We know hardly anything that is more powerful for our human dignity than the free word. In its extremes it islife affirming and existential, but the opposite can also be fatal. It is life-affirming in a functioning democracy. When it acts as both criticallyand applauding towards a regime in mutual tolerance and dynamism. The deadly word in all its power appears threatening to the totalitarian and the recoil, the penalty for the executive, can be fatally pertinent.
Now, more than ever, we see how challenging the critical and free word can be experienced, even dangerous in many parts of this world. We know that when fear of the word is life-threatening, it is always a symptom and a warning that authoritarian powers, yes, despotisms, reigns politically or religious or in the worst case – together in an unattractive association.
The recollection of the horrors of war and inhuman degradation is fading in spite warnings from previous generations. Religion extremism, political obsession, fear of their own people, cruel hatred and malice are promoted everywhere. Keywords such as Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Isil-extreme sites, the Taliban and many more bring chills down our spines. In extreme cases, the situation triggered by the critical words or the missing words, often reinforced by self-censorship and corruption. We say this to each other – dumbfounding, but in many ways helpless. Dumbfounding because we should have learned from our recent history’s terrors. Is it true that the memory of the atrocities since World War II with all its Holocaust, nuclear bombs and mass death fade and new generations have not learned? Could it be possible?
We are frightened that neo faschism can take hold. It can happen fast. We see how undemocratic tendensies spread across Europe. And what does Brexit really signify? What will the newly elected president of the US bring to the table?
What´s gone astray when bestial vilolence and terrosism constantly dominate our news-everything from decapitation, slaughter with machete, car-bombing, masaccers with automatic weapons, often executed by suicide martyrs who believe in a privieged life eternal?
We recognize that there rests an overall responsibility on the international leadership, organizations and super powers. They have not succeeded in preserving a peace promoting dialoguein a world with tremendous challenges and changes. Democratic governing methoads have long been sparce in many places, a lacking knowledge of cultural differences is apparent. It has led to crisis´and attrocities instead of respect for our differencesin our world. Few have described more accurately than Carsten Jensen in his novel ”The last Stone” our own lacking understaning of foreign cutures. Here he uses Afghanistan as exampel.
The starting point
Was there a starting pointto this new violence, vulnerability and ambition for increased power? And what kind of power? Political, religious or both? And with violence as an instrument?
Well, an optimism was reigning in the power vacuum after the Iron Curtain fell. But the ideological uncertainty created has indeed created tasks with a complexity that the Cold War could not predict
Some would argue that the so-called Rushdie affair with the fatwa and attacks on the free word in 1989 was among the first signs that a new religious revival of Islam was on the way – and with terror as a tool, if necessary. Domestic Iran had however Ayatollah Khomeini already ravaged. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian Shiite regime chose to perceive Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, with its irony and critical humor as blasphemous and insulting. It was sent from the west and by an apostate. It sparked the first terrorist threat with the fatwa against the author and his accomplices. A religion should be made a political instrument of power and a death threat should even expand across borders –in the name of Sharia. It was not only due to political powerlessness in their own country that the Ayatollah attacked Western values by zooming in one of our most basic principles – namely free speech. It was a goal behind the dispersion of power by a re-interpreted, radical and literalism Islamism, more different and alien to us in the west than we had previously seen.
With its authoritarian politics in the name of religion was freedom of expression in the media, literature, satire, music, sculpture and theater pursued. We know that satire and caricature have been among the most affected genres and has triggered violence that has its own stories – with Jylland Posten and Charlie Hebdo as the most tragic examples.
Let us be more basic.
Awareness and management of word and thought, culture and media policy is a temperature gauge on a nation’s democratic spirit. It is from cultural and media policy you read what kind of regime that is in power.
It has been interesting to experience how the different political hues throughout the ages, even in this country, treat culture and cultural politics differently. If culture is considered a developing quality of life in a society, integrated as a natural part of our welfare, a guarantee of a critical diverse society or whether it be regarded with indifference is of great importance. For culture, broadly defined, can as policy be neglected anddownsized, it can be privatized and commercialized and can be stimulated by public framework for the benefit of a free-populace. And it can be dangerous when used as a political instrument by content manipulation or even overt propaganda.
