Marc Lynch, a partisan professor who blogs at Abu Aardvark; Gregory Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate who studies Yemen (a country in which I have spent considerable time), Blake Hounshell, an editor at Foreign Policy; and other analysts tweeted to take issue with my post on Friday questioning both what Tawakkul Karman’s affiliation with the Yemeni Islamist party Islah means, as well the co-founder of that party’s work for al-Qaeda. Alas, they avoid addressing the questions at hand and instead substitute snarky and ad hominem attacks. Attacking the messenger rather than the message is a time-worn strategy to avoid debating issues on their merits.
As Thomas von der Osten-Sacken from the German NGO Wadi, which has been at the forefront of both Arab democracy issues and the fight against female genital mutilation, notes, a member of the Nobel Committee which awarded the prize made clear Karman’s affiliation with a Muslim Brotherhood party was key to the committee’s decision. From an Associated Press story: “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.’”
While most Nobel prizes are based on a life’s work whose value is apparent in hindsight, the Nobel Peace Prize is selected by a committee of Norwegian politicians, who base their choice upon a political agenda in the present. The agenda here is trying to counter the notion the Muslim Brotherhood, whose record of Islamist terrorism predates even Israel’s foundation, might hijack the Arab Spring demonstrations to usher in a situation of one-man, one-vote, one-time. To paraphrase the Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim during a 2006 panel at the American Enterprise Institute, the dichotomy in the Middle East is one of autocracy and theocracy; the two are mirror images of each other, and both attack the liberals in between. The question, then, is whether Islah represents the liberals.
Let’s look at Islah co-founder Sheikh Zindani. The links to al-Qaeda were not drawn from thin air, but originate with the U.S. Treasury Department and were reported by the New York Times. But is he truly liberal and reformist? According to this Global Post article, Zindani does believe women can serve in parliament, but only if they are strictly segregated from men. As Zindani explained, according to the author, women can participate in government — so long as female parliamentarians attend sessions in separate rooms. Zindani also opposes restrictions on adult men marrying little girls. Karman may be honorable, but certainly it is worth asking her how she can affiliate with a party whose co-founder embraces such positions. The questions about terrorism are all the more relevant given that she was chosen precisely because of her affiliation with a Muslim Brotherhood party. As a Nobel Laureate, she will have a bully pulpit. It is worth knowing exactly what we are getting. True, Islah has multiple factions, but if Karman is deserving of the prize, it would be worthwhile to ask her to address the issue, condemning such factions if she so desires.
Alas, too often, Lynch, Johnson, Hounshell, and others obsessed with American domestic politics concentrate more on attacking those with whom they disagree than judging issues on their merits. I have never met Lynch; mutual acquaintances say he personalizes politics too much to associate with those with whom he disagrees. Nor have I met Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate who knows his stuff but who, like many academics, has trouble tolerating disagreement. I did have the pleasure of meeting Hounshell last month in Morocco. He was smart, engaging, and pleasant. However, Hounshell’s tweets do suggest he runs analysts through a political filter in order to decide issues. It is unfortunate that that leads him to be sanguine about a party whose leader supports child marriage and strict segregation of women.