It has been suggested that the recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize are “safe choices” because they advocate for the rights of children and for the fair and respectful treatment of girls and women.
Advocacy for an end to child labor, for universal education, for strong trade unions, for economic justice and social democracy, and for an end to war and violence should not be controversial.
But it should be noted that this year’s recipients of the world’s most prestigious prize—India’s Kailash Satyarthi and Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai—are not mild reformers. They are both bold, challenging and, yes, radical, in their language and their approaches. It is necessary to point this out, because all too frequently the citizen recipients of the Peace Prize are presented in soft focus, without a sense of the stances and actions that have gained them global recognition as peacemakers who address the root causes of violence.
Campaigns for the rights of children, for universal access to education, for an end to child slavery and exploitation are radical initiatives that challenge existing political and economic orders—as when Satyarthi, the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), rejected simplistic narratives about child labor.
“Children are employed not just because of parental poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, failure of development and education programmes, but quite essentially due to the fact that employers benefit immensely from child labour as children come across as the cheapest option sometimes even for free,” argues Satyarthi, whose organizing, mass marches and long-term work with the International Labour Organization, with the International Labor Rights Forum and trade union movements in India are credited with freeing tens of thousands of children from modern-day slavery. “When a child is bonded to a street restaurant, the employer is usually an ordinary person of some remote village or town,” he explains, in an analysis that invariably brings global trade and the supply chains of multinational corporations into the debate. “But when children are employed in carpet weaving, or the glass industry or the brassware industry, the employers are ‘big’ people. They generate a lot of foreign exchange through exports and are always considered favorably by the government.”
Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai are engaged activists who have not hesitated to challenge the most powerful political and economic elites in their own countries—and to challenge international leaders. Remember that, when a then–16-year-old Malala Yousafzai met with President Obama, she did not merely accept the “Bravest Girl in the World” accolade she has been accorded since she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman seeking to silence her campaigning for the education of girls in Pakistan. She told the president that the drone strikes he was authorizing were wrongheaded. And she made sure that everyone knew about it, releasing a statement that noted, “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”
Later, in a much-less-noted session organized by the World Bank, she extended her remarks to say:
If I talk really from my heart and if I look at the United States of America, only to the government of the United States of America, you all know that people in suffering countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, are really angry with United States.
I think the best way to fight terrorism is not through guns. If you want to end a war through a war, it’s never going to end….
Much of the money is spent on making tanks, on making guns. Much of the money is spent on soldiers. We need to spend the same money on books, on pens, on teachers, and on schools. So, the governments must take an action. It’s the duty of the government. It’s their duty. We want them not to [simply] take a decision according to their views and according to their ideas. We want them to listen to us. We want them to listen to what we say, and we ask them now, that [they] work for education of every child. And do not fight through guns, fight through pens and through books. And take education serious.
So, I think that the governments must take an action.
In her autobiography, Malala Yousafzai recalls coming of age in an intellectually adventurous and politically active Pashtun family, with anticolonialist roots. Her grandfather “would rail against the class system, the continuing power of the khans and the gap between the haves and have-nots.” Her father was inspired by activists who “talked a lot of sense, particularly about wanting to end the feudal and capitalist systems in our country, where the same big families had controlled things for years while the poor got poorer.”
She explains that her father entertained debates about “secularism and socialism on one side and militant Islam on the other.” In 2013, when Pakistani socialists gathered in Lahore for an annual conference, reports on the conference highlighted the moment when a Pakistani from Britain announced that he had a statement from a recovering Malala Yousafzai, which concluded, “I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”
Those may not sound like “safe choice” words to everyone. But it is worth noting that other recipients of the Nobel Prize for Peace have made statements that were heard at the time—and even now—as radical.
The 1964 recipient of the prize avowed that “we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. continued in his historic “Where Do We Go From Here?” address:
There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?” These are words that must be said.
Ultimately, however, King’s most radical words were his calls for for peace, especially his anti–Vietnam War declarations. Influenced by the advocates of nonviolence Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai hail as their inspirations, King proclaimed:
I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. (Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.
Malala Yousafzai echoed Dr. King when she appeared at the United Nations in 2013. Recalling the attack that nearly killed her, she said, “Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learned from Mohamed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother. This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.”