Kacem El Ghazzali, Moroccan human rights activist and intellectual, author of ‘Bahmut’, one of the most controversial blogs in the Arab world, adresses the 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
GS13 – The Silencing of Critical Voices in Morocco with Kacem El Ghazzali
Kacem El Ghazzali: Good afternoon, everybody. Actually, before we talk about freedom of expression, first of all, we have to talk about freedom of thoughts. And because, in the Arab world and the Islamic world, we could say, we have only one kind of thought. And everyone, or anybody, tries to escape this dogma or to try to be different, to pray in a different life, or not to wear a white dress on Friday, then he is considered to be odd and not to be normal. Because in our societies, we live in a machine that produce[s] copies of each other. There is no individuality. However, when I came to Europe, I felt that some people […] have some feedback about Western individualism, that everybody takes care of himself and there is a social contract in society that’s based on civil laws; everybody knows their rights and the duties. But at the same time, I am, as an individual, free. I have my liberty, I have the right to choice.
So if I try to dig in my memory, and try to find out why I am here, right now, actually, I should go back to the memories of childhood. I should go back to the Quranic school when I had to quit my study at public school, and go just to produce it for a future which didn’t choose me, to be an imam. And some events happened; I was sick, I quit the Quranic school, and went back to my high school. And there, many of you would ask, how could this young man start blogging, or writing, expressing himself? Really? Yes, I really did that. I was, of course, scared, and knew that it’s quite dangerous. But I thought that maybe I could protect myself. So I decided to start blogging anonymously.
I had two blogs when first I launched online; I was writing about poverty, about social issues, about my views or my criticisms of American politics. This blog, however, that I was writing there with my real name, didn’t get the attention of the people. What [got] their attention is the second blog, which was where I was writing anonymously about my atheism. Really, I was just a student. For example, when I go a solid Islamic education, they tell us that Abraham’s people threw him in a fire but he didn’t burn. But as soon as I get to the philosophy subject, philosophy hour, and the teacher starts talking about logical thinking and scientific thinking. So it’s a kind of paradox to discuss it, you are not allowed.
To have such discussions and to ask these questions is exactly no way. To ask your new family of course, that’s not [a] good background for such questions or with your friends.Then I just found the blogs. There I, with the level of reading and trying to search for such questions, my answer [was] blogging.
Anyway, after the day when the blog became famous, I started receiving death threats since the beginning of the blog, but they were just threats against the blog or against person X; Nobody knows who he was. And then one day, I received the threats and they were my full name with a phone number, which was a landline subscription, the provider of the internet. Later I understood it was through the IP that they could find the identity of the person who’s using this line. Many people would say, why did you introduce us? Why did you claim publicly to be an atheist? You know it’s like suicide. It’s like if someone takes an Israeli flag and goes to a camp of Hamas. Yes, it is. Because in our societies, we could tolerate someone to be an atheist, but not an atheist and activist. An atheist who says, I am Moroccan and I have the right to advocate for a secular constitution, to remove article number three that mentions Morocco as an Islamic state, to say that my sister has the right to inherit the same as me, and so on.
So I had my first interview with the media with France24. And before that, when the scandal started online, I was still going to my high school. Usually the students are not interested in such things. They go to Facebook, they go to chat or to share pictures. But an Islamic teacher, he brought his computer to the school and he started showing the students look, this guy what he’s doing; this guy’s an infidel, he’s an apostate, he should be killed, you should boycott him. So when I was going to school, I heard people screaming at me, throwing stones and like a mob of people. I get inside, nobody wants to talk to me, just my friend who used to sit close to me says we knew everything, shut up and don’t talk to us anymore. The next day, I was full of questions, I had thoughts that he knew exactly what’s going on. So I went to the director of the school to complain. And as soon as I get to him, he starts saying “you are working for a foreign agenda and you are here to shake the faith of the Muslims, of the youngsters, your classmates. You are being paid for that. In our criminal code, that’s shaking the faith, punished by jail.” So if I just have a discussion with my friend about Islam, or about God in general, that means I’m shaking his faith. So no way for critical thinking or for discussion at all; just take it as it is and live with it. So he starts shaking my head against the wall of the office. I lost consciousness and I woke up in the hospital with the medical certificate for 21 days.
