Last Friday, talk show host Bill Maher and author Sam Harris made headlines for appearing on Maher’s television program and implying that Islam was an inherently violent faith, with Maher insisting that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia” and Harris calling it “the mother lode of bad ideas.” Their on-air spat with actor Ben Affleck, who blasted their comments as “gross” and “racist,” triggered a week-long national debate over the nature of the Muslim faith, with various pundits, religion scholars, and thinkers tackling the question of whether or not Islam is an irreparably destructive religion.
This Friday, however, Islam offered its own answer: Malala Yousufzai, a young Muslim woman, just won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Awarding a Muslim an internationally recognized symbol of peace may be surprising to folks like Maher and Harris, but it shouldn’t be. Yousufzai, who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for the education of girls in Pakistan, won the prestigious award for being a “leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education,” activism that she says is grounded in her peaceful understanding of the Muslim faith. In her speech before the United Nations in 2013, Yousufzai, then 16, articulated her religious perspective by contrasting it with the horrific actions of the Taliban, saying, “Islam is a religion of peace, humanity and brotherhood … [the Taliban] think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would send girls to the hell just because of going to school. The terrorists are misusing the name of Islam and Pashtun society for their own personal benefits.”
But while Yousufzai’s peaceful approach to Islam is powerful, it is by no means unique. In fact, she is actually the fifth Muslim — and third Muslim woman — to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize since 2000. The other four, like Yousufzai, represent a diverse, peaceful flavor of Islam that Maher and Harris — along with many others in the cable news media — appeared to ignore. They include:
1. Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer, a former judge and human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts to protect democracy and human rights in Iran — particularly the rights of women and children. An advocate for interpretations of Islam that liberate women, Ebadi called the award “a recognition by the international community of the cause of Islamic feminism.” She, like Yousufzai, beat out a sitting pope for the award, as many had expected Pope John Paul II to take home the prize.
2. Mohamed ElBaradei, a law scholar, diplomat and former Vice President of Egypt who was awarded the prize in 2005 alongside the International Atomic Energy Agency (the organization he headed at the time), for efforts to “prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that civil use of nuclear power takes place under reliable international control.”
3. Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker, economist and social entrepreneur who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for “efforts to create economic and social development from below.” The award was a de-facto endorsement of his Grameen Bank, which seeks to combat poverty all over the world by offering long-term loans to entrepreneurs in impoverished regions. When some Muslim men balked at his willingness to grant loans to women, Yunus drew on his Islamic background, saying, “…in Islamic history women [have] been warriors and businessmen — look at the Prophet’s first wife!”
4. Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman, a Yemeni journalist and politician who was awarded the prize in 2011. She shared the honor with two other women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, who the Nobel committee collectively lauded for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” A member of Islah, Yemen’s largest Islamist party, Karman is often called a “liberal Islamist” and began her Nobel lecture with the phrase, “In the name of God the Compassionate the Merciful.” Just 32, she was youngest person to have ever won the prize at the time.
Like many Peace Prize winners, most of these Nobel recipients have been criticized in their home countries for their groundbreaking activism. Yousufzai, after all, was herself a victim of violence perpetrated by people claiming to act in accordance with Islam. But the fact that these efforts meet resistance does not invalidate the voice of the activists, nor are their faith-rooted efforts to better the world any less representative of Islam. To ignore their Muslim faith is to diminish the importance of their message, as their inspiring advocacy — along with Yousufzai’s — is but one more example of how millions of Muslims live peaceful lives in accordance with their faith.