From Moscow to the Middle East: The Silencing of Critical Voices with Kacem El Ghazzali, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, Guy Mettan, Pyotr Verzilov

A panel including one of Kazakhstan’s most prominent independent journalists and former editor-in-chief and reporter at Uralskaya Nedelya, Lukpan Akhmedyarov;  Moroccan human rights activist and intellectual, Kacem El Ghazzali; journalist and former Executive Director of the “Club Suisse de la Presse,” Guy Mettan; and Russian performance artist, political activist, and founder of the news website MediaZona, Pyotr Verzilov, adress the 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Guy Mettan: Thank you, thank you for your presentation, because I think it was also quite interesting. Especially as a journalist, I was impressed by all you have said. So we received two questions. One, the first is for Kacem. And the first question to Kacem is asking, “why is homosexuality illegal in so many Muslim countries?” Can you answer it? I also have a personal question for you after.

Kacem El Ghazzali: The question of homosexuality, or let’s say, in general, individual liberties. But let’s stick to the homosexuality in the Islamic world. Besides the, the historical background, we knew that in the Arab literature within the time of the Prophet Muhammad, there was also poems where poets could mention Abunawes. Arabic poets would write poems describing boys and how beautiful they are and what he likes and so on, kind of like erotism. Feminine, we don’t have actually many females in literature. But the source? 

If you try to ask anyone who’s a homophobe, why are you a homophobe – usually not in the Islamic world or here in Europe – the answer is irrational. It could not be because basically, there is no rational answer for that. It could be because the image that he gets in his mind and since as a child from the family and society, that’s the normal is usually the opposite; not to have sexual acts with the same sex. So this is globally, I could see that even here in Europe. Sometimes justified where I come from in my culture, that when you greet someone, you kiss on the cheek, as you do with a girl. It has nothing to do with homosexuality. But I found that some men here still, they feel like no, stay away. don’t kiss me. What do you want? It hides something there; it’s cultural. Like if we’ve tried to find the chronology of these thoughts, you will lead also to some homophobic roots. But in Islam, especially, we find that recently in the debates in Morocco. And there is a Muslim cleric. He said that homosexuals should be thrown from a high place, like a tower or a high building. And his interpretation if from a Hadith, of the Prophet, but a higher place, in the times of the prophets, was maybe a tent, versus how we could imagine right now the highest. But still, the problem is this: the people and their interpretation of this text, they don’t make them more than or just to try to read them with the eyes of nowadays. We have an association in Morocco that advocates for homosexuality, because in the Moroccan penal code, any sexual acts between men-men or women-women is punished by jail. And this organization, they are fighting for their rights. But unfortunately, the leaders are based abroad in Paris, or around Europe. So I hope that the situation changes. But to give a simple answer to this question, it can’t because it’s quite complicated. Thank you.

Guy Mettan: Thank you for your answer. I also have a question for Mr. Verzilov. Seeing a lot of the Western countries consider the Pussy Riot as a women liberation movement. However, it also could be considered as a political propaganda or a movement against the present Government of Russia. Which of  these opinions do you prefer – the liberation of women or the propaganda movement against the regime – or both of them?

Pyotr Verzilov: Well, I think in a lot of cases that were discussed today, where women’s issues were touched, these two things can’t really be separated from each other, right? So just as in Russia, just as in any Islamist or totalitarian country, basically the fight for any single group of people means anti-government activity. So obviously, Pussy Riot is a punk feminist band, which is founded by a group of girls with basically leftist feminist values, who have an interest in contemporary art, contemporary culture, music. But in Russia, if you put up questions of feminism, you right bump into political issues because we have President Putin. There was this funny story when he was caught, it’s in a press conference in Israel. Some of you might know that one of the former Israeli presidents was indicted for rape, for raping – I think – like eight or nine of his secretaries; a very serious amount. And so Vladimir Putin went to Israel, and he’s sitting at some panel, and his microphone is off; he wasn’t supposing that it was off. And he said, talking to the Israeli Prime Minister, “your President is a real man, we all envy him.” Meaning this really shows the very, very sexist sense of President Putin. And because Russia’s politics are an endless reflection of personal favors and personal preferences by Vladimir Putin, obviously, sexism, and anti-feminism and the absence of women’s rightsis a very necessary feature of Russian political landscape. So, if you fight for women’s rights, for feminist values, you will obviously be doing anti-government, anti-Putinist activity.

