Editor’s Note: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference in the Norwegian capital. For the first three parts of the series, go here, here, and here.
Do you remember when President Obama nominated those fundraisers for a string of ambassadorial posts? When questioned in the Senate, they had trouble finding their fanny with both hands. Do you remember that the nominee for Norway was particularly inept?
I lost track of that case. But being in Norway has made me want to look it up again. And I see that the gentleman was never confirmed by the Senate. He has now withdrawn his nomination. Our embassy has an acting ambassador.
Ah, well, these things are trivialities, I guess.
‐Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist, speaks before the Freedom Forum assembly. We are told that his passion in life is to advance Islamic liberalism. To reinterpret Islam by asserting the autonomy of the individual.
How’s that for a life’s work? That is no light task or ambition.
Akyol says that he is demonized by Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP. They call him a Zionist, a CIA agent, and a tool of the “interest-rate lobby.”
Interest-rate lobby? Frankly, that’s new on me.
Analyzing the illiberal trends in his country, Akyol says that it will not become another Iran or Saudi Arabia. But it may be something like another Russia.
Which sounds right . . .
‐Maryam Faghihimani is an extraordinary woman. She is the daughter of one of the most important ayatollahs in Iran, a man who was a close friend and ally of Khomeini’s. And, mirabile dictu, Maryam is speaking at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
She tells us that she was born two years before the revolution (i.e., in 1977). “In my school, I was not supposed to sit next to a child whose parents were not as religious as mine, or who were not supportive of the regime.”
Maryam found refuge in her father’s library — where she read and read. I’m guessing it was an eclectic library.
“I hid my liberal and secular thoughts. I acted out a role: obedient, religious, passive. I had no right to work or build a career. Playing and listening to music was strictly forbidden.
“It is very frustrating to hide who you are, even from your own family who loves you. It takes a toll on your health.”
Maryam found she had two options: “either leave my country in quest of my rights and freedoms, or end my life.” She left.
“Fifteen years have passed since that day. I am delighted to be alive and here with you today. I have two master’s degrees. I have learned to play music. I go to the theater. I have traveled the world. I sit on the boards of international organizations.”
If I have interpreted her correctly, Maryam Faghihimani even indicates that she respects Israel’s right to exist.
‐Abdellah Taia is billed as “the first openly gay writer and filmmaker in Morocco, a country in which homosexuality is a crime.”
“For many years,” he says, “I thought I was the only gay person in Morocco.” Taia comes from a poor family in a small town. “People in your society, and in your neighborhood, are supposed to protect you,” he says. “They are supposed to love you and give you what you need.”
But his experience was the opposite.
“The whole neighborhood wanted to rape me. They found me an exciting boy.” They raped him daily. His family did nothing to protect him.
He really thought he was the only gay person in Morocco. “All the other people around me who wanted to have sex with me — no one was blaming them, or shaming them, or asking them to make apologies. I was the only one taking the blame. I was the only one who was judged.”
This is a hard presentation to listen to. The immense cruelty and criminality of people. In theory, I am against the death penalty — but sometimes you can’t help thinking, “Chair.”
‐I will quote from the bio of a fascinating man who comes from 2,500 miles southeast of Morocco:
Marc Ona Essangui is the president and founder of Brainforest and Environment Gabon, two organizations focusing on sustainable development in Gabon. . . . He continues to expose corruption in Gabon, even after being sentenced to six months in prison in 2013 for defaming a senior advisor to President Ali Bongo Ondimba.
“I am handicapped, sitting in a wheelchair,” he tells us from the stage of the Nye Theater, “yet I am standing up for the rights of people. I am defiant and proud.”
He explains that he was not born disabled: He contracted polio when he was six. “I have had to fight extremely difficult conditions to overcome hurdles. I am not mentioning my physical disability because I want you to feel sorry for me. I’d like to make a comparison between my disability and the disability of Gabon, inflicted on it by a single family, the Bongos.”
