Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tawakkul Karman

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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Why is Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkul Karman Silent?

Last year, I criticized the Nobel Peace Prize award to Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. My objection rested not in Karman’s track record as an opposition activist in Yemen, but rather rested in the tokenism and political agenda of the Nobel Committee. Its chairman made no secret that he hoped the award would legitimize the Muslim Brotherhood. As the Associated Press reported at the time:

Thorbjoern Jagland, who heads the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee, told AP that including Karman in the prize is “a signal that the Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it.” He also said 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.”

A year on, has the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to make Karman its youngest Nobel Peace Laureate paid off?

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Last year, I criticized the Nobel Peace Prize award to Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. My objection rested not in Karman’s track record as an opposition activist in Yemen, but rather rested in the tokenism and political agenda of the Nobel Committee. Its chairman made no secret that he hoped the award would legitimize the Muslim Brotherhood. As the Associated Press reported at the time:

Thorbjoern Jagland, who heads the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee, told AP that including Karman in the prize is “a signal that the Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it.” He also said 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.”

A year on, has the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to make Karman its youngest Nobel Peace Laureate paid off?

Sadly, the answer is no. Last week, the Pakistani Taliban conducted a horrific attack on 14-year-old school girl Malala Yousafzai whose crime was to advocate for girls’ right to education. With a bully pulpit bestowed by the Nobel Committee and its choice of Karman as a laureate because of her gender, religion, commitment to reform, and boldness, it would be reasonable to expect that Karman would be front and center in her condemnation of the Pakistani Taliban.

The world may have condemned the attack, but sadly, a Google search in English and an Open Source Center search of the Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish press show that Karman was too busy attending to other matters. Whereas prominent Pakistanis visited Malala and her family, Karman (and other Nobel laureates) were not among them. In both English and Arabic, Karman’s website focuses on promoting herself and her latest mentions and speeches. Perhaps she was too busy accepting honorary Turkish citizenship or attending the World Forum for Democracy in Strasburg, France, to speak up or visit Pakistan. Karman is not afraid to speak up on other issues: She has urged Turkish military intervention in Syria, at least to create a buffer zone, in the increasingly sectarian civil war. She has praised pro-revolution forces in the Yemeni army. Perhaps the victim needs to be a Sunni Islamist to be worthy of Karman’s time.

It’s time to ask the Nobel Committee and Karman’s most vocal supporters: Was the investment in Karman worth it? Has outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood privileged moderate factions within the group and marginalized more radical factions? If Karman was the token to give moral ammunition in the feminist fight against radicalism and dictatorship of all types in majority Muslim countries, why the apparent silence in the face of Yousafzai (and others)?

If I’m wrong in my assessment that Karman has disappointed, I will be gladly so. I am traveling right now with limited Internet and may simply have missed an important statement but, as of my writing this on Saturday afternoon Baghdad time, I do not think I have. I have seen ample coverage on Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Al-Hurra, and other channels, but I have not seen Karman speak out. Certainly, I would stand happily corrected, however, and will read any comments on this post carefully for those Karman fans who can demonstrate that she has been a voice of support for Malala Yousafzai and those like her targeted by the Taliban, Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist groups.

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