Guy Mettan: Okay, so thank you. I have also a question for Mr. Akhmedyarov. We get the impression – it’s not an impression – but the fact that the Kazakh regime is becoming more and more oppressive, repressive, since a few years is, as you have showed with the case of the press. Do you have the impression that this repression can go longer or it will be at the end, you know, we will find an end one day.

Lukpan Akhmedyarov: I hope that the end of this regime is nigh. That’s what we must hope. But actually, we have a lot of examples in past history, where we thought that a dictatorship could not last eternally. For example, North Korea or in Iran; the leaders were in power for quite a while. And in Kazakhstan the leader may just stay on. But I think we should express this differently. The question is actually not how long he will stay in power. How long would the international community tolerate him? How long would the population put up with him? The price of oil is good at the time being. But if there is greater awareness, then the regime may come to an end more rapidly than we think today.

Guy Mettan: There’s also a question, a personal question, to Pyotr and Kasam. You don’t think, or you are accused of being you know, are very provocative, and I think, it could be a very good thing. But you don’t fear that maybe the provocation could be seen as pure provocation and can hide your message? You understand, because for instance, if you go in the church or synagogue, to make some of what the pussy riots have made, you know, the problem could be that the provocation is the first thing that people can see and not the message. If you understand my question. Is it not a risk for you? Or how do you deal with that?

Kacem El Ghazzali: I don’t consider it a provocation. Actually, in my case, and as I see it, also, in the case of Pussy Riot, let’s say by me, at first I didn’t provoke anyone. At first, the religion provoked me. The religion was imposed on me; they wanted me to be in a certain image, which is not mine. And what I did, I didn’t insult. However, here the insults tells, when it’s not personal, when it is to have faith, or genealogy, or to an idea whatsoever, there I am free; I have absolute freedom to say whatever I want. But when it’s to the person, or when it’s with us radical and fundamentalist Muslims, as they do when they start spreading and preaching their faith was against the free thinkers, against the people who try at least to have a space of mind where they could be like they are, not to pretend to be like what society wants to shape them in certain image. So provocation for me, I don’t believe in this term, when it’s not personal. If I fight for my right to be a non-Muslim, or if I fight for my right to be a homosexual, or whatever it is, that doesn’t mean I’m provoking you or doesn’t mean I’m trying to take something from you, or I’m trying to steal your rights. In fact, I’m trying to find a way to live with my civil rights in a modern society, in a modern world, without these small laws that persecute everyone who tries to be different. And in this, I was all the time told that if you just remain silent, nobody would harm you, you will be your own curse. I know that. But I was not made for that; there are others. I feel while I am moving, that means I am free. And while I’m moving, and I could make my situation better, it’s changed and it’s a process; tt’s not an event. What’s happening now in North Africa and the Arab Spring saying, however the Islamists, however everything, we still believe that’s probably in the future. We have hope in the new generation and we have hope in people like me. However, I’m still 23 years old, but I still feel like there are lots of young people who are just saying be who we want to, and have peace in the world. And that’s that’s everything, we are not demanding more.

Pyotr Verzilov: The answer I will give is a purely artistic answer. Because from artistic points of view, the term provocation doesn’t really exist. Instead, you have what can be called artistic necessity, right? Like you wouldn’t say that Cézanne was provocative because he chose very weird colors and shadows or Picasso or Malevich, because they stopped using classical lines and classical objects. And instead, they started drawing some funny figures and triangles on their paintings. That is never called a provocation. The artist uses unusual methods to convey the meaning of the message through his art when he understands that the usual, conventional tactics will not reach his audience, will not bring the necessary message to the person he’s trying to reach. For example, as with the growth of the pussy riots, Punk Prayer inside the Moscow cathedral of Christ as Savior, was done as a reply to the patriarchy actively joining into Putin’s presidential campaign. So basically, by doing this, he brutally broke very important religious territory, which basically says that religious leaders, of such important and gigantic congregations, do not have the right to get themselves directly involved in politics. So as a response to that, obviously, the band’s procedure, chose this quite aggressive and quite direct formal method because it was the only appropriate reply and the only appropriate and adequate and artistically relevant formal method, which could be used in this situation.

