Editor’s Note: The Oslo Freedom Forum took place in the week of October 19. OFF is the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. The previous parts of Jay Nordlinger’s journal are at the following links: I, II, III, IV, V, and VI.
Iyad El-Baghdadi, you have met. He’s the Palestinian who was kicked out of the UAE for his democratic agitation, mainly online. And he now gives a speech to the Freedom Forum crowd.
“Three and a half years ago, the Arab Spring generation opened its mouth to speak. But a thousand forces conspired to smother that voice.”
I am paraphrasing (as so often), but closely.
The Arab Spring was attacked, says El-Baghdadi, by a “counterrevolutionary axis.” (Nice phrase.) This axis was “more afraid of the Arab Spring than of a thousand terror groups.” The autocrats knew, says El-Baghdadi, that “democracy tickles the youth.”
He is still a believer in the Arab Spring — even after all the murder and misery and defeat. How can this be? How can he continue to believe? He is asked this a lot, he tells us. And he gives inquirers three reasons in response.
1) “Twenty eleven happened. It was not an illusion, not a dream. Millions of young Arabs really did take to the streets, demanding liberty, dignity, and justice. Something fresh and beautiful appeared.”
(Again, I am paraphrasing, but closely.)
“We really do exist. We are not a minority, either. We only appear to be, because we’re not organized. We are not on the menu. When the only menu options are black and white, that doesn’t mean that red and blue and green do not exist.”
2) “Friendships arose in 2011 that can’t be undone. The online scene is not [merely] virtual. It’s real. The ideas are real. And, though many of us have never met face to face, we talk to one another almost daily.”
Here is a statement that is well-nigh aphoristic: “Those who want liberty must organize as effectively as those who want tyranny.”
3) “The old order may be cruel and deep-pocketed, but it offers no vision or hope. All it offers is demagoguery and jingoism.”
And these people “have a little secret: They’re afraid of us. They are not afraid of the people with guns [i.e., the terrorists]. They have bigger guns. They are afraid of ideas. We are the future.”
I can tell you this, regardless: Back home, in the circles I often run in, “Arab Spring” is a joke. The cause of derision. It may have been defeated — snuffed out, turned to winter. But it was indeed real, and good, and it should reappear.
Cuba has been ruled by a one-party dictatorship with a gulag for more than 50 years. That doesn’t mean the people are content with it. They are terrorized and beaten into submission. China has been ruled by a one-party dictatorship with a gulag for more than 60 years. The Tibetans have been particularly terrorized.
Sometimes force and cruelty win. And sometimes — this is really good — they don’t.
A final thought, before I move on: The Prague Spring, like the Arab Spring, did not succeed. It was crushed. The sun did not shine for 20 years more.
‐Fatou Jaw Manneh is a lady both fiery and serene. I know it sounds contradictory — it is contradictory — but that is the impression she gives. She commands respect, certainly mine.
Manneh is a Gambian journalist. More accurately, she is a journalist from Gambia. She has not been to her home country for some time.
Her country used to be called “The Smiling Coast of Africa,” she says. Then it was taken over by a brutal dictator — Jammeh — in 1994. “He defined our country by fear and violence. He set brother against uncle, mother against aunt, soldier against neighbor. He arrests, jails, tortures, and kills anyone who stands in his way.”
You get the picture.
If I have heard correctly, Manneh lived in the U.S. for ten years. Then, in 2007, she went back to Gambia, to attend her father’s funeral. She was not able to leave again for a year and a half. She recounts her ordeal.
One of my favorite phrases from her presentation here in the Nye Theater? “This punk president Jammeh.”
Near the end of her presentation, a roll of names appears on a video screen. There are a lot of names, in a country of fewer than 2 million people, as Manneh points out. These are the names of the disappeared.
“Killing is like a sport to them,” says Manneh, referring to Jammeh and his goons. Flood, fire, drought, and any other natural disaster you can think of is nothing compared with dictatorship. “Dictators are a greater threat to us than any of those.”
She shows us a sign — a billboard — from Gambia. It depicts Jammeh and says, “A vote for him in 2011 is a sacred duty for all Gambians or you die.” Well, then.
Gambia “was a beautiful country,” says Manneh, “and now it is ruined.” She expresses a prayer at the end: “May good prevail.”
‐Discussing Russia in my journal yesterday, I said, “The police are beating the hell out of the protesters, making them bleed, breaking their bones. I don’t know why the police don’t simply cart the people off to jail. Must they bludgeon them first? I guess so.”
I think the same when looking at video from Ecuador. These bewildered little schnooks, who had the temerity to question the “presidential dictatorship” of Rafael Correa: Why do the police have to bloody them on the streets? Can’t they just cart them off to jail, put them in a cage, and put in bread and water every once in a while?
We also see video of Correa himself. I hate to say it, but he is a charismatic SOB — a personable brute. He obviously has huge and diabolical political talents, like his model, Chávez.
‐During a break, I am approached by an American, who has been friendly in the past. He says, “What have you been working on lately?” I say, “Oh, this and that. I write a piece for every issue of National Review, so . . .”
The man grimaces and says, “I can’t get through that magazine. It’s skewed so far off, like The Nation . . .” He gestures right, then left.
I’m not sure what to say. So, trying to make light, I say, “We’ve been ‘skewing off’ since 1955” (the year of our founding). He says, “Yeah, but when Bill Buckley ran it . . .”
National Review writers and editors are used to this kind of thing, of course. It is practically our daily fare. But I have never become entirely used to it. This man would have hated NR — and Bill, too — in, say, 1964. I guarantee you.
From the left, we get, “NR today is so right-wing, Bill Buckley would be rolling over in his grave.” From the right, we get, “NR today is so moderate and squishy, Bill Buckley would be rolling over in his grave.”
Neither group has the foggiest idea what it’s talking about. And wouldn’t someone like me, a lieutenant to Bill, and an intimate, sort of know better? You know? Is that all right to say? No one ever thinks of that, or cares.
I simply say to the man, “We do our best.” I add, “Not everything is for everybody.” That, we can agree on. And the man says graciously, “Everything was better in ‘the good old days,’ right?”
Right. Let me tell you a story, dear readers — a story from the opera world. Birgit Nilsson (the late Swedish soprano) said, “I never got such good reviews as when I retired.” Because, when she was singing, it was always, “Not as good as Flagstad.” When she retired, other sopranos got, “Not as good as Nilsson.”
Very human, but very annoying, too.
Anyway, I am sure I have overreacted — Joe Sensitive (and the above-mentioned American is a wonderful guy who does valuable work) — but I thought you might find all this somewhat interesting.
‐Frederica Jansz is a Sri Lankan journalist — or was. She was the editor of The Sunday Leader. The editor before her was murdered.
Would you have taken the job? I think of Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White (the Cuban human-rights group). Her predecessor, Laura Pollán, died in very suspicious circumstances. But Berta stepped right up . . .
Jansz received death threat after death threat. There came a day when she said, “It’s time to stop being a heroine and concentrate on being a mom.”
The United States made it possible for her to leave and start a new life, in Seattle. She is in another line of work — interior design, I think. It is maybe not her calling. But she says she is happy.
I have two final points to make: The United States, once again, gives someone shelter. It’s not a bad country, really, for all our flaws. We have given people a place to run to for many generations. And if you don’t like Big Macs or jazz, well, you don’t have to eat them or listen to it.
Also, for her journalism, this woman faced death threats — damn credible ones, too (think of her predecessor). What do I face? Negative comments during breaks at conferences? Hostile tweets?
Memo to self: Life is sweet. And I’ll see you tomorrow.