. 

Now things have gone into reverse. Hardly a year has passed since a modern Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman who boarded her school bus. Far from being silent about her, the British press can't seem to get enough of Malala. She now lives in the relative safety of Birmingham where she attends an exclusive school and has even been invited for tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Back home, there has also been a fair amount of adulation, though mixed with strong feelings of resentment toward her Western admirers if not ambivalence toward Malala. Some Pakistanis claim the awards and accolades she has received represent a betrayal of innocent people killed by American drone attacks which have claimed the lives of more than 1000 Pakistani civilians. The West chooses to ignore (and hence implicitly applaud) these deaths as part of the so-called war on terror. Pakistanis read Western newspapers and websites, and can see Malala giving Western rightwing cultural warriors and leftwing do-gooders a new symbol with which to belittle Pakistan.

Prominent Western voices have in years past used a similar fetish to "rescue" non-white Muslim women. In her 2005 scholarly essay The war on terror and the "rescue" of Muslim women, Melbourne academic Dr Shakira Hussein mentions how in the lead-up to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair (the respective wives of then US President and the British Prime Minister) both used the suffering of Afghan women to justify war. The United States and its allies initially removed the Taliban from power but at the same time allowed its own tribal Northern Alliance allies in Afghanistan to carry out similar, if not identical, forms of gendered oppression. To avenge the deaths of 9/11 victims, a greater number of Afghan victims (including women) were killed.

Given Western ambivalence toward the plight of many Afghans and Pakistanis at the hands of formerly Western backed terrorists and dictators, it's natural they might be a little suspicious of a situation where a young Pakistani girl is plucked out of obscurity by the West. In their eyes, she isn't the first Pakistani to be shot in the head by terrorists, and no matter how much one hates to say this, she probably won't be the last. But now she and her family live in relative safety. Hundreds of other Taliban victims and their families aren't so lucky. Their poverty-stricken voices aren't heard by the over-nourished West, nor are they nominated for international awards. God knows how they'd be treated if in desperation they boarded a rickety boat and headed for Australia.

But one can't help detect a certain conspiratorial tone from some Pakistani cynics. As if a 16-year-old is part of a Western plot to somehow destabilise Pakistan and ruin its image. It takes some guts for a girl who has survived being shot in the head to then visit the White House and tell the world's most powerful man to stop bombing her country. Yet this is what Malala Yusufzai intends to do. It is a task even Pakistan's leaders have failed to take up. Indeed for every finger pointed at Malala, surely three must point right back at Pakistan. Middle class Pakistani critics who emulate Western culture but resent a poor Pushtun girl being congratulated for her bravery should remember that.

As always, such conspiracies are egged on by Pakistan's neighbours. Pakistan's Dawn newspaper recently published a column by Nadeem Paracha which claimed Malala's real name was Jane, that she was the daughter of Hungarian Christian missionaries and that she was left with a Pakistani couple as a gift after they secretly converted to Christianity. The article was picked up as serious news by the allegedly serious Iranian Press TV news agency. It seems some in Iran's official media circles don't recognise Pakistani satire when they see it.

So what is the meaning of Malala? She is a symbol of Pakistani girls just seeking their God-given right to an education. The Prophet Muhammad insisted women and men seek knowledge, but God only knows which prophet the Taliban are following. How ironic that by almost snatching away her life, the Taliban have given her life genuine purpose and her nation's women greater stature. No amount of Pakistani or Western hypocrisy will take that away.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer. First published in the New Zealand Herald on Wednesday 16 October 2013.