The Ultimate Test of Democracy: The Right to Dissent (6/5/2009)
Global Forum on Freedom of Expression, Oslo, Norway, June 5, 2009
Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and colleagues, brothers and sisters, my fellow advocates of freedom of expression around the world.
I’m honored and privileged to be with you today in this great conference on global freedom of expression. I’m also very grateful and humbled by the invitation to address you. I thank the sponsors and conveners of this conference: the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Norwegian PEN, and the Freedom of Expression Foundation for facilitating this important meeting.
The venue of this conference is also very appropriate since Norway has set the example and, among nations, has been at the forefront in upholding the ideals set by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which over sixty years ago, set the standard when it declared that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and that such rights include the freedom to hold opinions without interference. I’d also like to express my regret for not being with you in person, because I remain under house arrest in the United States. But I’m deeply grateful to my wife Nahla and my daughter Laila for representing me in this ground breaking conference.
In addition, I’d like to thank Jan Dalchow for facilitating this video link and also thank him, Line Halverson, Tuna Andersen, and Morten Daee for their tremendous efforts in the documentary USA vs Al-Arian.
This is my first public speech in seven years. I’ve been advised to refrain from speaking in public because of my pending case, but I thought this conference is important enough to make an exception. It’s also in the tradition of Paul Robeson who was a prominent African-American activist during the civil rights movement. For many years he was denied travel by his government because of his views. In October 1957 however, Robeson was able to participate in a conference in England by means of a transatlantic telephone link.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Today, freedom of expression has become a defining feature in the struggle to realize our humanity and liberty. The forces of intolerance, hegemony, and reactionary politics tend to favor stifling free speech and suppressing dissent. But nothing is more dangerous than when such suppression is perpetrated and sanctioned by government and authority. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence once observed, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Therefore, I’d like to argue here that this standard ought to be the defining symbol of democratic societies.
Because government has enormous power and authority over its people, such control must be checked, and people, especially those advocating unpopular opinions, must have absolute protections from governmental interference and abuse of power. A case in point is the imperative issue of Palestinian self-determination. In the United States, as well as in other western countries, those who support the Palestinian struggle for justice, and criticize Israeli occupation and brutal policies have often been on the receiving end of an assault against freedom of speech in academia, media, politics and society at large. But it was not until the tragic events of September 11th that such ferocious assaults against freedom of speech were launched by the government in the name of security. Far too many people have been targeted and punished because of their unpopular opinions or beliefs.
I was born to stateless Palestinian refugee parents. But like most Palestinians I was denied basic rights, the most important of which was the right to be a citizen of a country, to belong and enjoy such basic rights that people around the world take for granted: residency, education, travel, security, stability. Nevertheless, I was full of hopes and dreams that the future would be better than the past. I came to the United States in 1975 at the age of 17 carrying these dreams with me. Back then people looked at America as a beacon of freedom, the land of liberty and opportunity.
It was the summer of 1976 when I took my first civics course. I was 18 and still not familiar with the American political culture. Class discussion on the first day centered on the Watergate scandal and the separation of powers. Having come from a region where authoritarian regimes and political repression thrive, I was fascinated with the American system of government. By the end of the week, the professor asked us to research what he called the "2 D's": dissent and due process, cornerstones of any democracy.
Looking in the Arabic-English dictionary, I could not find the word "due process." So I looked up the two words separately. Put together, they did not make much sense to me. It was many discussions later that I grasped this novel idea of the American justice system. Little did I know that three decades later, I would be in the national spotlight in a heated debate concerning the two D's.
During my many decades in America I learned that positive change could only come through education and vigorous debate. So I worked hard to promote a vision of commitment to freedom of expression and dialogue. This vision led to the establishment of several institutions in education, research, and civil rights. Let me highlight some of these organizations that I’m proud to have founded.