I went to the police to report. They just listened to me, but they were asking why the people were threatening me with death, and why the teacher, for the first time, beat you up. I told them it’s not a question of why; if someone has something to do with me, he will come to you, he will not threaten me by death. This, according to the law, should be forbidden, and nobody is allowed to beat me up. There is justice and there are laws. That’s what I want you to apply here. So they didn’t really take me seriously. However, I made the lawsuits and they still have copies of them against the teacher, against the director and also this anonymous person who threatened me. The police couldn’t investigate and find the terrorists. It was easy to find me but the state could not find someone who’s threatening and using instruments in the territory of the country.
So, the situation gets worse where I live in my village. They started talking about me and mentioned me in the mosques. I came from a small village. so the news spread around. I still remember very well the amount of fear I had inside, especially with my family. When my father comes to me in my room and he says, “Yes, we knew that this happened, but is that really you who was speaking on France24? I cannot believe this. I know that you spend most of your time like a nerd inside with your computer but I never knew yet that you are doing such things.” So it was quite a hard shock for the family itself. In the small family and the big family, some members of the family boycotted us. Because as I said, first we are not individuals, we are communities, and if someone has made a mistake, according to the morals of the community then the whole group is rotten, and it’s not nice.
So we had to go and live in hiding. I was traveling through the cities of Morocco, spending a few nights with several friends that I trust, and the media in Morocco started publishing my pictures and the video was uploaded to several channels on YouTube with France24. Then I felt a need to do something which might take me away from this dark situation. So I found a way to the Swiss Embassy, which I’m very thankful to Switzerland. However, I simply heard that they closed this option to apply for asylum from the embassy. This was the only option for me at that time. So I went to the embassy. And the thing which I would like to address to the embassies, to the international organizations: pay attention to the local staff working with you. The local staff there was a Moroccan. When I [got] in, I asked him: “I’m applying for asylum.” I was shaking and almost crying, and they told me, “go away.” But I was wise and told them I’m not leaving before I meet someone who represents Switzerland. Then a lady came, I waited about half an hour and she came to me, she was really friendly. And then the Swiss Ambassador himself came, and we made an appointment to come again for an interview.
So this happened to me and happened also to another friend of mine, who’s Ghazi Beji, an atheist from Tunisia who was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail. He escaped first from Tunisia to Algeria. In Algeria, at the UN Council of refugees. When he went there, he met a Nigerian man, a local staff again, and he told him, “I am here applying for asylum, please help me.” You know what he said, the local staff: “go back to your country and apologize to your people. What you did is a shame”. This is considered to be a human rights organization, which is based on universal rights, because also in Morocco we have human rights. But maybe we are still struggling with the first generation of human rights, while still struggling with the right for education. Yes, they are very important. And I was also fighting for that. I was in the American Association of Human Rights. I was in the Moroccan Center for Human Rights and an active member of the youth group, and we did alot for it. But at the same time, how can I be a human rights activist and deny myself the right to be a free thinker, a critical thinker; the right to be different and be respected, and they don’t deny me the rights of citizenship in Morocco.
And also in Morocco during this time, my friends, that I used to call comrades – this word should be enough to give you an image of what kind of person I was – just didn’t like to support me officially. They said, “we will not support an atheist and the rights community of solidarity, an atheist, when we are working with laborers and with farmers. We will just lose our image in front of them.” So even the human rights organizations in our countries, when it comes to individual liberties, to sexual freedom, to talk about yes, we live in a world of globalization I’m not different from you. However, I live there. I have the same rights about my way of thinking, philosophy; probably I read the same books as you did.
So I address you, and what I would like to demand is not to consider this conference as if we are reading a novel for Marquis de Sade. Because when we are listening to this system, people feel like some demon, like a misery you felt from inside, like you are looking through some disgusting images. You try to picture them in your mind, but the end, you cannot. When you hear from North Korea, or from Iran or Morocco, however, it’s different examples but in special contexts. So I call on the individual in you. I don’t call on the UN, I don’t call on human rights organizations. I call on individuals within these organizations, in the brow of these organizations, to be able to do something, to be able to move on and to try your best. Because as soon as you will, people, probably some of you, will go out and this will be like entertainment for a few hours. We’ll listen to it and we’ll feel very happy here in the West and thank G-d or thank whatever, then we pass on.
So please, everybody is responsible. Everybody, if we really belong to the species called human beings, and if we still have some humanity, and we still long to the principles of the French Revolution or the principles we started in primary school, solidarity, justice, then everybody is responsible; not only we.
I tried my best to summarize my story, and I thank you for listening. Thanks to UN Watch for making this event real, and also to all the people who sponsor it, and thanks again.