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Associated Press
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls, celebrated her 16th birthday last week addressing the United Nations.

A jihad to spread FREEDOM

Young people in Islamic nations shaping debate

A month ago, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked whether the Taliban is a terrorist organization. The question appeared to stump her. ”Well, I’m not sure how they are defined at this particular moment,” she told reporters.

So how refreshing was it to hear Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani girl, speaking from a U.N. podium last week, unequivocally and forthrightly denouncing the Taliban as terrorist and, for good measure, calling into question the courage and intelligence of its members?

“They are afraid of women,” she said. “And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist, ‘Why are the Taliban against education?’ He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said, ‘A Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book.’ ”

It was a Talib, you’ll recall, who last year shot Yousafzai in the head as she was riding a bus home from school in northwest Pakistan. She barely survived, and then endured surgery and months of hospitalization and recovery. A Taliban spokesman called the attack “a warning to all youngsters in the area that they would be targeted if they followed her example.”

Members of the Taliban oppose education for girls based on their reading of Islamic scripture. Yousafzai rejects such fundamentalism, as she made clear in her U.N. remarks. Indeed, she went out of her way to provoke Salafi Muslims – those who seek to replicate Islam as it existed in the seventh century – by saying she had learned “compassion” from “Mohammed, the prophet of mercy,” then immediately noting that she had been inspired also by “Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha,” as well as Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

The last of these figures was the founding father of Pakistan, a man of moderation and tolerance. Four years ago, lecturing on terrorism at a university in Karachi, I asked the audience whether Pakistanis still aspire to build the kind of nation Jinnah envisioned. One student threw his shoe at me. (Others apologized for his behavior.)

Yousafzai concluded her remarks with a call for “a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” not quite the struggle – “jihad” would be the Arabic word – the Taliban has in mind.

Nor should we expect Yousafzai to be praised by Sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood preacher featured on Al Jazeera, the TV station owned by Qatar’s rulers.

Qaradawi has called for the killing of Americans in Iraq. He promotes suicide bombings against Israelis. Most recently, he issued a fatwa declaring the Egyptian military’s removal of President Mohammed Morsi a violation of sharia, Islamic law.

Here’s where it gets interesting: The sheikh’s 42-year-old-son, Abd Al-Rahman Al-Qaradawi, published a response in an Egyptian newspaper titled, “Sorry, Father, Morsi Has No Legitimacy.”

Calling himself a “revolutionary” who went to Tahrir Square in 2011 to oppose the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, and then again last month to oppose the authoritarianism of Morsi, he wrote: “I did not engage in demanding to implement the shari’a, and I did not think I had the right to impose the shari’a on anyone. Moreover, I engaged in encouraging the people to be free men, since freedom and shari’a are equal in my eyes ... It is time for this nation to complete the difficult (mission) and separate religion and state, so that we know when the ones who are speaking are clerics or statesmen!”

Don’t misunderstand: I am neither inferring nor implying that young Qaradawi is a Jeffersonian democrat. I am suggesting that a less predictable, more provocative and perhaps even productive debate may be beginning to take shape in the Middle East.

Which brings me to a video that has gone viral – an interview with Ali Ahmed, a 12-year-old Egyptian, who explains succinctly why millions of his countrymen have refused to do as the Muslim Brotherhood commands. “We didn’t get rid of a military regime to replace it with a fascist theocracy,” he says. The puzzled interviewer asks him to define that term. He does so without skipping a beat: “A fascist theocracy is when you manipulate the religion and enforce extremist regulations in the name of religion – even though the religion doesn’t command that.” He adds that women “are half of the society. How come there are only seven ladies in the Constituent Assembly, six of whom are Islamists?”

Wouldn’t you like to hear this young man also speaking at the U.N.? Wouldn’t you like to hire him as a State Department spokesman?

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security. He wrote this for Scripps Howard News Service.