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Jamal Khashoggi’s Writings From the Oslo Freedom Forum

Just months before his murder in Istanbul, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi attended the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. He wrote two columns inspired by his time in Oslo for the Arabic-language outlet Raseef 22. HRF has translated them into English, and, with permission, we are re-publishing them here for you to read:

Thoughts on Arab Freedom From Oslo, Norway
by Jamal Khashoggi
June 6, 2018

I’m in the Norwegian capital to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum – a conference that would be grounds for imprisonment should you come here from our [Arab] world, and plan on returning to it. This forum celebrates dissent, protests, human rights, and freedom. Over here, they applaud dissidents and support them with respect and solidarity, especially when their story is raw and poignant.

Here, they applaud the very same dissidents that our rulers want us to view as traitors and “secret agents” of the West – the very same West whose doors the very same Arab rulers knock on to seek approval, be it by telling truths or lies. Our rulers are, of course, free to act as they wish, but a citizen who wants to exercise his/her freedom isn’t allowed to do what he/she wishes – nor can he/she speak or share his/her “point of view” – even a mere “point of view”!

Many of those who attended the Oslo Freedom Forum were once in jail somewhere in the world, having lived that painful carceral experience that seems the inevitable fate of anyone who believes in freedom under a dictatorship. If only they would hold a workshop at a future session of the Forum where activists compare the jails of their various countries – which is better and which is worse?

Is there a “good” political prison? The activist who calls for political reform is a traitor in the eyes of our rulers, and a traitor doesn’t deserve to live; so why would he/she receive good treatment in jail? But if he or she is ever treated well in prison, it’s a gift from the ruler, that he should be thanked for!

I recall the words of my “friend” Ali Shihabi – founder of the “Arabia Foundation” in Washington D.C., an organization tasked with polishing my country’s image there. We were being interviewed on a TV show, and the presenter asked him, “What will happen to Jamal if he goes home?” He answered reassuringly, by praising the prisons in our country, saying that they are “merciful and better than others in the Middle East.”

Ali is an educated man who has certainly heard of human rights. He grew up here, in Norway, the country that has been proud to sponsor this forum annually for the past 10 years. This year, the Forum was inaugurated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and several officials spoke. They believe – they who rank so high up on the index of civil liberties and human rights – that they have a global mission to spread this compassion to our miserable part of the world. May God reward them.

As for my friend Ali, he is doing his job. God save me from the evil of our compassionate prisons.

I attended the forum as a journalist, not as an activist. I wanted to preserve my first identity that I’m so proud of – a journalist who conveys what he sees, and expresses what he believes in, through his articles. I don’t belittle the work of activists, for it is their right to do what they do. If it weren’t for the likes of Gandhi and Mandela, and others who came before them, with messages of truth to deliver to our nations – and our minds – liberty would not have been achieved. One of the most beautiful things I heard in the past, was the message of Prophet Mohammed (May the peace and blessings of God be upon him), which is fundamentally a call for liberty and freedom of choice.

During this lopsided time that we, as Arabs, are living through, an “intellectual” will not hesitate to praise prisons, or publish an article against the Arab Spring, or disavow his own past (now banned) books, and say: “We are not ready for democracy and liberties.” This discourse has become dominant, by the full force of the ruler, in our [Arab] world.

In the hallways of this conference in Oslo, one hears ideas that have become alien to us: idealism, freedom, struggles, rights; such talk would provoke the mockery of certain Arabs, those who have been defeated and became pro-government mouthpieces, surviving only by chanting the praise of their king. How would they react if they heard citizens speaking on the stage of the Det Norske Theater about the state of freedom in their country, raising their voices and demanding their rights? Perhaps they would see them as dreamers, asking for too much. Perhaps they would mock them. “Who do you think you are? Mandela? Do you think freedom will fill your stomach? You just want chaos and strife!”

But a yearning for freedom is deeply embedded within us, even if it is hidden and buried by oppression and fear; it emerges with the very first glimpse of emancipation from tyranny. Do you remember the Egyptian, Syrian, and Yemeni citizens at the beginning of their peaceful revolutions, especially the Egyptians? Do you remember the margin of freedom they won, which extended for about two full years? The Egyptians did not need someone to teach them what freedom is or give them training on it. Freedom emerged from within them, as freedom is part of human nature.

I remember spending a week in Egypt following the triumph of the revolution. I was then living a new love story and a new marriage, both of which ended, just like the short life of the Egyptian Spring of democracy. At the time, Egypt was also living its own love story with liberty, but it did not last for long. Love and liberty need to be nurtured by a lot of giving and sacrifices, but also need to be protected from the cold, hard realities that they face once the initial euphoric moments pass. Still, it was the happiest of times for both of us. People were not the same people you see now in Cairo. They were dealing with liberty as if they had reclaimed it all over again, and freed it from an occupier who had usurped it for a thousand years.

