The Oslo Freedom Forum is the brainchild of activist and social entrepreneur Thor Halvorssen. As the National Review’s Jay Nordlinger recently commented, Halvorssen’s Forum is “that rare thing under the sun: a genuine human rights conference.” Unlike so many other such gatherings, the goal here in Oslo has not been to deploy human rights against free societies. Sure, a few of the speakers have aired grievances – legitimate and otherwise – against the democratic West. But the vast majority of the activists, journalists, and thought leaders I have met focus their efforts where they are needed most: those unhappy corners of the world – like my own native Iran – where birth condemns men and women to living under repressive regimes.
For instance, meet Amir Ahmad Nasr. The Sudanese blogger is an outspoken critic of Omar Bashir’s genocidal dictatorship. For years, Nasr has also been challenging ideological extremism and conspiracism among his fellow Arabs—both in the blogosphere, where he only recently revealed his name and identity, and outside of it. For example, discussing NATO’s humanitarian intervention in Libya on his blog, Sudanese Thinker, Nasr found it
hilarious [that] some people on Twitter demand[ed] that the United States do something to stop the impending massacre in Benghazi, and then jump up[ed] and down with anti-U.S. slogans once American forces actually stepped in and began heavily pounding the Zanga Zanga Clown’s forces. Ah, knee-jerk anti-Americanism is always fun to watch.
At the Oslo Freedom Forum, Nasr denounced the Sudanese Islamist Hassan al-Turabi, who had reacted to the killing of his one-time colleague Osama bin Laden by telling his compatriots that “all Muslims are sad today,” and that “Osama bin Laden had some good intentions.” Yesterday Nasr addressed Turabi directly when he said, “Please speak for yourself. Your filth does not represent us.”
Another defiant blogger is Tunisian activist and academic Lina Ben Mhenni. She drew the ire of the Ben Ali regime long before the uprising that overthrew it. At the Forum, she noted the risks that both the remnants of the ancien regime and reenergized radical Islamists posed to Tunisia at present. “The world is not caring anymore about what’s going on in Tunisia,” she said. As the “Jasmine Revolution” recedes from Western consciousness, she warned, Islamists are increasingly hijacking the Tunisian public square – preaching theocratic repression inside the mosque while feigning moderation outside it. Later at dinner, Mhenni told me about the numerous death threats she receives for her outspoken advocacy in favor of free speech and gender equity; she refuses to be silenced.
Compare the Oslo Freedom Forum crowd to Amnesty International’s support for Moazzem Begg. A British-born, violent Islamist who in 2002 was interdicted by the CIA in Pakistan and detained, first in Bagram and later at Guantanamo – before the Bush administration acquiesced to the British government’s calls for his release. Begg has confessed to attending terrorist training camps in Afghanistan; his ties to radical Islam are beyond dispute. Begg’s supporters in the traditional human rights establishment – above all the once venerable Amnesty International – have sought to brand him, too, as a rights crusader.
Since his release, Begg has been running the organization Cageprisoners, which advocates for jailed jihadists – including those whose guilt has been established at trial. In Britain, Cageprisoners has gained notoriety for its frequent use of vile, anti-Western rhetoric, and its shameless apologia for extremism. Unlike Nasr, who celebrated the demise of the terrorist mastermind (“two words: good riddance”), Cageprisoners reacted to the killing of bin Laden by releasing a mock news report about the murder of President Obama by the Pakistani government. The report was accompanied by an image showing Obama’s face bloodied and smoke-covered. By fantasizing about the mutilation of our first African American president, Begg and Cageprisoners sought to draw an obscene parallel between the killing of a mass murderer and the legitimate actions of the world’s leading liberal democracy in combatting international terrorism.
So why would Amnesty International throw its weight behind Cageprisoners and, in the process, sully the legacy of the human rights movement? Why would Amnesty fire Gita Sahgal, the director of its gender unit, after she went public with her concerns about the organization’s association with Begg and Cageprisoners? And will the Obama assassination stunt finally lead Amnesty leaders to break ranks with this odious practitioner of physical and ideological jihad? These and other critical questions remain unanswered – four days since Cageprisoners first released its mock story. Attempts to reach an Amnesty spokesperson went unanswered.
On previous occasions, Amnesty has tried to distance itself from Cageprisoners by suggesting that the partnership is about securing the individual voices of former detainees as a way of spotlighting abuses at Bagram and Guantanamo. Yet this is clearly a false pretense: Amnesty has repeatedly described Cageprisoners as a “human rights organization” and a “human rights charity” in numerous press releases. Indeed, it has gone out of its way to give both Cageprisoners and individual detainees an institutional platform, inviting Begg to give the 2006 Amnesty International Annual Lecture in Belfast and including Cageprisoners in its list of 39 “leading human rights groups” behind a report on CIA detention practices.
The truth is that Begg and Cageprisoners have nothing in common with the human rights advocates I have met during my time in Oslo: men and women whose activism is solidly grounded in liberal values – and not a rhetorical pretext masking a deep hatred for democracy and individual dignity. Over the years, I’ve also come to know many rank-and-file members of Amnesty International: suburban moms and young undergraduates who write earnest letters calling on their elected officials to intercede on behalf of this or that political prisoner. They exemplify what it means to seize one’s freedoms to aid those born unfree. The question is: how much longer can these advocates watch as Amnesty’s international leadership squanders their trust and moral capital on men like Begg?
Sohrab Ahmari’s writing has previously appeared in the Boston Globe and Commentary, among other publications.