President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today and AFP reported the immediate reactions of world leaders to the news. Europe fawned, Desmond Tutu thought it was wonderful, Shimon Peres thought it could be a good asset for the peace process in the Middle East as did, at least according to his spokesman, President Ahmedinejad. As of yet, and it is still early, the AFP reported that U.S. conservatives, Hamas and Lech Walesa had found this year’s Nobel choice to be a deeply troubling one. The interesting question to ask here is if the intent to give Obama the prize was partially motivated by the hope that it would bolster his chances of moving on peace issues and his attempt to make good on his Cairo speech and the Palestinian peace process in particular, will it work? Who does Obama need to convince more to help make peace in the Middle East? Israel and Europe or Hamas and U.S. Conservatives? A quick read of Middle East newspapers paints a picture of an Arab public which is rather wary of Obama’s foreign policy and still upset about his inaction over Israel’s military operation in Gaza. Obama needs both Israel and the Arab world’s trust and the Nobel prize might focus the negotiating mind, so to speak, especially U.S. and Israeli minds, on the Peace Process. But Obama also needs to produce some action, soon, to convince a big, waiting Middle East public of his evenhandedness in this all. It is not clear whether the Nobel prize will aid or prove bothersome in this hefty task.
Although their story is still unknown in the U.S., the deaths of the 7 Monks of Tibhirine, in Algeria, in 1993, has long held the attention of both the French and Algerian public. For the spiritual testimony it announces. For the reflection of French-Algerian relations it provides. For the mire of french secret services it captures. The death of the trappist monks, which produced one of the most moving, contemporary documents of interfaith friendship, left behind in a letter of last testament by the abbey’s prior, Christian de Chergé, was always object of some mystery. The official version, that the monks had been kidnapped and then assassinated by Algeria’s most notorious armed Islamist Emir, Djamel Zitouni, always suffered from some obscurantism. This past week, revelations by a French general, Francois Buchwalter, that the monks had been kidnapped by the Islamists but killed inadvertently in an ambush by the Algerian army, has re-stirred the mystery and ill. Sarkozy was forced to speak about it in Italy at the G8, calling for the “truth” of the matter in a statement that seemed to hold both a veiled accusal towards the Algerian government, adding more disequilibrium to that delicate rapport, and a reminder to the French and Algerian public of the original accusals of complicity or simple botchedness of the event by the French security forces. If the Algerian Army was able to locate the monks, and kill them, even inadvertently, at a time when French forces were working hand in hand with them, then it would seem to imply a gross sin of incompetence for the French. If the darker accusals turn out to be true, that the Algerian Army, and not the Islamists, had orchestrated the kidnapping and assasinations, then that puts the French secret services in a much deeper mire. The monks testimony to friendship, over-violence and beyond religious tradition, which seems to have been very inconvenient for all the governments and armed forces involved, remains hidden between the accusals.
Obama is meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome this week following the G8, and most of the news has highlighted possible cooperation on reducing global poverty as well as possible conflict over bio-ethics. Following Obama’s speech in Cairo and Benedict’s own awkward, piece-meal attempts at addressing the Islamic world, I would be disappointed if these two giants of softpower did not save half of their alloted time to talk about inter-religious friendship. There might be just as much that they can do together to improve relationships between the “(north)West” and “Islam” as they can hammer out to win the war on poverty.