Protecting Arab liberals

Who would protect us?

This is the question.

It is a matter of fact that the authoritarian governments, which rest on repression and lying (the official only-legitimate propaganda), fear the truth, therefore, they fear even the words and fight the free opinion and expression.

The free opinion and expression are essential and effectual prerequisites for change in the Middle East as antidotes to the authoritarianism. The more the freedom of expression exists, the less the political system is authoritarian and vice versa. The freedom of conscience and expression is a real and indispensable foundation of the political reform and progress in the Middle East.

The U.S. and EU should support directly the freedom of expression in the Middle East and should pressure the authoritarian governments on that, especially the totalitarian governments. It is truly a shame that mere opinion can drive a human to prison, torture and humiliation. The international community has the responsibility to protect the endangered Arab liberals and reformers for their opinions.

By the way, to give you a practical example, each single word of mine here besides my sent email -- when they could -- are under close surveillance.

For Middle East liberals, danger is real; fear is legitimate.

Here are two informative and interesting op-eds:

Fighting to Speak
Tunisia vs. a fundamental right.

By Neila Charchour Hachicha

The National Review
April 21, 2006

Tunis, Tunisia. — It has been more than two years since President Bush requested Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to allow political freedoms and freedom of the press. Ben Ali ignored Bush's request. There have been no substantive reforms. Rather, Ben Ali has increased oppression under the guise of combating terrorism. In reality, it is not terrorism the Tunisian regime is combating; its wrath is directed at even the most moderate and peaceful political voices.

In January, I spoke in Washington about the necessity of freedom of speech to make credible any democratic process. Winning the battle of freedom of speech would be to win an irreversible step toward democracy.

When I returned to Tunis, the Tunisian government sought revenge. They spared me, but targeted my family. I became, in the words of American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Rubin, a " test case" to see how serious the White House was about promoting democracy and the rule of law. The State Department issued a "from-the-podium" statement which highlighted my case and that of Mohamed Abbou, a journalist imprisoned (and currently near to death from a long hunger strike) after criticizing Ben Ali.

Pressure works, but only if it is sustained. After the State Department's statement, the Tunisian reaction was to stop its illegal censorship of my websites. It is a good first step, but my website is not the issue. The Tunisian government should end censorship of all peaceful political websites. While my website is unblocked, the Tunisian local server Planet continues to block my regular Internet connection. It is not by coincidence that Planet is owned by Ben Ali's daughter.

The Tunisian regime has launched an unprecedented campaign against my husband. On April 29, they will send him to prison for ten months for the equivalent of a real-estate-zoning violation, an offense on which there is no precedent of incarceration. His lawyer resigned before the appeal could be heard. No lawyer can afford getting involved, knowing that the verdict will be dictated from the regime.

Other harassment continues. Multiple eyewitnesses saw the police confiscate my car; they denied their involvement and said it was stolen. Then, in the presence of two public notaries, the police refused to issue the standard statement necessary for insurance. When the notaries inquired upon what grounds they refused to issue a copy of their statement, they kicked us out.

It is this type of harassment that subjugates ordinary Tunisians. On April 16, the Tunisian Journalist Union put out a press release to announce that Selim Boukhedir, another journalist unfairly dismissed for thought crimes, already lost eight kilograms in the first two weeks of his hunger strike. Anyone who pushes too hard for freedom of speech or freedom of assembly faces arbitrary and unlawful punishment. So far I have been lucky. Other Tunisians whisper about instances of rape, arson, the planting of drugs in luggage, and so forth. This should not be acceptable in the 21st century.

When I set out speaking about freedom of speech, I was naïve. I did not realize just how sensitive the regime would be. Now, I have no choice but to continue. They have threatened my husband and sought to humiliate my daughter, something no mother can tolerate. I never expected to have to write article after article to make sure our suffering, and that of Mohamed Abbou and countless others, did not pass unnoticed.

Liberalism will perish unless the White House and its European allies keep up the pressure to keep Arab liberals safe. When Rumsfeld visited Ben Ali in February, he spoke only of strengthening military-to-military ties. But true stability and security requires some degree of freedom. Ben Ali will listen to the outside world if he believes that its warnings are serious. The Quai d'Orsay offered only a timid statement when Tunisian security forces assaulted French journalist Christophe Boltansky for having reported on the Tunisian government's speech crackdown ahead of the World Summit on the Information Society. If outsiders are not even going to stand up for their own citizens, then why should the Tunisian government worry about opposition when they oppress Tunisians? After all, as the Tunisian ambassador to Washington told the American Enterprise Institute, why should Washington worry about "a person of no consequence" like me? The Tunisian government may say we are Islamists — I certainly am not — or cherry-pick statements to convince foreign officials that all opposition is radical, reactionary, or irresponsible. It is an old tactic, and experienced professionals should not fall for it.

