Commentary Magazine


Topic: Malala Yousefzai

Prize Legacies: Sakharov vs. Nobel

Congratulations to Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and writer who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, for winning this year’s Sakharov human rights award. Malala’s blogging—in order to defend the rights of girls to basic education against the backdrop of a political movement dedicated to making women chattel only—has both been bold and has shaken the Pakistani Taliban to its core, for otherwise they would not have sought to silence her permanently.

While there was some uncertainty about whether the European Parliament would do the right thing, in the end the European Parliament did not belittle the prize and the legacy of its namesake, and they gave it to someone both bold and deserving, a choice which will last long after the waves of the political trendiness of other candidates pass.

Alas, the same generally cannot be said for the track record of the Nobel Peace Prize’s selection committee.

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Congratulations to Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and writer who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, for winning this year’s Sakharov human rights award. Malala’s blogging—in order to defend the rights of girls to basic education against the backdrop of a political movement dedicated to making women chattel only—has both been bold and has shaken the Pakistani Taliban to its core, for otherwise they would not have sought to silence her permanently.

While there was some uncertainty about whether the European Parliament would do the right thing, in the end the European Parliament did not belittle the prize and the legacy of its namesake, and they gave it to someone both bold and deserving, a choice which will last long after the waves of the political trendiness of other candidates pass.

Alas, the same generally cannot be said for the track record of the Nobel Peace Prize’s selection committee.

While most Nobel prizes are based on a lifetime’s work and demonstrated achievements, the committee of politicians which awards the Nobel Peace Prize has, in recent years, based its award more on political considerations, symbolism, and the expectation of future action than on a track record of achievement. This was clear in the Nobel’s selection of Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. The head of the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee at the time told the Associated Press, “Karman belongs to a Muslim movement with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, ‘which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy.’ He added that ‘I don’t believe that. There are many signals that, that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.’”

Karman, however, has had a very selective reading of who deserves human rights. She will speak up for Muslim Brotherhood activists—and was quite vocal in the aftermath of the July 2013 Egyptian coup—but she remains noticeably silent when the perpetrators of violence are political Islamists. Hence, she did not speak up for Malala Yousefzai, even when the then-14-year-old was clinging to life, nor has she condemned the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Coptic Christians. Indeed, Karman’s attitude appears to mirror that of her fellow Muslim Brotherhood acolyte Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has denied that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir could be complicit in genocide, because “A Muslim can never commit genocide.”

Perhaps the Nobel committee can redeem itself this year with its selection, but it has a long way to go to dig itself out of the mockery it has made of human rights and democracy. Certainly, the contrast between the selections of Yousefzai and Karman, their achievements, and the logic behind their awards are a millstone around the neck of the Nobels.

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