The Bongos, father and son, have ruled that country since 1967, if you can believe it. (The Castros have ruled Cuba since 1959.)
Ona Essangui speaks of horrible things in Gabon, including what he describes as the ritual killing of children, for their organs.
Toward the end of his talk, he says, “Gabon should be a republic, not a piece of property that a father hands down to a son to use as he sees fit.”
‐Kimberley Motley, a lawyer from Milwaukee, talks of what she has done to defend horribly abused girls and women in Afghanistan.
In the airport, on arriving in Oslo, I met her. I now see in her bio that she has been a beauty queen: Mrs. Wisconsin. I’m not surprised.
‐Raif Badawi is the Saudi writer who has been jailed and flogged for advocating human rights. He is in prison still, in terrible shape. His sister, Samar, was supposed to be here, but her government forbade her to travel. She has written a letter, which is read to us by Thor Halvorssen.
It is a dignified, moving letter, as you would expect. By the way, Samar’s husband, Waleed Abulkhair, is in prison too, for acting as lawyer to Raif.
I understand that democratic countries need Saudi Arabia as an ally in the Middle East. But, damn it, what a despicable system.
‐It is now time for the Freedom Forum’s annual prize, the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. This year, it goes to three recipients –
including a group called “Girifna,” a movement, really. I will quote from Freedom Forum literature: “Girifna, Arabic for ‘we are fed up,’ is a nonviolent resistance movement founded in 2010 by pro-democracy youth activists just before what was billed as Sudan’s first multiparty vote under dictator Omar al-Bashir.”
‐Another recipient is a remarkable young woman named Sakdiyah Ma’ruf. She is a standup comedian from Indonesia, known for tackling Muslim extremism.
She is really funny, too. A wearer of the hijab, she is covered except for her face. “I’m so excited to be here,” she says. “Do you like my new haircut? Yes, I got the full body whitening and everything.”
(This is hilarious to Muslim girls and others from that general world, trust me.)
At the end of her routine, she says, “Thank you for honoring a standup comedian. My parents would be so proud — not because I’m receiving this award, but because I’m standing so distant from the opposite sex.”
‐The third recipient of the award is Danilo Maldonado, known as “El Sexto.” (This has nothing to do with “sexting,” please know.) He is a Cuban street artist. Well, he was once on the streets: Now he is in prison. He did something sure to land him there.
He took two pigs, intending to evoke Orwell’s Animal Farm. He named one pig Fidel and the other Raúl. Hence, prison. For three years.
“Three years for two pigs,” as his supporters say.
El Sexto manages to get a letter out of prison (Valle Grande Prison). He dedicates his award to the Ladies in White, who are beaten every Sunday, as they try to attend Mass. And to his nine-month-old daughter. And to others of his fellow dissidents.
He says, “When darkness and hopelessness seem to overwhelm us, there’s always a ray of light.”
‐At dinner, I sit with several Norwegians. I have reason to bring up Liv Ullmann, the actress, who at one time was probably the most famous Norwegian in the world. We were all in love with her. Someone gestures to one of the Norwegians and says, “He’s her nephew.”
And he reports that she is a wonderful lady.
‐Speaking of beautiful Norwegians: The young woman behind the passport window at the airport could be a Ford Agency model, in America. In this country, she’s sort of normal . . .
‐Another young Norwegian, a gate agent, speaks utterly American English. I say, “Where’d you get that English?” She says, “I watch too much TV.”
In countries were television shows and movies aren’t dubbed — that is, where they’re subtitled, and you can hear the English — people really have a sense of the tongue. Where there’s dubbing, there’s less English, and faultier English.
‐Every year at the Oslo Freedom Forum, there are people who have suffered terrible things, and are using the remainder of their lives to help others. They are not marking time. They are making excellent use of their days and years.
My colleague John Fund has written a report from the Freedom Forum entitled “The Best Conference in the World.” Yes, hear, hear.
Thanks for joining me, dear readers, and see you soon.