With all the fuss lately over veils and manufactured outrage, the awarding of two promient Nobel prizes to Muslims may have slipped under the radar. Bangladeshi-born economist Muhammad Yunus was the surprise winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Grameen Bank, his revolutionary institution that championed microcredit lending for the poor. In a year when a number of veteran politicians (and musicians) were considered for the award, the selection of an economist broadened the definition of peacemaking and was almost universally praised as visionary. Founded in the early 1980’s, the Grameen Bank challenged the major principles of banking, loaning small amounts to primarily poor women and maintaining a 97% repayment rate while lifting millions out of poverty. The bank is now majority owned by the poor it served, and Bangladesh is in the midst of nationwide celebrations. Similarly groundbreaking, but somewhat controversial was the selection of Turkish author Orhan Pamuk for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Vilified by many in Turkey and lauded by others for his calls for reexamining the deaths of more than a million Armenians under the Ottoman Turks in the early 20th century (he was tried and acquitted for “insulting Turkishness” earlier this year), Pamuk famously denounced the fatwa against British novelist Salman Rushdie, and earned praise throughout the West for his stance against fundamentalism and for free speech. While US President George Bush quoted Pamuk in a 2004 speech in Istanbul, Turkey’s president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, made only an obscure reference to his Nobel win, expressing pride in the export of Turkish “cotton and figs” (Pamuk’s last name means ‘cotton’ in Turkish). Many have commented on the political motivation for the awards to Pamuk and Yunus, noting in particular the tenuous position of Turkey with regards to EU membership (the French have recently made Armenian genocide-denial a crime) and the longstanding opposition to the Grameen Bank from more conservative mullahs and patriarchal societies. But when it comes to Muslims these days, everything is political. Ultimately, the willingness of these two to challenge both Islamic and Western conventions and their influence on others could outlast all the controversies.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.