The White House again stands at a crossroad. Not only in Tunisia but elsewhere in the Arab world, liberals and dissidents are waiting. Without freedom of speech and press, reformers cannot build credibility and legitimacy. Ben Ali should embrace reform, not repel it. We don't ask for much — just the assurance that we will not be abandoned if we ask for freedom of speech. Do not worry about stigma; we are already stigmatized for seeking our rights. U.S. ambassadors throughout the region should not hesitate to meet with members of civil society or stand up for prisoners of conscience, just as they once did in the Soviet Union.

I do not know what they will do to me and my husband in the weeks to come. I hope that Washington, Paris, and human-rights organizations will not allow dissidents to be sacrificed upon the altar of realpolitik. We should not suffer for comments as innocuous as ours, or for speaking out in professional forums in Washington. Those of us who struggle in defense of freedom in Tunisia appreciate the help of the State Department. We hope it will continue, even as the Tunisian regime thumbs its nose at Bush. And regardless of what happens, I hope that you will pray for my family and for all of us in Tunisia.

Neila Charchour Hachicha is the founder of Tunisia's Parti Libéral Méditerranéen.

Where Are the Muslim Moderates?

By Clifford D. May

Scripps Howard News Service
April 6, 2006

Where Are the Muslim Moderates?
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev addressed a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. For nearly four hours, he spoke about the unspeakable: the crimes of his predecessor, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Though listeners were warned not to reveal what was said, and the speech would not be published for 32 years, word leaked out. The most widely told story, probably apocryphal, had it that as Khrushchev was detailing the mass arrests, torture and executions carried out within the Gulag, someone in the audience shouted: “And what were you doing then?”

“Who said that?” Khrushchev demanded. No one made a sound. “I want to know who said that!” he repeated, slamming a fist on the lectern. The audience was silent, trembling in fear. “That's right,” Khrushchev said finally. “That's exactly what I was doing.”

I am reminded of this story not only because this year is the 50th anniversary of Khrushchev's “secret speech,” but also because it may provide at least a partial answer to the question: Where are all the Muslim moderates? Where are those who oppose terrorism, religious wars, hatred and intolerance? Where are those who think it crazy to attempt to recreate the 8th century in the 21st century? Where are those who want not to destroy the Free World but to join it?

They are out there, I suspect; in larger numbers than we might be led to believe. But if most are silent and fearful of speaking out, can you blame them? The vast majority of Arabs and Muslims live in countries ruled by illiberal and oppressive regimes. And in the few relatively free countries – Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia – there is no protection from the long arm of Militant Islamism. Indeed, even in Europe it can be dangerous to challenge religious fascism. And last year, Shaker Elsayed, leader of Dar al-Hijrah, one of the largest mosques in the U.S., told American Muslims: "The call to reform Islam is an alien call."

Muslims who dissent from this orthodoxy have received precious little support from anyone. As far back as 1989, Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini called for the murder of British author Salman Rushdie. Such a frontal attack on freedom of speech should have prompted Western governments to send Iranian diplomats packing. Instead, Rushdie went into hiding while most Western intellectuals persuaded themselves this quarrel was none of their business.

Since that time, and perhaps partly as a consequence, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered for making a movie some Muslims found insulting. Danish journalists who dared publish cartoons satirizing the radicalization of Islam have been threatened. Such formerly-courageous publications as The New York Times declined to publish the cartoons, claiming – unconvincingly -- that they had not been intimidated; they were merely demonstrating sensitivity.

Meanwhile, in Jordan and Yemen, editors who thought their readers deserved to judge the cartoons for themselves were jailed.

The pandering has escalated: Last month, Columbia University held a conference that included as a “highlight” a video of Libyan dictator Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi presenting “his views on the prospects for democracy in the twenty-first century.” Columbia's teachers and administrators are apparently untroubled by the fact that Libya's leading dissident, Fathi Eljami, is currently rotting in one of Qaddafi's dungeons.

And in Tunisia, democracy advocate Neila Charchour Hachicha is under police surveillance -- her phone and internet connections severed, her car confiscated, her daughter threatened and her husband in prison. What did she do to deserve such punishment? It's not clear, but she did give an interview to Middle East Quarterly ( about impediments to reform in Tunisia and she spoke at the “neo-con” American Enterprise Institute about the need for democracy in the Middle East.

The routine imprisonment and torture of dissidents in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia almost never prompts UN officials to consider interfering -- or even criticizing. Once in a while, a Western diplomat expresses concern.

“I keep hearing, 'Why are liberals silent?'” Said al-Ashmawy, an Egyptian judge and author, recently said. "How can we write? Who is going to protect me?”

If we in the West ever want to have allies in Arab and Muslim countries, we'll need to start supporting moderates -- and stop empowering their oppressors. Most immediately, it would be useful if American ambassadors in Muslim countries would welcome dissidents to their offices as they do cabinet ministers. And perhaps Columbia University President Lee Bollinger – whose “primary teaching and scholarly interests are focused on free speech and First Amendment issues” -- might recognize how his institution has been compromised and at least express concern.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies,, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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