Guy Mettan: Thank you, thank you for your answer. I think it was very, very good and pertinent and, and relevant. So I think we are now arriving to the end of our panel. And I would like to ask maybe the last question. So somebody in the room, ask you, all of the three of you” what in your lives, or for your life made you have the courage to speak out when most orders are quiet, stay silent? So  my question was, where do you find the energy, the strength to express yourself and to lead, to fight for human rights? So that’s the same theme. Maybe yes, Mr. Akhmedyarov, if you can begin.

Lukpan Akhmedyarov: I do the work that I do, it’s because I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s my work. It’s my profession and I like it. I do it willingly, gladly. Now, you also asked me today, if after the attack on me, if I wasn’t tempted to change my job. Because if I had, no, that would have meant that those who carried out the attack had won, they had frightened me. There’s another factor. When my wife came to see me in the hospital and she showed me the newspapers, they talked about a protest meeting against this attack, and I saw the pictures. The demonstration had not been authorized, but people had gone to the streets, taken to the streets, to demonstrate on my behalf. And it was at that juncture that I realized – and I don’t want to be maudlin about it – but I realized that I couldn’t go back. And then I had to go forward, I couldn’t slide backward. I didn’t want to disappoint all these people.

Kacem El Ghazzali: I usually try to ask pencil for my courage. And did I really do something, which is, as you described, probably, if we could say, between brackets, brave? I don’t think so. I just defended myself. I just wanted it. You cannot call me brave if I am in a very miserable situation and saving myself out. But I would call you brave if you are in a safe area and tried to give refuge to someone or to save others. So for me, all the time I go from this philosophy of life. While I could do something, I don’t like to be in danger, I don’t like to die. That’s not my culture. But I would like to live, I love life, I love many beautiful things in life. But still, I would like to fight to make this life better. And while I have this possibility, and I could improve my skills, and I could get engaged with others to reach this noble aim, then why not? Otherwise, I’m losing. I’m the loser if I just remain silent, and still with this schizophrenia, with these double standards, I have a personality for outside, another one inside. And I live in a world of lies. And all the time when I feel I’m free, I only feel free with my papers and pens and the chalk with my thoughts, that’s beautiful. It’s going to bring us a great novel. But at the same time, it will not make me happy. I need to share my happiness and practice it and have it real. So that’s the key. That’s the simple answer.

Pyotr Verzilov: Well, I think for me, as the members of the art collective will relate to in the past, in the past several years, the situation of getting energy to do something every day derives from the impossibility to stay silent. Because, another another artistic answer,  the artist has I think – not the artist, but just any person who’s deeply involved in politics, who’s deeply touched by social, economic, whatever politically related issue – does not have the ability to stay put and to not do something when things are happening around him, which basically, are a driving force to his mind. For example, the Russian parliament, in the last six months, it’s called a mad printer, right? Because in the last several months, it gave it printed out this amazing amount of the most absolute laws, like from the one that I mentioned before, like restricting the rights to say that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships, to the right to have rallies, to the right to criticize religious activities. So Russia is kind of very much like a fairy tale, like a story, especially present day Russia, where you have amazing poverty, amazing richness. And once you’re living in this very energetic reality, which you perceive as a battlefield, as long as you’re in it, you wake up and you function day-to-day and you feel that you’re basically in the middle of a battle. And if you stop moving, you’ll just be torn apart by your own inactivity, because there’s so many things happening around you that absolutely demand your reaction, that your body will absolutely be able to take you not acting, not speaking, not trying to do which you can do, to counter, to do what you think is right, towards those subjects and issues.

Guy Mettan: Okay, so thank you. I think we can applaud our panelists because they were very relevant. Thank you to everybody of you. Good luck for your fight. We hope to see you again here.

Speakers and Participants

Guy Mettan

Journalist and Executive Director of the Club Suisse de la Presse 

Pyotr Verzilov

Russian performance artist, husband of imprisoned Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, member of the Pussy Riot feminist rock band



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