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Global efforts towards equal representation for women and minorities have progressed significantly in recent years, with diverse leaders rising to head key industries and governments. But in their push for more inclusive leadership, companies sometimes misstep—just as they might in any recruitment process.
Facebook’s recent hiring of a woman who appears to check all the right boxes, but is actually sympathetic to extremist groups, shows how dangerous it is to hire based on identity markers.
In early May, Facebook announced the creation of a new “oversight board,” a committee that will help the company moderate content and have the final say on whether pieces of content should be removed from Facebook and Instagram. With the announcement, Facebook is growing into a publication and gravitating away from being simply a platform for ideas. This shift has arguably been underway for years, as audiences across the world rely on the platform for news, especially in contexts where freedom of the press and local media coverage are limited.
Unfortunately, the new committee is heavily biased. Facebook’s choices for its first 20 members suggest the body may help to curb the spread of some forms of hate speech and misinformation while allowing others to continue. Its appointment of religious extremist Tawwakol Karman to its board is extremely worrying.
Karman is a Yemeni journalist, former politician, and Nobel Prize winner—with a network of ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremist groups. Karman was a member of the Yemeni parliament and senior official for the Al-Islah Party, an Islamist faction that began as a Muslim Brotherhood-backed militia. Years after she played a role in the Arab Spring protests in Yemen, Karman still defends the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Karman was considered a symbol of the Yemeni revolution against the rule of Saleh, but over time she has become associated with intolerance, discrimination, and lack of neutrality,” Hani Nasira, a terrorism and extremism expert, said after Facebook’s announcement. “Her political rhetoric encourages extremism, divisiveness and shunning of those who disagree with her current loyalties,” he added.
Many communities consider Karman a divisive and radical figure, and her selection has prompted major opposition from across the political spectrum in the Muslim world. Political analysts, activists, and scholars voice concerns about her position in regional networks backed by extremists.
Within a week of Facebook’s announcement, online petitions opposing Karman’s appointment gained tens of thousands of signatures.
As one Change.org petition puts it, “Selecting Karman proves a complete ignorance of the Arab political and social reality, where Karman represents supporting terrorist groups, messing with the destinies of nations, and instigating violence. This strongly contradicts the values of Facebook, as a virtual platform that welcomes diversity, supports respect for the other, and renounces violence.”
Another petition suggested that selecting Karman “is almost a complete destruction of the board’s credibility in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Women’s voices are vital for shaping the future of Facebook as a source of information and a powerful channel for messaging and media. But of all the powerful, intelligent Muslim women in the world, Facebook’s choice of a divisive religious extremist constitutes a major misstep.
Facebook has other options: Muslim women like Dalia Al-Aqiqi, a veteran Iraqi American journalist and refugee who recently ran for Congress, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch American women’s rights advocate and scholar from Somalia. The list of possible choices for Facebook’s committee who are less divisive and extremist than Karman is long.
Renowned German journalist and Middle East analyst Constantin Schreiber suggests that Karman’s appointment is a very powerful gift for the Muslim Brotherhood as her outward appearance and public role makes it hard to scrutinize her.
“It’s very hard to accuse a woman who seems to be very liberal and very open-minded, but indeed stands for a very, very conservative approach towards religion and Islam,” he noted.
Karman’s views and her ties to Islamist extremist groups make her in some ways an excellent stand-in figure for the Muslim Brotherhood. Her presence on Facebook’s oversight board may permit the group’s allies to continue to disseminate extremist rhetoric on the social network.
In appointing Karman, Facebook has undermined its purported goals in establishing the oversight committee: the presence of an Islamist extremist, opposed and rejected by much of the Arab world, undercuts the board’s authority.
Rather than lending diversity to the board, Karman’s appointment robs the committee of any legitimacy as an arbiter of what constitutes hate speech or dangerous radicalism. Her nomination is an injustice to equal rights, freedom of religion and freedom of education, and an affront to Facebook's mission to promote community and build connections.