We see the gamut all around us also in our time. The most dangerous authoritarian regimes understood to have an active relationship with culture. The gifted authoritarian leaders see that culture also is emotional in character. It moves the human mind, simply. Then it may be an instrument of power for uniformity and control, power controlled from above.
In our recent history both Soviet communism and Euro fascism – were the most determined. And I would argue that National Socialism in all its systematic propaganda was the most sophisticated. Wagner played while prisoners were gassed. They used culture in all its genres such attitudes expressed the reigning politics, racism and its causes. National Socialism understood that culture as a mean for emotional nationalistic propaganda was an essential instrument for their power. And they knew that reason and free cultural and media expression would be equally threatening – because power built above would be threatened by a free formation of opinion and mistrust from below.
I find it interesting to be able to argue that the democratic regimes inspired by the Enlightenment seems to be the most stable compared to others. One authoritarian regime can probably by abuse and violence replace the other, but there are democratic regimes with free culture and free-word expression which is in the long term the most stable. Is it really so strange?Freedom trigger human nature and reason challenge all authoritarian-imposed constraints – religious, political as cultural.
The picture has its historical roots and the reasons for today’s violence is thus both complex and extensive. Yes, it is truly multidimensional. It is complicated because the violence is directed more towards their own Muslim or Islamic religious communities than to the foreign western. And when the foreign is attackedit is justifiedby keywords ranging from colonial complex memories, prosperity differences between continents, fight for resources, unemployment, poverty, corruption and not least an ambition to promote their religions power beyond their own continent. Warlike abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria has created the most complex refugee flows. The Isil experiment and the brutal ambition of a caliphate is a consequence of war and the other complexities.
It is not just Islamic violence that we are wary of, but we are on alert to any form of fundamentalism – religious and / or political. They are all threatening to the expressors of the free word–in spite of differences in goverment.
We know that in Islamiccountriesthe religion is the overriding power agent in the political management. Isil has its extreme literal interpretation of Islam and the Koran. In Iran’s political governance the authoritarian religionoverride its unambiguity and the archenemy, the kingdom Saudi Arabia is also ruled too authoritarian, but different. Afghanistan’s western affected model and judiciary is a variant where the offense against Islam trigger life-threatening processes against critic, while the political criticism in debate and media is accepted. The Afghan women have their place in parliament even if she fights for all other female rights. Turkey has its own peculiarity where political power is more important than religion, but where religion is an instrument of power. Leadership is a degree personified. The result is increasing lawlessness, corruption and literally a collapse of freedom of speech. Kurds made for sinners and enemies in a fragmented and increasingly lawless society in near civil war. I would argue that it is now – after thecoup – that the coup is really carried out.
Yes, today’s development of governance and freedom of expression is discouraging. The list is long, but we limit ourselves.
It mentioned that the PEN movement through its worldwide Writers in Prison Committees in cooperation with ICORN (International Cities of refuge network) rescues victims – writers, journalists, publishers, satirists, musicians and other artists from life-threatening persecution. Norway has currently 14 writers living in our”Freetowns.”
The authors of the free cities, heroes and heroines among us, are persecuted for various reasons. Their stories are a reflections of conditions and governance in their countries. Today they have become one of us – in a Norwegian society that has changed and opened, which we hope will last? They had to flee their homelands because of their convictions, where free expression and free thought threatened their lives.
Their stories are important for us to understand the warning signs. I know many of them and and their stories and summarize them for our learning’s sake.
Tutul -The publisher of Bangladesh – now residing in Skien. He started a little magazine and published young writers. The magazine’s writers were the core of a publishing house. He followed the holiest of all principles for a publisher – publishing what was close to his writer´s heart – no matter what the cost. He published social and also religious criticism. That led to threats from Muslim extremists. They would find him and chop him to death with machetes. They had done it with bloggers before him. He hid and continued his free Publishing. It was a success. The critical opinions about religion and gender were published in magazine and books. He became even more a threat – and subsequently threatened. He shifted in residences and continued. Finally: The young Islamist fascists, as he calls them, broke into his office where destroyed everything. By a miracle he escaped to a hospital and later in Nepal, where he again had to flee with open wounds. In this condition he came to Norway and the wounds are still not healed. He fights on –from a the distance, but the task is still close.
