Is this Nobel? Pointing out Malala, Satyarthi's religion

The Nobel Peace Prize has a history of being jointly awarded to people from nations locked in conflict, but never has such stress been laid on the religious identity of the recipients. Does Malala and Satyarthi's faith matter?
Updated on Oct 15, 2014 01:08 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

When Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week, Pakistan got its second Nobel laureate and India its eighth. The two countries, locked in dispute since 1947, were symbolically bonded by the award in a time of cross-border firing and retaliation.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Malala and Satyarthi were awarded because of their "struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education. Children must go to school and not be financially exploited".

The same statement stated, "The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism."

"… a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani"!

The Nobel Peace Prize has a history of being jointly awarded to people from nations locked in conflict, but never has such stress been laid on the religious identity of the recipients.

When the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize was shared by Yasser Arafat (the Palestinian leader), Shimon Peres (the then Israeli foreign minister, and President of Israel from 2007 to 2014) and Yitzhak Rabin (the then Prime Minster of Israel), there was no categorical mention of the religion they professed.

They were two Israelis and a Palestinian working towards peace in the region.

Same was the case in 1978 when the prize was awarded to Anwar al-Sadat, the then President of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, the then Prime Minister of Israel. Also, the religious beliefs of neither Henry Kissinger, the American diplomat, nor Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese revolutionary and politician, were highlighted by the Nobel Committee while awarding the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

On the pronouncement of the religions of the awardees by the Nobel Committee, the Economic Times said, "If being Hindu or Muslim mattered in opposing this backwardness [oppression of children], Einstein's Jewishness should be relevant in his formulation of the theory of relativity, and Ronald Ross' Christian devotion, in his identification of the mosquito as the vector carrying malaria."

While many journalists have referred to this profiling as a clear indication of the broader statements that the prize meant to make - "a highly symbolic push to end a decades-old rivalry between the nuclear-armed nations", as the Hindustan Times noted, some like senior journalist Shekhar Gupta, took a contrary view.

Gupta tweeted, "Great choice on #NobelPeacePrize but why that "Hindu-Muslim" line? Gratuitous, silly profiling of subcontinent. What if Kailash was a Muslim?"

Indeed, though the political significance of mentioning the nationalities of the two laureates is quite understandable in the larger perspective of international relations and foreign policy issues, the purpose of the religious profiling is unclear.

How does the disclosure that the laureate from India is a follower of Hinduism make any difference? Satyarthi is an indomitable campaigner for child rights - pushing for their education and fighting against child trafficking and bonded labour. He has never fought under the banner of a religious organisation, nor has his religious affiliation, whatsoever it is, ever meddled with his social work.

Journalist Ellen Barry reports in the New York Times that right from his formative years, Satyarthi had taken to Marxism. Marxism and religion are not known to go hand in hand.

Moreover, India is a secular nation with around 14% Muslims (2001 census), which is almost equal to the Muslim population in Pakistan, according to the demographic study by the Pew Research Centre.

In the same way, profiling Malala as a 'Muslim from Pakistan' somehow appears to be a rather myopic description of the valiant girl.

According to findings by the UNESCO, girls make up the majority of the world's 61 million out-of-school children and they are less likely than boys to enter primary school.

The UNESCO also notes, "Women represent two thirds of the world's 775 million illiterates. Despite making breakthroughs in higher education, women still account for just 29 per cent of researchers."

Thus, the cause of women's right to education, which Malala champions, is of paramount importance, irrespective of her religious and even regional identity. Misogynistic trends are evident in many a strain of religious fundamentalism and women's issues haven take a back seat in many government policies - Malala stands against all of that, and not merely the oppression by Islamic fundamentalists in the Swat Valley.

The Nobel Committee's declaration stressing on the religious identities might be a reflection of how the Western narrative of the sub-continent goes.

"It is a reflection of the way some well-meaning but largely ignorant people in the West see us - the colonial notion of 'two nations', Hindu and Muslim," says novelist and poet Tabish Khair, who teaches English literature at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

"They are not very conscious of it, but it is there at the back of their view of us, and it has a long colonial history. Hence, they highlight it unintentionally at times."

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