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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