Here is what Malala Yousafzai said on her 16th birthday while addressing a youth conference at the U.N. "Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first."
For those of you not familiar with Malala, this was the 16th birthday that she was not supposed to have. This was the 16th birthday the Taliban did their best to take from her by climbing onto her school bus and shooting her at point blank range in the head. So she probably has more credibility than the rest of us in declaring the power of knowledge and education.
Given what Malala represents, and the steps taken by the Taliban in Pakistan to silence her, I'm not sure what her future holds. If she lives and escapes the inevitable future attempts on her life by people frightened at the thought of educated women, she will surely be a leader of her people and the world. She's already done more than most of us will do in our lifetime.
As I watched this young lady I wondered what I would have done if angry men with guns had climbed on my school bus, pressed a gun into my face and shot me. I'm pretty sure you would not have found me at the U.N. openly defying those who pulled the trigger. I more likely would be hiding in a safe room somewhere shaking every time I heard a pin drop.
Clearly this young woman has a vision and courage that comes along only very rarely in this world. Her passion is seeing that everyone has a chance to make a better life for themselves, to make choices freely and without fear, to be allowed to read and write with joy and abandon. That may not sound like much to those of us lucky enough to live in a place where women are viewed as men's equals, but for a girl who lives in a country where masked men shoot you because you're a girl who wants to learn how to read, her passions are truly radical.
I have often thought that if the Gods described in the great religious books of this world do exist, at some point they are going to come back and announce in very large, loud voices that they would appreciate it if people would stop killing in their names. They would further announce that they didn't care for the fanatical reinterpretation of writings they'd provided to humankind to help it advance out of ignorance and into the light.
Fundamentalists of all stripes take what they want from their sacred books and ignore the rest. Then they interpret what they've isolated from their sacred scripts and come up with some of the most absurd and idiotic statements ever uttered about what their god or prophet meant. Their readings of these scripts usually highlights their ignorance more than enlightening the text.
I'm not sure what it is about the thought of women becoming literate and educated that scares Muslim extremists. Do they think they won't ever get laid again if women become smart enough to see what losers they are? Do they fear that with education will come power and women will no longer be willing to spend their lives behind closed doors wearing tents that turns them into ghosts? Are they so afraid of the Malala's of this world that shooting unarmed young girls is viewed as an honorable act?
Malala was right. Education will illuminate the darkness of ignorance and prejudice. It won't make them go away, we know that from what we see in our own country. But it will give voice to the half of humanity that has been silenced for far too long. And when those women find their voices, the Taliban and its brethren have every reason to be very nervous about what they will say.
Respect for religion, yes. Respect for God, Allah or Yahweh, yes. Respect for ignorance, hate, intolerance and violence towards half of humanity for trying to read, never. Shining the light of knowledge on darkness makes the slimy creatures that thrive in that darkness scatter in confusion and die. It's ultimately much more effective than bullets.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Website, www.elisepatkotak.com.