Maybe the most colorful participant is Leymah Gbowee, an African heroine. As her bio says, she is “a peace activist who was instrumental in ending the Second Liberian Civil War.” Her story is told in a celebrated documentary: Pray the Devil Back to Hell. I love that phrase, one of my favorites, all-time.
Gbowee wears a splashily wonderful African dress, and displays a similar personality. She is funny, entertaining, and compelling. Her subject could not be more serious: the insanity and sadism that gripped her country, Liberia. We’re liable to forget how depraved humanity can be.
Terror, maiming, murder. Girls hauled away to be raped; boys hauled away to be soldiers. Gbowee speaks of “the total breakdown of traditional and moral values.” (She sounds suspiciously like a conservative. Would the Left in America denounce her as a dangerous theocrat?)
Gbowee organized women for peace, for putting pressure on the combatants to stop their violence. They wore white, these women. So do the women in Cuba, pleading for their loved ones in prison.
Of the Liberian women, Gbowee says, “They had seen the worst, but they still had a yearning for life.” What finally pushed them into activism was that “the price of sitting and doing nothing was getting higher than the price of getting involved.” It was either “accept death or fight back.” So they “boldly decided to step out.”
At one climactic point, they borrowed a page from Lysistrata: staging a sex strike. What was old, very old, was new again.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is worth a look. And when you encounter Leymah Gbowee, you feel you have encountered someone who is one in a million, probably more.
‐I remember my American-history teacher in 8th grade: saying, with a tremulous voice, that there was no war like civil war — that it was the worst thing in the world.
‐In the first installment of this journal, I introduced you to Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor. I quote again from his bio: “In 2009, his three daughters and his niece were killed by Israeli fire. Despite his tragic loss, Dr. Abuelaish has remained focused on achieving peace in the region.”
He gives, as you might imagine, a powerful presentation in the Christiania Theater. He says that an Israeli shell hit the family house. And the girls, who would die, “were armed only with love.” Behind Dr. Abuelaish is a slideshow. There are captions. One of them reads, “My daughter’s room which was shelled by Israeli tank.” We see body bags. And a cemetery: “My daughters and niece under the ground.”
Dr. Abuelaish kind of shouts his way through the presentation, his voice and face reflecting pain. When he is through, he receives a standing ovation, the only one of the entire conference. And the applause is sustained.
What this man experienced is basically unbearable; and yet, remarkably, he is bearing it. How people bear the unbearable — a bit of a mystery.
I have three hard questions. Was the presentation on the exhibitionistic or exploitative side? Sure. Did Dr. Abuelaish say anything about why the Israelis might have been in Gaza in the first place? That would probably be too much to ask.
Finally, there are many Israeli fathers who have lost daughters to Palestinian terror, many Israeli uncles who have lost nieces: If one of them addressed the assembly, in like fashion, would he also receive a standing ovation? Maybe. I don’t know.
If Izzeldin Abuelaish can work for reconciliation and peace after what happened to him — he is one of the most valuable players in the whole of his region.
‐The last speaker of the conference — the grand finale — is Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel peace prize. Last year’s final speaker was a Nobel laureate, too: Poland’s Lech Walesa. Ebadi is from Iran. Apparently, she was the first female judge in the entire history of Iran — a phenomenal distinction.
That was under the shah. When the mullahs came to power, all bets were off. They said that Islam forbade women to serve as judges; for one thing, they were too emotional. So, Ebadi became a defense lawyer, particularly dedicated to serving women and children. Since the violence of 2009, she has been in exile.
Ebadi begins her address here with a paean to “freedom of thought and expression.” This is the freedom on which so much else depends, she says. In a heavily secular society, religious people should be able to speak. In a heavily religious society, secular people should be able to speak. In a socialist society, the advocates of capitalism should have their say. In a capitalist society, the advocates of socialism should have their say.
And so on. Ebadi sounds like a good First Amendment backer.
By the way, I spot Geir Lundestad in the audience. For many years, he has been the secretary to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and the director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. I imagine he is listening with especially keen interest: What’s our gal up to? How’s she doing?
Midway through her remarks, Ebadi switches gears, talking about “the boundaries of freedom of speech.” She cites the U.N.’s “Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” for which she obviously has a lot of respect. Article 20 reads, “Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.” And, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”
Then she alludes to some controversies of recent years . . .
She says that, “in a country where a majority are Muslims, and there is just a minority of Christians, such as Iran or Pakistan, one should not have the right to draw cartoons of Jesus or burn copies of the Bible. Why? Because, in doing so, you are humiliating the minority population of your country,” as well as “inciting hatred.”
By the same token, “in a country such as Denmark,” one should not have the right to draw cartoons of Muhammad or burn the Koran. Such activities “are not freedom of expression,” as Article 20 makes clear, she says. She also says “we are living in an era where there is Islamophobia in Europe.”
Ebadi concludes this section of her address by saying, “Let us use freedom of expression for literary and scientific creativity, instead of using it to incite hatred and to hurt one another.”
Her view of civil liberties does not sit well with everyone in the room. This will be plain in conversations afterward. It so happens that, in the current issue of National Review, Jacob Mchangama has a piece on this very subject: “Sharia Censors Go Global: The jihad for a worldwide blasphemy law.”
Mchangama is in attendance here at the Freedom Forum. He’s one smart cookie, a Danish lawyer who works at a think tank in Copenhagen called CEPOS. Their slogan is “Freedom, responsibility, private initiative and limited government.” Doesn’t sound very Scandinavian, does it? Neither does “Mchangama.” But he is.
When Ebadi turns to the subject of Iran — the condition of that society — she is unimpeachable, in my view. She talks about the terrible “restrictions” there: Freedom of thought and expression is virtually nil.
She says, “One is flabbergasted by the extent of censorship in Iran.” A valuable group, Reporters Without Borders, has done a survey: Iran ranks 171st out of 174 countries in freedom of expression. In 2010, Iran had the highest number of journalists behind bars. Ebadi names three of them. “Their only crime was to write.”
The laureate finishes her address by saying that those in free countries have an obligation to turn an eye, or cock an ear, to those who suffer in unfree countries. Whose voices are stifled. People with voices should speak up for the voiceless.
Sing it, Shirin — I’m more than with you on that (and other things).
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for joining me over the course of this “Oslo Journal.” I will have a piece on Ebadi — recording, in part, an interview I had with her — in the next National Review. And I will have more to say about that interview in Impromptus sometime.
Also, I’ll have a column for you on a journey to Bergen and back — back to Oslo, that is. The Norwegian “countryside,” although that word doesn’t sound quite right, is extraordinary.
Here in Norway, they’re apt to greet you with “Hei hei” — “Hi hi.” One gets used to it. It is so cheery, sometimes almost chirpy. It will be kind of a shame to go back home and settle for one “hi.”