Dessale –The journalist and author from Eritrea – now living in Bø. He was a rebel against injusticealeady as a child. He praised his father as “the most democratic person”. The young boy`s first protest came when a sister was bout to marry. He howled with consternation over the fact that she was leaving, and in addition barter their cow! It was more than enough that her sister dissappeared. The logical sense by the young man created havoc. The cow remained and daughter later divorced.
Eritrea is like a military camp. Young minds are brainwashed and isolated. Protests leadto disappearances. Imprisonment means death in no man’s land. Our friends consternation and indignation led him to journalism. He worked for magazines and passively in a magazine for the regime. Several jobs were needed to survive. He wrote for children. That was a threat. Barns consciousness was like a budding protest. He became known, threatening and then threatened. He would not die in prison or in a container in glowing heat. The escaped to Somalia, because on theweekends theborder guards were often drunk and the controlless strict. The spies followed him. Death threats persisted. He had to g ofurther – to Uganda. Still not safe. The flight took 5 years – before he arrived in Bø.
With a flaming description by PEN International Congress in 2014 in Kyrgyzstan about friends who disappear and their silent fate was “PEN Eritrea in Exile” created to overwhelming applause. Norwegian PEN is proud to be the center’s support. Now this center in exile is up and functioning in Bø. They are working digitally and in other ways to promote awareness of democratic values forthe young Eritreans. The network is influential. It is a struggle against totalitarianism and national brainwashing everyday – at work, teaching, military camps and prisons. Dessale tells his story in festivals and lectures. His story gives the rest ofus an understanding about our privileges, our responsibility and what our help can mean to so many.
Finally – Asieh–the female poet and journalist from Iranwho fled to Trondheim.
Iran’s western impulses were brutally struck down by Ayatollah Khomeini when he seizedthe power in 1979. The view on women´s rights suffered a severe set back. The polarization and tension between Western feminism and Sharia´s law for womenbecame unbearable. Women’s right to education was acquired under the Shah, but would theynow be able to practise what they had studied and learned? Our gifted friend wanted to do something with her life. The main entertainment for girlswas to read, write and paint. Writing poetry became increasingly important to her. Censorship and eternal surveillance followed all movements. Poetry became a sanctuary for mind and thought. Peers met for secret reading sessions. Thursday is still her day for poetry.
The writing led her to journalism. Learning self-censorship was the first bid before the editors began. A step too far could threaten peers and community. Though boundaries changed daily and many made fatal missteps.
As a volunteer, she was chief editor of a feminist news site. She came across a controversial issue – one 16 years girl was hanged for prostitution. She asked herself – if prostitution was a problem, how could they kill a child in order to solve the problem? No colleagues would write and no one would publish the case. Finally, she found a feminist magazine who was willing to publish her article. The case attracted attention and she was became known. The experience changed her as a person, both personally, socially and in other ways. She pursuedmany such cases in the struggle against the regime and the Sharia misogyny.
We are in the first decade of the twenty century and the president and the power of the state was horrible. Eventually she became an activist even beyond her journalism. Intellectuals were persecuted, imprisoned and there were conducted series of executions of writers. She was arrested during a solidarity demonstration in front of the courthouse in Tehran. She got out of prison due to the regime’s fear of riots and was free. Yet she was more a prisoner than ever in the country Iran – under a life threatening totalitarian regime. Her magazine was excommunicated. She became a threat even for the media. No one dared to use her any longer. To work for foreign media was like working for the enemy and you’re considered a spy. Pseudonyms were used until she found the ICORN,International Cities of Refugee Network- and they brought her to Norway as a writer and refugee, aCity og Asylum writer. But is such a fate luck, when a mother gets sick at home and her daughter is not able to help, but can only recall an incredible mother. They call to each other, but they cannot reach each other – mother and daughter.
In the end
These were examples of Eritrea, Bangladesh and Iran – the author for children, the publisher, the journalist and the poet now living in Norway. They are one of us. They have fought for survival because of the strength of the free word. They have experienced what understanding and respect for human dignity really means. They have fought for others’ survival and freedom even though the words were deadly. The recognition concerns all of us – always.