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Don’t fail democracy, Tawakkol Karman urges in lecture

Nobel Peace Prize laureate talks about global issues, activism at UND’s Eye of the Hawk lecture

woman at podium
Tawakkol Karman delivers an impassioned lecture at UND, sharing her knowledge and advice regarding activism. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Following President Andy Armacost’s declaration that 2023 would be a “year of connection” for UND, it’s appropriate that last Thursday’s Eye of the Hawk lecture was delivered by a woman whose efforts to organize people through nonviolent protests during the Arab Spring changed the history of Yemen.

Armacost introduced Tawakkol Karman, a journalist, politician, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the “mother of the revolution,” to the stage in the nearly full Memorial Union ballroom. Karman’s lecture, aptly titled “Tyranny and the Future of Democracy,” was focused on authoritarian threats to democracy around the world and the repercussions that tyranny can have.

Now in its seventh year, the lecture series was designed to bring national and world-class thinkers, speakers, and leaders to UND. The goal is to feature speakers who can offer a hawk’s eye “view from above”; and with that in mind, previous speakers have included Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis; William Bryan, science and technology advisor to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; and Tressie McMillan Cottom, a MacArthur Fellowship award winner who teaches at the University of North Carolina and is an opinion columnist for The New York Times.

Eye of the hawk, heart of the lion

Throughout the 30-minute speech, Karman, the first Arab woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, covered topics such as resource inequality, climate change, human rights, and the increasing challenges of globalization. While Karman addressed all of these topics with appropriate gravity, she remains optimistic, she said, about the global defense of democracy and equality.

The speech began with Karman detailing a worldwide “existential crisis,” which sees the increasing globalization of our world contribute to the growing disparity of wealth and resources and a consolidation of power that strips people of their fundamental rights.

“This has led to local and regional conflict, humanitarian crises and vicious wars which disrupt global peace and stability,” she said. “Dictatorships are breeding grounds for terrorism and extremism, as the dictators use it as a tool to suppress their people and instill fear in others.”

Karman’s tireless efforts in organizing against the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 gave her insight into the insidious ways tyrants abuse citizens’ goodwill to enrich themselves. She asserted that leaders such as Saleh don’t care about global crises, and that they eschew cooperative efforts in favor of enriching themselves and their political allies.

“Dictatorships undermine international cooperation in a world that increasingly relies on diplomacy and cooperation to address global challenges,” she said. “Authoritarian regimes often resist cooperation, viewing it as the threat to their power. This resistance hampers effort to combat issues like climate change, global health, and nuclear proliferation.”

Global cooperation is necessary, says Karman, who believes that the repercussions of tyrannical government are far-reaching. According to Karman, stoked by corrupt political figures and bad faith actors, rifts in the geopolitical landscape hamper efforts to mitigate rising and persistent threats to the world’s population.

“These challenges faced by our shared humanity need our collaboration to stop this deterioration, before there is no way to return. We need to work together to stop this division.”

Karman, who was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize at the time of the award, turned her attention to students and faculty later in the speech. She emphasized that they need to be aware of how much tyrannical governance can impact our global community.

“Students and faculty, people like you, should be aware about these challenges and should participate in an individual way, in your society, in your University. Especially, to be the voice of people who suffer from dictators and authoritarian regimes.”

The audience in the Memorial Union ballroom was nearly full. Students, faculty, staff and Grand Forks residents were all in attendance. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

‘Enough is enough’

Cognizant of the difficulties faced by those willing to stand up for equality and fairness, Karman said that protesters during the Arab Spring faced hostility and concerted efforts to undermine their cause. But complacency is not an adequate response to tyranny, she noted, and recalled watching Yemen’s changing tides as its people shed their fear and confronted injustice at protests.

“They said ‘Enough is enough’, and they walked out to the street, not with any kind of weapons; just with their flowers, just their voices, just their songs calling for peace, for freedom and democracy,” she said.

Karman is aware that, with all her emphasis on injustice and imminent threats to global health, she may be considered by many to be a pessimist. On the contrary, she believes herself to be “the most optimistic woman in the world,” even in the face of naysayers and unrelenting opposition to her cause in Yemen.

“You will die alone in the street, no one in Yemen will listen to you,” she recalled being told, to which she responded: “I believe in people. I believe that they will one day wake up and follow the dreams of freedom and democracy — and that’s exactly what happened.”

She closed her lecture with another call to action, not just for the University but for all future leaders and activists of the world.

“Be strong, be fearless, all of us. Embrace human rights, always fight injustice, corruption, terrorism, racism. Always work for peace, equality, human rights, coexistence, and love.”

A hero’s heroes

A talkback followed the speech, allowing audience members to ask Karman questions. One audience member asked what advice she would offer to the next generation of people aspiring to affect meaningful change.

“You are strong enough to do very big things,” she said. “Believe in your goals, believe in yourself. If you dream what you want and make your dream bold, there is no fear of consequences. And always, always search for the truth.”

In response to another question on her inspirations, Karman cited figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Queen of Sheba — a historical figure associated with the kingdom of Saba, which would become modern-day Yemen and Ethiopia — as personal heroes. Most of all, she spoke of her father’s influence on her life as a leader and activist.

“He is the one who nurtured me to say no to any type of injustice,” she said. “He is the one who told me, from the early ages of my childhood, to be responsible, to always consider myself as the key to the solution, to not wait for a solution from any others. So always he said, ‘My daughter always be in the front line.’”

Following a question about the states of Western democracies and rising concern over global conflicts and foreign interferences, Karman offered a sentiment that effectively encapsulated the theme of her lecture: Democracy, she said, is essential, and should be precious to everyone seeking a better, more equal world.

“I beg you, the American people, to protect your democracy. Don’t let people hijack your democracy. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, democracy belongs to every American citizen, to every citizen on this planet,” she said.

“America without democracy is nothing, and all of the world without American democracy is nothing.”

This Eye of the Hawk lecture was hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences and sponsored by Rick and Jody Burgum.