ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a country where militant attacks occur almost daily, the Taliban’s attempted assassination of a 14-year-old education rights activist in northwestern Pakistan united Pakistanis from across social divides Wednesday in a remarkable and rare display of collective outrage against extremism.
The shooting Tuesday of Malala Yousafzai, who remains in critical condition in a Peshawar military hospital, brought condemnation from conservative clerics, secular politicians, the military and media figures at a time when Pakistanis had seemed almost numb to rising extremism.
More than 3,000 people died last year in extremist attacks here, but images of the bandaged, unconscious teenager prompted a national debate about the corrosive impact of Talibanization.
“The world image of Pakistan is, to put it mildly, not very good,” said Ijaz Khattak, a professor at the University of Peshawar who knows Yousafzai and her father, an educator and peace activist in Swat. “Society is seen as increasingly sympathetic to these terrorists. What this incident can prove to be is a catalyst, because the outrage can turn the tide against the religious fundamentalism.”
Yousafzai was already a national hero for her fearless opposition to the Taliban, which closed her father’s school and other girls’ schools in Swat when the militants imposed harsh Islamic law there from 2007 until 2009. In conversations Wednesday, Pakistanis referred to her as “that brave girl” and tuned into television networks’ constant updates on her condition after surgeons removed the life-threatening bullet.
Doctors said her prognosis had improved.
An editorial Wednesday in the News, an English-language daily, seemed to capture the national mood: “Malala Yousafzai is in critical condition today, and so is Pakistan,” it said. “We are infected with the cancer of extremism, and unless it is cut out we will slide ever further into the bestiality that this latest atrocity exemplifies.”
Police said they have identified a suspect but have not apprehended him. Akbar Khan Hoti, chief of police for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told a television news channel that the attacker traveled from eastern Afghanistan.
The provincial administration, meanwhile, announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the suspect’s capture.
The country’s top military leader, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, visited the girl’s hospital bedside and declared her shooting “inhuman” and a “heinous act of terrorism.”
The general, rarely in the public eye, was the first national leader to visit the teenager — upstaging civilian politicians in a symbolic show of where power truly lies in Pakistan. In a news release, Kayani sought to draw a sharp line between Islam and the Taliban, saying, “Islam guarantees each individual — male or female — equal and inalienable rights to life, property and human dignity.”
Those who attacked Yousafzai and her fellow students, he said, “have no respect even for the golden words of the prophet . . . that ‘the one who is not kind to children, is not amongst us.’ ”