‘There is hope’: Malala Yousafzai promotes tolerance, connection with new documentary

The World
Malala Yousafzai pointing at a poster advertisement of her documentary, "Stranger at the Gate."

The Oscar-nominated “Stranger at the Gate” is a short documentary about a former US marine who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and sets out to bomb a mosque in Muncie, Indiana.

“My plan was to detonate an IED right outside the Muncie Islamic Center on a Friday afternoon when they were all gathered,” Richard “Mac” McKinney said in the film.

McKinney changes his mind after the community embraces him.

African-American Muncie native Jomo Williams prays at the mosque.
African-American Muncie native Jomo Williams prays at the mosque.Courtesy of Laura Palmer

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the film’s executive producer, drew from her own well-known personal experience to produce the film. 

Yousafzai knows first-hand what it’s like to confront someone consumed with hate and bent on assassination.

Yousafzai joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss the film and her other projects.

Marco Werman: It’s been about 11 years since you were riding on that bus in rural Pakistan when a Taliban gunman shot you in the head. The reason: You’d been speaking out for education for young women. Now you’re taking on projects like this film. Tell us about the main character in “Stranger at the Gate,” former Marine Richard “Mac” McKinney. Who is he?
Malala Yousafzai: Mac has gone through a tough time in his life. He has seen conflicts and wars, and he is very protective of his family and his daughter, especially. And he also listens to media where he thinks that Muslims are a threat to his family and the community. And he makes the decision to completely erase Muslims. And his first target is the Islamic center in his own town. And that’s where the story begins.
A picture of former marine Richard
A picture of former marine Richard “Mac” McKinney.Courtesy of Laura Palmer
How did Mac’s story resonate with you and your own experiences growing up in Pakistan?
The gunmen who shot me were told that I was not belonging to Islam or to their culture, that I was somebody alien to them. And I think that’s where hatred and division begins. You know, these are the things we need to address. When you connect with people from different backgrounds, from different cultures, faiths, you realize that there is shared humanity between all of you. And the same thing happened in Mac’s life as well, where he decided to attack hundreds of people, Muslim people. But it changed. And I think there is something powerful in that change and that is love. That is kindness. That is compassion. And I’m glad that Mac had the willingness to welcome that love. And on the other hand, I’m just so happy that the people who he wanted to attack, Bibi, her family and others, were so kind and compassionate that, even after knowing that Mac had planned all of this, they decided to invite him over for dinner and have a conversation with him.
That love is so powerful and we’re about to hear that. The story of former marine Mac McKinney, he shows up at this Muncie, Indiana, mosque unannounced, and he’s there on a sort of reconnaissance mission for his bombing plot. There are some worshipers who remember when he came in, he looked agitated and troubled, and he starts meeting people, including a local family physician, Saber Bahrami, who is the husband of Bibi Bahrami, whom you just mentioned. Here’s Dr. Bahrami talking about what he was feeling when he met McKinney: “My first impression of McKinney was, he seemed to be like a redneck. But he came to the masjid and he’s like a guest also. So, I couldn’t help it except to hug him and make him feel, not artificially, [but] from my heart that his welcome and he is part of us.” Malala, one thing that struck me about this former marine and would-be assassin is how firmly he thought his plot was the right thing to do. How do you make sense of that? 
These things don’t make sense. Hatred, divisions don’t make sense. And we need to challenge that. And I am just in awe of the steps that Bibi and her family took, because there is something really powerful about following our virtues and it’s not just about talking about being courageous and compassionate. It’s about putting them into practice. And for me, when I think about these values, it gives me hope for a better future for the world.
Richard “Mac” McKinney (left), Jomo Williams, Saber Bahrami and Bibi Bahrami pose together.
Richard “Mac” McKinney (left), Jomo Williams, Saber Bahrami and Bibi Bahrami pose together. Courtesy of Laura Palmer
So, you’re saying it’s the same kind of courage, but one needs to kind of turn that inside out, love-facing first?
When I think about kindness, compassion, forgiveness, I think about it in my day-to-day life and how I follow it as a person, how I treat family members, my friends, strangers, but also on social media and other platforms as well, and just not end the conversation there, but to begin a new conversation about what role we can play in really challenging the stereotypes that exist in the divisions and hatred that have been created.
Is there a thread or an act of kindness that ties your personal experience in Pakistan to this documentary that takes place in Muncie, Indiana?
During my time in Swat Valley, when we faced conflict, we were also internally displaced, and for three months it was the people of other cities, other towns who welcomed us. So, what’s at the center of this message is people opening their doors and their hearts to strangers, to others that can give us a spark of hope for a better future for everyone.

