EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the human-rights conference in the Norwegian capital. The conference is over, but the journal continues. Previous parts are at the following links: I, II, III, and IV.
Does the name Anwar Ibrahim ring a bell? He was the deputy prime minister of Malaysia in the 1990s. He played a significant part in the flowering of the Malaysian economy. In fact, Newsweek named him its 1998 “Asian of the Year.” But then he turned his attention to corruption in his own government. And he was sentenced to six years of solitary confinement.
He was released in 2004. Today, he is leading the reform movement in Malaysia, trying to break 50 years of one-party rule. And he is facing more charges.
In the Christiania Theater, he tells us that, when it comes to the Malaysian government, “we’re not dealing with Hitler, Stalin, or the Khmer Rouge. This is a sophisticated clique. They give the appearance of democracy,” using the slickest PR firms. “They say they have an independent judiciary,” but that isn’t so: “It’s under the thumb of the executive.”
So, we are not dealing with monsters here, says Ibrahim — although his six years of solitary confinement was pretty monstrous. “We are dealing with a sophisticated bunch,” a “corrupt and corrupting ruling elite.”
Ibrahim is charming, funny, and mordant. He was beaten up by his country’s inspector general. “So, if you take power, make sure your inspector general is not too strong,” physically. That way, if one day he beats you up, “it’s not fatal.”
He says, “Yes, we had freedom of speech — but we never had freedom after speech.” A crucial distinction! In Malaysia, you engage in free speech “at your own peril.”
He says that his opponents have accused him of coming to Oslo to solicit foreign support and to attack his own country. They have accused him of being “an agent of Israel, a Jewish agent, a stooge of Israel.” That shows you where the heart of the Malaysian government is: When they malign you, they reach for Israel and the Jews.
Says Ibrahim, “Of course, I’m against the crimes against the Palestinians.” I say under my breath, “To heck with you, buddy.” (I am cleaning it up for the journal.)
At any rate, Ibrahim tells us that he’s going back to prison: because “once you’re charged, you’re going to prison. It’s a foregone conclusion.” And yet Malaysians at large are “demanding and clamoring for reform.”
‐Zuhdi Jasser is doing blessed and indispensable work. He’s a physician from Wisconsin who now lives in Phoenix. He is a former Navy lieutenant and a Muslim — the child of Syrian immigrants. His group is the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. It is, to quote from Jasser’s bio, “a Muslim-led effort to establish a synergy between democracy and pluralistic Islam; it seeks to address the ideological conflict between spiritual and political Islam.”
Jasser says that “terrorism is just a tactic: We are fighting an ideology,” namely “political Islam.” He says that in Muslim countries — “the so-called Muslim countries,” he actually says — people are given a “binary choice”: either “secular fascism” or “Islamism.” And yet there is another way: “universal liberty.”
He also makes a point that cannot be made too often: Radical, political Muslims bamboozle non-Muslims by saying, “Well, this is what our religion demands.” Muslims such as Jasser cannot be bamboozled. They know better. It’s their religion too, after all. The Islamists are not pushing religion, says Jasser; they’re pushing their politics.
I wish we had a thousand and a million and ten million Zuhdi Jassers: democratic Muslims who put their necks on the line by speaking out.
‐Siegmar Faust was an East German. Now he is just a German, I suppose, and a man. He was arrested by the Stasi for writing “liberal and provocative poems.” He spent four and a half years in prison, most of the time in solitary confinement. Sixty-three of those days were in “hungry confinement” — they gave him very little to eat. And he was tortured.
After the fall of the Wall, a wonderful thing occurred: Faust became the commissioner in charge of the Stasi files.
He tells us how ruthless the Stasi were — one of the most vicious state-security apparatuses in the world. And yet, after Communism, there were no acts of revenge against Stasi men (and women). Faust says this is indicative of “a high level of civilization.”
He talks about how thorough a police state East Germany was. In all of Nazi Germany — an unsplit Germany — there were 7,000 in the Gestapo. In the GDR, just eastern Germany, there were 91,000 officials in the Stasi, and 189,000 “off the record employees,” as Faust puts it. “One out of every 60 citizens in the GDR was an active member of state security, officially or unofficially.”
In his talk, Faust becomes emotional several times — chokes up — and has to stop. Then he resumes.
When I was growing up, I often heard about what a good country East Germany was: probably the most humane of the East Bloc countries. They had worked out some kind of social democracy. You often heard East Germany praised by people who, in the United States, are called “liberals.” Sure, we in the West had “political rights,” but there, they had “social rights”: the right of food, shelter, health care, and so on. Honecker was kind of an FDR-plus.
What a lie. A few years ago, I interviewed Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the writer and director of The Lives of Others, that marvelous movie about life under the Stasi. I said to him that some former East Germans had complained to me about the movie: saying that the country was even worse than depicted. Donnersmarck replied that they were absolutely right.
‐I have mentioned before in this journal Lubna al-Hussein, that incredibly brave Sudanese woman. May I give you her bio, or remind you of it?
