Keeping to a secular path is no easy road

Just eight months after she was shot in the head on a bus in Pakistan's Swat Valley for daring to oppose the Taliban and urge education for all girls in her country, Malala Yousafzai was at the UN headquarters in New York to deliver the same message. On Friday, her 16th birthday, Malala told an audience of more than 500 young people aged 12-25 from around the world: "I am here to speak up for the right of education of every child ... I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists."

Malala said she was fighting for the rights of women because "they are the ones who suffer the most".

The address highlights the need to keep the control of education and all basic human rights out of the hands of religious extremists. It also raises questions about how this can be done, especially if the extremists like the Taliban are empowered under the framework of democracy, as they conceivably may be in neighbouring Afghanistan after US troops withdraw in December 2014.

The military-led ouster of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi sparked a global debate on whether it's ever okay to depose a democratically elected government, a debate that resonates strongly in Thailand because of certain similarities to the fall of the Thaksin Shinawatra government at the hands of the military in September 2006.

In both cases the military acted on behalf of a popular movement backed by an established ruling class. The analogy only goes so far, however. In Egypt the underlying justification behind the military intervention was that it was necessary to keep the nature of the government secular.

It is not fair to compare the actions of the government of Mr Morsi to those of the Taliban, and there are other factors, including a series of blunders in his administration, that contributed to his removal. There is also evidence that Mr Morsi's rule was sabotaged by special interests trying to make him look more inept than he was. For example, the energy crisis that was feeding frustrations in society suddenly let up after the coup. Clearly the killing of more than 50 pro-Islamist demonstrators and the injuring of more than 400 last week can't be justified.

But whether or not the military takeover was justified, there was without a doubt widespread fear in Egypt that if the situation continued as it was, with heavy involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood at all levels of Mr Morsi's administration, government policy might eventually be determined by fundamentalist philosophy rather than the will of the people.

The issue of what, if anything, should be done to prevent religious extremists from taking government control in a completely democratic process won't go away. It may be even be relevant in the South of Thailand in the near future. If the current peace dialogues continue it may be that at some point electoral candidates will appear who share some of the same views expounded by separatist groups, and possibly be in favour of Sharia law.

It is not only Islamic fundamentalists who exert pressure to bring governments around the world in line with their religious beliefs. In the United States, for example, it has been reported that the ranks of "dominionists" _ Protestant Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists who are encouraged not only to be active political participants in civic society, but also to seek to dominate the political process as part of a mandate from God _ include past and present influential political figures.

Whatever the creed, imposing religious views on society through government mechanisms is clearly undemocratic, even if a majority of the people agree with them. The underlying principle behind human rights is that they apply to everyone, no matter how small the minority. This is not only fair, it makes good sense because once rights are taken from one group there's no telling where it will end. In the case of the Taliban denying women an education, this is actually denying a basic right to a majority of the population.

We all owe Malala a debt of gratitude for her courage in bringing attention to the problem of extremists imposing their will on society. Preventing religious extremism from becoming institutionalised without overthrowing the basic principles of democracy is one of the great challenges the world faces today.