What is a hero? In our violence-ready culture, a hero can mean many things. Fire fighters, soldiers, teachers, even volunteers – all have been called heroes many a time, and with full confidence. Wherever there’s tragedy, there are always heroes. We applaud them, pray for them, give them the best of wishes and accolades. When a hero loses his or her life saving someone, we feel their family’s pain, shed tears for them, wish there had been another way. But last week in Pakistan, a young hero – a child himself – gave up his life in a manner that made his family and his nation proud.
My readers know I’m a Pakistani by birth, but have made the United States my home for the last 15 years. As such, I usually write about American Muslim issues, and have in recent times declined to comment on Pakistani events because I don’t feel I’m qualified. Today is the exception. Today I’m writing about a tragedy that occurred in Pakistan which made that nation celebrate. Aitazaz Hasan, a ninth-grader from the Hangu district of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, gave up his life stopping a suicide bomber from attacking his school. The entire story of Aitazaz’s bravery is available from several publications across the world: the Express Tribune has covered the event here. By now many Americans know the details of what happened, but the celebratory tone of the articles and news reports may confound many. Here then is an explanation.
Aitazaz was a unique boy in so many ways. He hailed from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, an area rife with sectarian violence and largely controlled by the Taliban. Acts of violence are common in Pakistan’s northern areas; in fact a study by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies found that terrorist attacks in 2013 increased by 9% over the previous year while the number of people killed in such incidents jumped by 19%. The number of suicide attacks climbed by 39% in the same period, the report found. Later claimed by a known terrorist organization, this particular attack on Aitazaz’s school of 2,000 students is part of a new brand of targeted violence against educational institutes in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Aitazaz wasn’t an educated rich kid from Karachi or Islamabad, but a poor son of a poor man who was forced to leave his native land for Dubai to provide for his family. Yet this youngster must have learned values of courage, determination and love for his country somewhere amidst the hate and violence, because he often talked about catching a suicide bomber. While other teenagers in other countries dream of completing school or talk about the latest song or movie, his dream was to catch killers. Not just any killers, but the most cowardly and dangerous ones of all – the suicide bombers who had made his home a hell for years. His parents and teachers must have been doing an excellent job because they raised a young man to be selfless and caring.
After his death, Pakistan’s journalists, politicians and activists labelled Aitazaz a hero and compared him to Malala Yousufzai, another international heroine with much the same story. Nobody cried at his funeral, people didn’t lead protests or burn flags. His father said it best:
My son made his mother cry, but saved hundreds of mothers from crying for their children.
Well, done, Aitazaz. You are not only your parents’ son but the entire nation’s. In fact, if we consider that fighting injustice and terrorism knows no boundaries, all of us here in the United States should be equally proud of this young man who showed courage beyond his years. His act of bravery offers hope to those like me in need of stories of courage to revive our collective imaginations, to hope for a better tomorrow. There is talk of awarding him the Sitara-e-Shujaat, or Star of Bravery, one of the highest medals of honor for Pakistanis. In a country divided by politics and struggling with poverty and corruption, Aitazaz unites everyone.
Many people are asking, will this young man’s sacrifice really make a difference? The terrorists who control that part of the world are so violent, so full of hatred and cunning. But I think it will. Aitazaz and Malala have much in common, but they are not the only two exceptions that prove the rule. They are in fact, part of a growing number of youth who are tired of the violence in their lives. A love of education can be seen in this new generation – the children of Pakistan and other poor countries who are saying, enough is enough. We will not let extremists take away our right to an education, even if we have to sacrifice our lives for it. It’s an amazing, exhilarating message, one that we need to savor and promote in Pakistan as well as in every corner of the earth. After all, as I’ve written many times on this blog, education is the only weapon we have against extremism and intolerance. I salute you, Aitazaz, and pray that all the youth of my country – both birth and adopted – have as much courage as you. What a wonderful message to those who use religion to terrorize others: we will not be scared, we will all rise up and fight against oppression, like Aitzaz and Malala and the many other young men and women who don’t make the news. We are all human beings, Pakistani, American, Arab, Israeli, and we all want to live in peace.
As for Aitazaz, I strongly believe his death will never be in vain. The Quran says,
Think not of those, who have been slain in the cause of God as dead. Nay, they are living, in the presence of their Lord, and are granted gifts from Him (3:170).
What a fitting description of my feelings, of the feelings of millions who are congratulating Aitzaz’s family rather than mourning his death. Rest in peace, young hero.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. She is currently working on a collection of short stories about Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi.