Book Review: I am Malala

About a year ago I dated a feminist who had a thing where, with the exception of music, she’d prefer to consume media that was produced by women.

This inspired me, as part of my 2016 New Year Resolutions, to read a book written by a woman.

When I tell people this, they laugh – as if I’m implying that it’s so hard to read a book written by a woman. Actually – this book is the only book I’ve read this year.

It took several attempts to find a book that I could get into. Before I started I Am Malala, I also tried:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
    This is a fantasy novel. I got about one quarter through this book. It was well written, but I gave up when it started giving the ins and outs of how magic works. I felt it was too much work for make believe, but maybe I should have stuck with it.
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.
    I don’t think I made it through the first chapter of this Man Booker prize winning novel. Every person I mentioned this to who had attempted the book had the same experience.
  • Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton
    I got a couple of chapters through this non-fiction account. It’s quite a dry and logistical account of things – ‘and then I appointed so and so’. It’s not an autobiography, it starts from when she was appointed Secretary of State, and it assumes that you already know a lot about the context of her life and career.

Eventually I picked up I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, which I was able to finish.

Malala Yousafzai is woman from the Swat region of Pakistan, who in 2012, when she was 15, was shot by members of the Taliban for her involvement in activism advocating education for girls. She survived the shooting and made international headlines.


I was impressed with the content of this book. It’s comprehensive. She talks about the history of military coups in Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the change of politics since 9/11, and rise of the Taliban in Pakistan.

I learned a lot reading this book. For example:

  • That the Taliban had a very active presence in Pakistan (not just Afghanistan).
  • The history of military coups in Pakistan.
  • The changing nature of politics in the region. For example the conservative, anti-woman politics were something that only arose due to the growing influence of the Taliban.

What’s apparent from the book, and she gives a great deal of attention to – is the role her father played in her becoming the person she is now, and her being targeted by the Taliban. Her father, Ziauddan Yousafzai is an (incredibly brave) outspoken activist for girls’ education and ran a school in the region.

I was impressed with the content of the book, but the writing itself, was a bit overwritten and boring.

A good book for me, makes itself easy to be read. I found with this book, it was quite an effort to read it. Maybe I have a bad reading atttitude, but then I said the same thing when I was reading The Ethical Slut, and found it wasn’t a the case when I read a book that I particularly enjoyed (Everything I ever needed to know about economics, I learned from online dating).

The single thing I would say would make the book better, would be to make it a lot shorter. Shorten all the sentences, and eliminate the cruft. I think the book could about 50-75% of it’s current length.

I suspect that there’s a bit of optics being played here. I imagine the publishers or other advisers felt that a shorter book wouldn’t be taken as seriously, and wouldn’t play into the ‘child genius’ portrayal of Malala. I don’t think Malala isn’t a child genius – she’s clearly very smart – but I don’t think she needs to write an long book to prove it.

Throughout the book Malala consistently asserts her Muslim faith and the book ends with a profession to her faith.

Islam is of course is a central theme in the book. The Taliban are using Islam to justify their world view (where girls shouldn’t be educated, and women should often not be heard from), while Malala holds the view that this world view is not the correct interpretation of Islam.

She doesn’t address atheism, which is disappointing, but perhaps something for a future book. As I’ve said before, I think we should be more critical of religious belief, and so while I like Malala’s politics, I would like to see her address the question of ‘What about athiesm? Is Islamic belief irrational and counter to the science you advocate?’.

Overall – a book packed with good content. I look forward to further books by Malala Yousafzai.





Is it time to stop defending religion?

Everytime there is a radical Muslim terrorist attack, there is an immediate reaction from both Muslims and social progressives to point out that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and that Islamic terrorists don’t represent them.

Here is such an example:


They are of course correct that Islamic terrorists don’t represent all Muslims, and it would be unfair to bundle ordinary Muslims with Islamic terrorists.

However, I question whether being Muslim (or Christian) is defensible, regardless of the terrorism aspect.

The fact is, religious belief is irrational. There is no strong evidence to prove existence of the religious entities that religious people claim exist.

Yet we pussyfoot around the issue saying ‘Everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs’ and ‘They’re not harming anyone’.

And there is a fair point here – as I mentioned in a previous post, religious belief does appear to correlated with some positive metrics, such as happiness and life satisfaction, and lower drug abuse and depression. However, at the the time religious belief tends to be correlated with some negative social behaviour, such as homophobia.

My question is – in the wake of an Islamic terrorist attack, instead of leaping to the defence of the Muslim religion (and other religions) as a whole, why isn’t our reaction ‘Yes radical Islamic terrorists aren’t all Muslims, but man, isn’t religion silly! What’s it still doing around in this modern age – we’ve long since abandoned other outdated beliefs such as belief in witches or humours!’?

I think the reason we don’t do this, is because we don’t want to be an asshole. Most of us probably do know a religious person who we like and respect.  People disagree about various things, of varying importance, all the time, and then it’s a question of whether we let it affect the relationship or not.

Plenty of us also know someone who has outlandishly bad ideas – factually incorrect opinions like opposing vaccination, or believing in homoeopathy, or personal value based opinions like homophobia, or racism, and we’ll gladly call them out on it, even while attempting to maintain a friendly relationship with the person.

I think the reason people are more willing to call someone out on something like anti-vaxxing or homoeopathy is because the harms of those erroneous beliefs are more apparent.

Especially if the religious person you know is a perfectly pleasant person, it (ie. not a vocally intolerant bigot), it’s harder to make a case that there’s something wrong with their belief, even if it’s irrational.

With that said – perhaps it is time to be more vocal about the irrationality of religion. The purpose of criticising religion shouldn’t be to create a culture of moral judgement, but to assist the transitioning of well established institutions that do have their merits, into modern, philosophically consistent lifestyle frameworks.

For example I can imagine religions can abandoning the explicit belief in God and recognising God as a fiction, but continue celebrating their history, culture and songs, and continue congregating regularly, and transitioning prayer to God into daily self reflection.

On the positive effects of religion

Research seems to indicate that religious belief is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness, and lower levels of depression, suicidal thoughts and drug abuse.

On the same token, a recent study shows that religious belief in children is correlated with less altruistic behaviour.

I have a hypothesis about the positive effects of religion. While religious entities are fictional, the everyday application of the concepts still have a positive benefit to people’s lives, because that’s how our brains work.

In clinical psychology a technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is often used to treat unhelpful behavioural and thinking patterns, such as depression, eating disorders and addiction. In CBT the patient is encouraged project and externalise the unhelpful pattern of behaviour on to an external entity, a ‘demon’ if you will.

This allows the patient to separate themselves from the pattern of behaviour, and also allows them to recognise the pattern when it presents itself. Both of these factors then make it easier to manage the behaviour when it presents itself.

What important to note here, is that even though the entity the patient is a fiction, and even though patient them self is aware that it’s a fiction – the projection is still a helpful way to ‘trick’ the brain.

Religious belief can be seen in the same light. For example a religious person who believes that a craving for alcohol is the devil at work, is thinking in very much the same way that a patient of CBT is.

A second way that religious belief can be beneficial is the establishment of routine. Religious people, and in particular Muslims who have a five time a day prayer routine, have a routine of religious rituals of prayer and self-reflection.

I would argue that the irrational (read: genuine belief in entities for which there is no strong evidence) religious belief are not necessary in order to produce these positive effects.

Religion has been effective in producing these positive effects, because religion is already well established and well funded. But a government or school program to teach and encourage mindfulness, and other positive psychology techniques like Three Gratitudes would confer all the benefits and without the irrationality and bigotry that often comes with religion.