Back then, I visited Al Shorouk bookshop in Dokki, Cairo. On the second floor, was the professor of political science at Cairo University, Al Motaz Billah Abdel Fattah, lecturing on democracy and elections. Around him, young men and women had filled the place. They sat on the floor and flowed onto the stairs, listening to him with admiration and interest. Maybe some of them were thinking about how to plan an election in which they would compete. Back then it wasn’t a mere dream; on that day, it was within their grasp.

Today, these young people have become scattered all around; some are in detention centers, others are in exile. Some are frustrated and depressed, while others have been possibly killed, and not even celebrated like the Egyptian people who had sacrificed their own lives in 2011 so others can live free.

But even Al Motaz has changed. I liked his talk that night, so I looked up his articles and found him to be a free political thinker. I asked him to do me the honor of writing a foreword for my book, “The Arab Spring in the Age of the Muslim Brotherhood,” which was published before the 2013 Egyptian coup.

Unfortunately, by then, Al Motaz had given up. He abandoned all the values he believed in and was justifying the coup. He was not alone – there were many like him who believed in the Arab Spring but abandoned it when they saw their regimes reveal their true faces and fight back the uprisings. They saw where the wind was blowing, and chose their own safety and personal gains. They couldn’t even remain silent.

Some of them erased their tweets, hoping that no one would ever remember them. Others were blunt (or at least honest to themselves) and stated that they have changed their opinion after finding out that “the Arab Spring was a conspiracy.” But we should see them also as victims – they deserve a lecture one day at the Oslo Freedom Forum titled, “Why do some people collapse and betray their cause?” Do they feel pain and shame? Is their cynicism and their attack on freedom and those who seek it, part of the therapy that relieves them from their feelings of remorse? Is it money? Is it a fear of being an outcast?

We need to understand them; they, too, are victims.

“Avoid prison as much as you can … for freedom, imprisonment, and depression”
by Jamal Khashoggi
June 10, 2018

After spending two long days at the Oslo Freedom Forum in the Norwegian capital last week during a heat wave that surpassed the heat of the harshest of prisons in the southern part of the world where most of the “miserable” activists came from, I asked myself as I listened to their words and stories about the struggles for freedom in Togo, Cambodia, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Iran, Libya, and Egypt…Does what I hear reinforce my faith in freedom or will it just get me depressed?

I leaned toward the second option. What is depressing here, is not only the repeated similarities in their stories – as if all the tyrants were fed from the same poisonous well – but rather the world’s indifference. The US State Department publishes a report on human rights every year, and one on the state of religious freedom around the world. The last one was released last week. Its information is no less accurate than what independent human rights organizations state, but it [the US] is no longer doing anything, other than imposing a few penalties and sanctions. The issue of human rights has been politicized. [The US] remembers Iran’s violations and imposes extreme sanctions but forgets about Egypt and Zimbabwe.

What if Bernie Sanders, a left-wing congressman whose speech is similar to that of the former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, won the last US presidential election instead of Donald Trump? Would he have raised the banner of [human] rights? Or would the CIA chief have reminded him that this slogan “will weaken our allies in the region”? Will human rights take precedence over achieving the interests of oil companies and weapons? Can tyrants resist America’s power? Perhaps then the tyrants will turn to their oppressed people and turn their own scribes into combatants standing up to the “new American imperialist onslaught.” That is a scenario suitable for a science-fiction novel, not a political article or a session at the next Oslo Freedom Forum.

I felt especially sorry for Leyla Yunus, the Azerbaijani human rights defender, who seemed to me more like a loving grandmother who deserves to retire and spend a good time on her favorite couch, reading stories to her grandchildren at her home in Baku, the capital of her oil-rich country, where government became hereditary. [There’s] nothing new [there] – this is how many of the “republics” of our world are [today]. I discovered during the Oslo Freedom Forum that inheriting power is a common thing in Africa, as well as in Latin America, without forgetting North Korea which was inherited by a father, then a grandson, even though it is considered “democratic communism”!

Leyla left the stage after she was exhausted by her own touching words. She raised her weak grip and said with a voice weakened from the detention: “May the dictator fall. Do not forget human rights in Azerbaijan.” I wondered: Will anyone care about her cause, other than human rights organizations?

I do not know why the picture of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrating the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, appeared suddenly in my head, as well as other leaders who deal with him day and night, and with the rest of the world’s tyrants. Perhaps it was because of the relationship between the two countries. It is political interests that make Erdoğan care about human rights in Egypt and ignore them in Azerbaijan – the same interests that make not only thousands, but millions of Arab refugees pray that Erdoğan wins the next election, without caring about the 50,000 Turks who have been detained since the failed coup attempt more than a year ago. The refugees will have no safe haven to turn to if Erdogan and his party lose the election. They were frightened by the opposition candidate Miral Akchnar, who said that [Erdoğan] will send the Syrian refugees back to their homeland if she wins the presidency – a homeland ruled by their murderer!

I mentioned this paradox between Azerbaijan and Erdoğan to explain how interests and pragmatism govern human rights issues, regardless of fairness – a reality that is now recognized by those who have spent a while in the field of opposition and human rights.