[Hussein] gained international attention in July 2009 when she was prosecuted for wearing trousers. At the time of her arrest, she worked for the media department of the United Nations mission in Sudan and was known for her public criticism of the government’s policies. . . . [S]he and 12 others were taken into custody for “dressing indecently in public” — an offense that could be punishable by whipping. Hussein refused to plead guilty and demanded a trial. When the court fined her for her behavior, she chose to remain in prison instead, but was freed to avoid more international embarrassment for the government of Sudan.
This is a point I wish to stress: Hussein could have gotten out of her predicament; she had the connections. But she stayed in her predicament, so to speak, in order to help others — in order to challenge the government broadly, perhaps making it easier for Sudanese in the future.
She shows us pictures of how Sudanese women used to dress — how her grandmothers, and her contemporaries’ grandmothers, dressed. Today they would be given many lashes. Islamism is not an age-old phenomenon. What I mean is, it has erupted quite recently in many places, including Sudan.
Hussein details the plight of women in her country. Ninety-one percent of girls undergo genital mutilation. It has been outlawed since 1947 — but that’s only on paper. I’m reminded of the Soviet Union. People always used to talk about its constitution: “According to the Soviet constitution . . .” But that parchment was a crock.
Hussein relates several stories of abuse and sadism. Care for one? Okay, real quick. A girl balked at marrying the man who had been arranged for her. So the man gave the girl’s brother some acid, claiming it was holy water, blessed by the sheikh. “Splash it on your sister’s face before morning prayers,” he said. The brother did so — with horrifying results. We see pictures.
Endlessly, there is rape — rape of toddlers, rape of adolescent girls, rape of women, rape, rape, rape. Not punished at all. Just systematized: rape, rape, and more rape. Five years ago, I did a biggish piece on Sudan for National Review, and the worst part of doing it — of researching it — was reading and hearing about rape. Constant rape.
But, as you know, this is a tool of repressive governments, and repressive societies, all over the world.
I could go on with Lubna al-Hussein’s testimony, but you get the drift . . .
‐Hernando de Soto — not the 16th-century explorer but the great Peruvian economist — speaks to us by video. He talks about writing his book The Other Path. This was when Sendero Luminoso — Shining Path, the Maoist terror group — was on the march. The “other path” of which de Soto had written was freedom, essentially.
De Soto was worried about what would happen to him if he went ahead and published. One beautiful day, he heard the birds chirping, and he thought, “If I publish this book, I will never hear birds chirping again.” Sendero would kill him. He decided not to publish. “And I felt better for three days. Then I felt bad” — and published.
“Some nice people gave me a bullet-proof car. People taught me about security.” He ducked the terrorists for five years; and then they were subdued — and de Soto, with everyone else, could breathe easier.
De Soto is one of the great explainers of economics, and if you forget the importance of property rights, he’ll remind you. How do property rights relate to human rights? “Property rights are human rights,” he says.
‐In the evening, there is a somewhat formal dinner, at which the main speaker is Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. She is a dedicated campaigner for human rights. She has just been on CNN and al-Jazeera, making her central points. Thor Halvorssen, the president of the Oslo Freedom Forum, says that she was like a “cannonball” on those networks — just saying the necessary straight out. We could use more of that.
I have met Fergie, as we used to call her — do we still? — once before. We were guests on a television show, out in Hollywood: Politically Incorrect. She was sweet and charming then. She is again now — a lot of fun and slightly earthy, too. At the rostrum, she easily wins the crowd. One of the points she makes is that the Freedom Forum should become “the Davos of human rights.”
‐Among the diners is Lech Walesa, looking majestic — projecting a workingman’s majesty, a trade-union majesty, if you can follow me (and I know you do). A film is shown, depicting scenes from Communist China, North Korea, and other unfree societies. Walesa repeatedly nods at the screen, as if to say, “Ah, yes — very familiar.”
‐After the dinner, I hang out with a number of locals — a number of Norwegians, and even a Dane, for diversity. One Norwegian is a serious libertarian who worked on the Ron Paul for President campaign. When he was a student, he went to America, looking for the genuine libertarian culture. You know where he went? The University of California at Berkeley! Whoops. He loved the experience anyway (and has had many more since).
‐I ask him, “Does every educated Norwegian speak English?” He says yes. And “our grandparents spoke German.” How about the Norwegians of the future? Chinese? We laugh slightly nervously about this.
‐Among the partiers is Patri Friedman, who is treated somewhat like royalty — like a prince — because he is the grandson of Milton and Rose. And the likes of us love them, abidingly. Patri is head of the Seasteading Institute, which is supported by Peter Thiel, who is also here. (Thiel is the entrepreneur, inventor, intellectual, philanthropist, and so on who is responsible for PayPal, and other remarkable things.) What is this “seasteading”? Like homesteading, I understand, but out at sea. This is a futuristic project with a variety of political and social implications.
Enough Oslo-ing for one day? I think so. See you tomorrow for Part VI.