Since the American election of 2016, Facebook has come under heavy fire by both the political Right and the Left. While the Right accuses Facebook of censoring conservatives and of applying a double standard in its policing of hate speech, the Left accuses Facebook of not doing enough to stop the spread of fake news and racism on its platform. To avoid possibly crippling new US laws, Facebook has reached out to both sides, and tried to improve its self-regulation. A new Oversight Board that will have the final say in what speech to allow and disallow on the platform is part of this effort. Navigating the often-thin line between protecting freedom of speech and preventing hate speech and incitement from spreading through the social network is a delicate task, and much will depend on the Board’s composition to see whether it is up to the job.
A Worrying Start
When the first twenty representatives of the Oversight Board were named last week, the choice of Tawakkol Karman as one of the two representatives for the Middle East drew heavy criticism from the region. Karman is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, but she is also a former activist of the Yemeni “Reform” (Al-Islah) Party, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On Twitter, the Egyptian-American scholar Samuel Tadros called it a “very disturbing choice,” noting that “Facebook content control in Arabic has been problematic for a long time with its Islamist leanings.” Al-Hurra columnist Nervana Mahmoud meanwhile warned that “sidelining non-Islamist Muslims … will lead to pro-Islamist bias.”
Not the First Time
The controversy around Karman is not new. When she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her advocacy of women’s rights in Yemen, she was criticized for her membership in the local Muslim Brotherhood chapter. Among other things, it was pointed out that the head of Al-Islah’s Shura Council, Abd al-Majeed al-Zindani, had been put on the US terrorist list because of his “long history of working with [Osama] bin Laden”.
However, in the eyes of the committee, these links to political Islam, of which it was aware, were not a hindrance, but rather a plus for selecting her. Its chairman openly repudiated those who “perceived [the Muslim Brotherhood] as a threat to democracy,” and suggested that “There are many signals that that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution.”
Karman’s selection fitted into an intellectual discourse among foreign affairs and counterterrorism policymakers, which was especially popular in the Obama administration. It saw the suppression of the Islamist movement and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the central Muslim grievances, and, therefore, the root cause for radical Islamic terrorism. As such, engaging with and empowering the Muslim Brotherhood was the solution.
A Liberal or a Radical?
Despite serving as a parliamentarian for Al-Islah, Karman gained a reputation for endorsing more liberal positions—advocating for press freedom, for example, for equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, a stance which required significant courage and for which she received much criticism from within her own party.
By contrast, after receiving the Nobel Prize, Karman chose to visit with the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Youssef al-Qaradawi, in Qatar. Al-Qaradawi is, even by the Brotherhood’s standards, a political hardliner, a cleric authority who has defended suicide terrorism against Israelis. Karman praised his writings during their meeting.
After the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in 2013, Karman expressed her support for the Brotherhood and repeatedly sported the Rabia sign on social media, which is associated with the Brotherhood-led international protests against the new ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In the current regional Cold War, which pits Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE against Turkey, Qatar, and the supporters of the Brotherhood, Karman is perceived as a partisan of the latter.
Although the Saudis designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization in 2014, she at first supported the Saudi and Qatari intervention in Yemen against the Houthis when it began a year later. The Houthis, backed by Iran, are the sworn enemies of her Al-Islah Party. Over the years, with the escalation of the war in Yemen and the onset of an intra-Arab feud on the Gulf in 2017, she has become one of the most prominent critics of the intervention. While she has cited humanitarian reasons for her change of position, her critics argue that her humanitarian agenda is one-sided and overlaps with the interests of Turkey and Qatar, two countries she has vigorously defended in her articles and social media posts.
In 2018, she was expelled from Al-Islah after it broke with Qatar and realigned itself with Saudi Arabia. Karman’s political base is therefore no longer in Yemen, but in Turkey, whose honorary citizenship she already received in 2012 at the hands of Ahmed Davutoglu, then its foreign minister and the initial force behind its neo-Ottoman orientation. Under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has returned to a more authoritarian form of government domestically and has become the primary protector of the international Islamist movement.
Islamists from around the world gather in Istanbul after being driven from their home countries to discuss the future of their movement. That said, it is not only Islamists who gather in Turkey; many Arab refugees find shelter in Turkey. Since the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, many opponents of the current order, including journalists, politicians, and intellectuals, have emigrated to Turkey and form a vivid Arab diaspora. Here, they enjoy full freedom to attack and criticize the Arab regimes—with the exception of Qatar, Turkey’s sole remaining state ally in the region.
Karman plays a prominent role in this milieu. Since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, she established several organizations, which are now all located in Turkey. Besides the Tawakkol Karman Foundation, which concentrates on humanitarian work, she also launched a television channel, Al-Belqees, in 2014, after reportedly receiving funds and training from Qatar. In the same year, she was also among the founders of the Arab Council for Defense of Revolutions and Democracy, nowadays simply known as the Arab Council, together with Moncef Marzouki, who served as Tunisia’s president during the government of Ennahda, the Tunisian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Arab Council’s politics generally align with that of the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. In 2019, for instance, it organized a memorial event for former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi after his death in an Egyptian prison. Karman had previously idolized Morsi as “the Arab World’s Mandela”. It is worth recalling that Morsi was known for his many antisemitic utterings, having called the Jews, among other things, “the descendants of apes and pigs”.
The Islamists’ Makeover
In recent decades, Islamist movements have professionalized their messaging and appropriated the language of human rights to push for their goals, especially when they address Western audiences. It would be too easy to dismiss Karman’s activism as only as a deception, but hard questions remain. Is she genuinely committed to democracy and pluralism? Or does she view such things, like Erdogan, as vehicles to be used to get to where you want to go, then abandoned? The answer is: probably a mixture of both. The fact that she limits her criticism to her political opponents, while cultivating strong links to the Turkish and Qatari governments, at the very least exposes her to charges of hypocrisy.
To act as a credible voice in defending freedom of speech and fighting hate speech, she would have to prove her independence from Turkey and come to terms with the problematic aspects of the ideology of the Brotherhood—and Islamists in general. These include its antisemitic and anti-Western worldview, its call for a legal framework which discriminates against non-Muslim groups and women, its violent tendencies, and its history of persecuting reformers and critics of Islam. Criticism of religion is, after all, the bedrock of freedom of speech, a value which Facebook, at least nominally, upholds.
It would be wise for Facebook to call on Karman to clarify her stance regarding these issues and make sure she does not turn into Erdogan’s voice on the board. Otherwise, the new Oversight Board will be at risk of further undermining Facebook’s already damaged credibility as a neutral and fair actor.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.