Many have abandoned the expectation of immediate results, and are following a method described in this saying: “plant a tree for those who will come after you looking for shade or who will build an arch and an arrow from it.” Their interest in political struggle decreased, and they are spreading education, self-education, democratic values, respect for the rule of law, and of course, “supra-constitutional principles.” I heard this term for the first time in Egypt in 2012, from a number of jurists and liberals who expressed their fear of Islamists’ intentions. They were opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood who had more faith in the strength of the ballot box. It seems now that even proponents of “constitutional principles” no longer believe in them, as they quickly collapsed and joined the coup, with no respect for [any] constitution, no ballot box, let alone “supra-constitutional principles.”

Before I bid farewell to Leyla Yunus, I must mention part of her story. In 2014, Azerbaijan won the [bid to] host the 2015 European Games. Leyla protested, and “scoffed” at “free” European nations granting this honor to a repressive government. The next day, she was arrested and charged with treason and “stabbing her country in the back.” The government framed Leyla’s position as being against the country, and not against the government. She certainly loves her country, but she doesn’t like its government. Who would explain this to the leader and his media that promote the concept of “I am the homeland, and the homeland is me”? She’s an idealist. She spent her life leading the Institute of Peace and Democracy, which calls for the rule of law, so that the homeland [truly] belongs to its people, not to a dictator who governs people that praise him and are subservient to him; people cannot see a homeland without their leader.

Leyla ended up in jail, despite her old age, and so did her husband. Her health deteriorated while she was in prison, and she and her husband were released after a year and a few months. She lives now as a refugee in the Netherlands… I can almost hear a citizen praising his leader day and night or one defeatist saying, “What did she benefit from [all of that]?” One day, an Azerbaijani living in a free Azerbaijan, not ruled by Aliyev or his son or grandson, will say: “We enjoy our freedom, thanks to Leyla Yunus.”

This last thought is exciting, and is cause for optimism. But the rest of the Forum is depressing. I found out that I was not the only one suffering from emotional distress. I always thought that I was suffering from it because of the loss of my country and feeling homesick. I found out during a talk that 19 percent of human rights activists suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The research comes from an institution focused on this issue and that is trying to develop treatment programs to treat PTSD, a condition that makes some think about suicide or isolating themselves, and even drugs. The politician does not realize the damage he causes to a writer, an imam, a journalist, an intellectual, or an economist when he or she is thrown in prison for no reason other than to intimidate the rest of the people, or [the harm from being kept] in solitary confinement for two or three months. It is a nightmare that pursues them when they are released, even if they were not severely tortured.

Someone who experienced this, told me that he had thoughts of committing suicide twice. He would be busy with people or on a bus, and would suddenly have “flashbacks” from being in the cell, feeling despair, loneliness, and all the fear that he had experienced.

I remembered a female journalist colleague, who is now living in Washington and had experienced prison. She hardly leaves her home, even though she is now safe. I did not understand why. Maybe I may have been unfair to her when I thought she was exaggerating when she was saying to me: “I cannot do anything, I’m still there.” I understand her situation better now, and my sorrow for her only became greater after I sat with Rick Doblin, who leads a non-profit organization that provides treatment for those who suffer from PTSD. He told me about the re-adjustment difficulties they face because of the lack of understanding of the issue and disbelief from those around them.

The distress that I sometimes wake up feeling, has decreased after I chose to live abroad in safety, away from home, and especially when I compare myself to those who are suffering or have experienced prison, but my anger increased toward those who rejoice in [the misery of] their colleagues and fellow citizens who were unlucky enough to end up in prison unjustly.

The hardest thing is to be jailed for no reason. The intellectual is not a criminal, so he is always unprepared for imprisonment. The brother of a friend of mine who ended up in prison last September told me after he was allowed to visit his brother, that solitary confinement broke him to the extent that he became unrecognizable.

Why do you do this, oh leader, to the best of your people? Someday, you will order the release of my friend and his companions, and they will be free physically, but some of them will remain in prison, haunted by that enormous void. I feel selfish when I write now. “Thank God I did not go to jail.” I know how they live in prison now. I know how much deprivation and pain their families suffer from, and the fear of those around them who are free physically and imprisoned mentally by their souls and aspirations.

We live in a time in which prison has become a tool of governance and control of the “masses.” Laws and regulations are now an extra tool. Prison has become a weapon in the hands of the leader, his party, his army, and his ruling class. Therefore, I hope that the Islamic movements will cease their glorification of the prison and its experience. Do not chant Sayyid Qutb’s “My brother, you are free behind your chains” poem in your private, closed sessions, if you still dare to hold them now. Look for a formula of opposition that does not lead to imprisonment and confrontation. I know this is easier said than done. Prison in our world is not always a punitive or precautionary measure. It has become part of political negotiation, pressure, and control of the masses.

Any political movement that tolerates decisions that bring its youth to prison is irresponsible, and so are the political opponents from abroad who incite those inside the country to be angry, to move, and to butt heads with the ruler. So I always say to the youth in my country: Do not listen to them, and avoid prison as much as you can; all you will get is a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, and a great deal of depression.