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Global hero, local lightning rod? Why Malala's Nobel rankles many Pakistanis (+video)

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani education advocate shot by the Taliban, is the co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. In Pakistan, TV coverage quickly shifted to domestic politics, and conspiracy theories abounded.

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    Malala Yousafzai listens as Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust introduces her to reporters at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass on Sept. 27, 2013. Children's rights activists Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India have won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
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Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for education and peace, has won the Nobel Peace Prize almost exactly two years after the Pakistani Taliban attempted to assassinate her. 

Malala was jointly awarded the prize with Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said on Friday.

At 17, Malala is the youngest Nobel Laureate in the prize’s history. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulated her and called her the “pride of Pakistan.”

Despite the global attention, the young education advocate is often ridiculed rather than praised in her home country. Over the past two years, right-wing activists and conspiracy theorists have flooded social networking websites with allegations against Malala, accusing her of everything from working for the CIA to faking her injuries and defaming Pakistan.

Reaction to Friday's prize was largely congratulatory on Pakistani television networks, though coverage was limited and quickly shifted to reports on the ongoing political protests led by opposition leader Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul Qadri.

“How did she win a peace award? I don’t understand this. She is a traitor to Pakistan and to Islam," says Umair Khan, a Karachi shopkeeper. "She has ridiculed the way people used to live under shariah law 800 years ago. She is 99.9 percent a CIA agent. Her entire story is based on lies.”

Conspiracy and criticism 

Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize exactly two years and a day after gunmen stopped her school van in Pakistan's Swat Valley on Oct. 9, 2012 and asked for her before they began firing. The Pakistani Taliban accused her of carrying out a ‘"smear campaign" against the group. 

Malala came to prominence after writing an anonymous diary for the BBC on living in Swat and going to school while the Pakistani Taliban waged an insurgency in the region. She was the subject of a New York Times video feature, and was given an award by the Pakistani government after she went public about her role and became an advocate for education in late 2009. 

Conspiracy theories about Malala have circulated for several years, even before she was targeted by the Taliban. In 2010, Malala attended an event with Richard Holbrooke, then the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which sparked many conspiracy rumors that she was being used by the United States government. 

The US is viewed favorably by 14 percent of Pakistanis, according to a 2014 Pew Research Global Attitudes poll. Over the past decade, favorable views of the US peaked at 27 percent in 2006. 

Criticism exploded in the wake of the assassination attempt in 2012. Opponents accused her of faking her injuries to gain sympathy abroad, akin to when former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2005 accused women of claiming they were rape victims in order to get visas from Canada. 

Anger against Malala has grown since her memoir was published, with right-wing columnists taking offense at her mentioning the country’s controversial blasphemy laws in her book. Under Pakistan law, speaking blasphemously against the prophet Muhammad is a capital offense. 

One school association in Malala's home province said in January that they would ban the book. 

'She is a positive influence'

Some in Pakistan do support the teenage activist. “Malala has struggled at such a young age. This award should be a matter of pride for us in Pakistan. She is a positive influence on other children," says Kulsoom Fazal, who runs a beauty salon in Karachi.

Mosharraf Zaidi, the campaign director for Alif Ailaan, a political campaign to improve education in Pakistan, is proud of Malala's win, calling it an "amazing moment for Pakistan, for Pakistani girls." Pakistan has the second-highest number of children out of school in the world, according to European Parliament research, and the enrollment rate for girls in primary schools in Pakistan is 54 percent

But Mr. Zaidi is downcast about the impact of the award. "It could be an amazing moment for education but it won’t be because a country that lets Malala happen isn’t going to be moved to action because she won the Nobel prize," he says. "My fear is that it’s going to complicate the narrative because our insecurities as a nation are actually going to be further aggravated by this."

In 2013, Malala told the United Nations that the militants who shot her and her friends "thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed."

And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

Malala is the second Pakistani to win a Nobel Prize. The first, Dr. Abdus Salam, was a theoretical physicist and one of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979, whose work contributed to the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. His achievements are rarely mentioned in Pakistan because of Dr. Salam’s faith: he was a member of the minority Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, which is considered heretical. His tombstone was defaced to remove the word Muslim from it.

Malala and Salam now have this much in common: despite a love for their country, and the Nobel honor, their names are a subject of controversy and contention at home.

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