Part II: Women’s rights, democracy

Malala, you know all too well the wrath of the Pakistani Taliban. Across the border in Afghanistan, girls and women are also feeling that wrath. They are essentially being erased from public life and violence is directed toward them every day. Where does the Taliban’s hatred for women and misogyny come from?
I always question the misogyny that exists in the world. And also when we look at extremist, violent armed groups who are using violence against women. I’m always just left with no answer because, is there a political explanation for this, is there a psychological explanation for this? All I can say is that there is no justification for the treatment that Afghan women are facing right now in Islam or in Pashtun culture or anywhere else. Afghanistan, right now, is the only country in the world that bans girls from secondary schools. There’s a lot that needs to be done, from providing the humanitarian support to the people right now to also ensuring that there is no compromise on the protection of the human rights of women and girls. But at the center of all of this, all the governments and political leaders who are engaging in the negotiations, they must ensure that Afghan women are part of the conversations. 
I mean, that’s what should be happening, but it’s not. And the Taliban have just gotten even more draconian with every passing day. What options do these young women have right now? I mean, if they defy the Taliban, they’ll be killed. So, what should they do? You must have given this some thought.
It’s really tough. Many of the Afghan women have thankfully been evacuated to other countries and they are safer to be protesting. And their voice is just so critical right now. And there are Afghan women in Afghanistan, despite facing threats and arrest, they continue to advocate for their rights, because they live in very dark days right now. When you see no hope for yourself, you have no option but to speak out. We went through that in Swat Valley, but just for a very short time, for two years. But in Afghanistan, these conflicts and wars have been happening for decades now. They cannot get their education, they cannot work, they cannot even go out to a park or to a gym and just have access to these basic human rights of breathing fresh air outside their homes. So, it’s really tough for them. But despite all the challenges, they are fighting and it’s important that the world stands with them.
Malala, finally, let me ask you a bit about your homeland, Pakistan. Years ago, you talked about returning to live there and maybe even running someday for political office. I know you’ve gone back from time to time, but could you imagine living there now?
I would love to visit Pakistan more often and also live there, as well. Pakistan is my home country and I was there last year. I went to Lahore and Karachi. As you know, Pakistan had been badly affected by the recent floods and so many schools were flooded away. So, I went for that. But also, we are doing work for girls’ education there, so I work with activists and with girls who are raising their voice for quality, safer education in the country. And I love spending time in Lahore and other parts of the country.
How close to a true democracy is Pakistan today, do you think?
I think that could take a long time for me to answer. But I do acknowledge that, you know, we haven’t faced dictatorship. But at the same time, you know, we do want more autonomy, we do want transparency, we do want better democracy. And that is something that can give hope to the next generation of Pakistan. And for me, when I think about Pakistan, it’s the young people — women and girls especially — who are advocating for their rights, who are finding creative and innovative ways to connect, to bring some hope, whether that is through music or television content, whether that is Ali Sethi’s most-searched Google song, “Pasoori,” to Arooj Aftab’s winning incredible awards to then Salman creating the greatest piece of art and many others doing this incredible work. So, there is hope for Pakistan. And, through these amazing artists, we can see that the country’s culture is changing, as well. There is a message of tolerance and connection and cooperation spreading.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.Click above to listen to the entire discussion.

Related: ‘It is pure magic’: Pakistani song ‘Pasoori’ climbs the charts in India and beyond

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