First, I co-founded a research and academic center in the early 90’s that produced scholarly work and hosted several round table discussions between premiere Muslim and Western scholars. Its publications and high quality work were strongly praised by the experts in the field. We rejected the clash of civilizations theory that some were promoting at the time, and believed that it was patently wrong. Instead we focused on dialogue and cooperation between civilizations. We believed deeply that such dialogue is the path towards finding mutual understanding and common moral ground. Another organization I chaired advocated for Palestinian rights during the first intifada in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In five conferences the organization sponsored, over 100 speakers were invited to educate the public about the plight of the Palestinians and to freely express their views.
Moreover, I founded a local school in Tampa, Florida, that had over 300 students. I always believed that children and the youth define our future. Hence, a real positive change starts with educating our youngsters about the importance of dialogue among and within cultures, as well as making a commitment towards human rights. In that school, we implemented a curriculum that emphasized a multicultural approach and appreciation of a pluralistic society. We also hosted different prominent members of our society such as judges, journalists, grass roots activists, and interfaith leaders, because of our belief that the Muslim community should be an active part of the larger society and should not self-segregate.
Another organization that I’m proud of being a co-founder and president of was the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom. It was an organization that built a coalition of over forty civil rights groups from around the nation fighting the use of secret evidence in courts. This unconstitutional practice was used primarily against Palestinian and Muslim political activists in the late 1990’s. We were so successful in educating the public and the political establishment that we were able to generate hundreds of editorials and articles in the media decrying the use of secret evidence. We eventually were able to get over 130 members of Congress to co-sponsor a legislation to ban the use of secret evidence in the courts. It even became a campaign issue in the 2000 debate between the presidential candidates. Unfortunately, this effort was halted in light of the 9/11 tragedy.
During the opening statement of my trial on a bloated indictment in an American courtroom in June 2005, my great attorney, the late Bill Moffitt, displayed to the jury two poster-sized photographs that government agents took during searches of my house many years earlier. In one photo, there were stacks and stacks of books from my home library, while the other photo showed a gun I owned at the time. The attorney looked the jury in the eyes and said: “this is what this case is about. When the government raided my client’s house, this is what they seized”, pointing towards the books, “and this is what they left,” pointing to the gun in the other picture. He then added: “this case is not about terrorism but about my client’s right to freedom of speech.”
Indeed much of the government’s evidence presented to the jury during the six-month trial were speeches I delivered, lectures I presented, articles I wrote, magazines I edited, books I owned, conferences I convened, rallies I attended, interviews I gave, news I heard, and websites I never even accessed. In fact, several websites, presented to the jury as evidence, were created by anonymous individuals, after my arrest, when I was awaiting trial in solitary confinement in a federal prison.
During my five and a half years in prison, I had to endure 43 straight months in solitary confinement, most of it before and during the trial. The conditions of confinement were Guantanamo-like conditions designed to break you down psychologically so you give up and surrender: isolation, abusive guards, little or no communication with family and friends, and limited opportunity to review the evidence assembled against you, just to name a few. Even serial murderers and rapists had more rights in the prison than a pre-trial Palestinian detainee entitled to the presumption of innocence under the law.
One of the charges against me was extortion. During pretrial motions, the defense inquired about whom we were trying to extort. The government answered that we were trying to extort land from the state of Israel! Even that was too much for the presiding judge who dismissed this charge, because, according to the law, one could only extort a person not a state. Several months later the zealous prosecutors re-filed the charge in a superseding indictment, telling the judge that they would present a witness that we had extorted. During the trial, they brought an Israeli national who had immigrated to Costa Rica almost a decade earlier. Her testimony was that she had tragically lost a sister in a suicide bombing in 1996. Her family was so traumatized by the loss that she had to sell her restaurant in Tel Aviv and move to Costa Rica, and this was how Palestinians in Florida extorted an Israeli woman living in Costa Rica! With such logic all Palestinians would be extortionists, while all Israelis are victims. If you think this sounds like a tale from Kafka, you would not be far off.
In another instance, the evidence against me consisted of a conversation that one of my co-defendants had with me in his dream. It was reminiscent of the thought crime in George Orwell’s 1984. In this eye-opening novel, fear of the government becomes the norm, the standard way of life. People are cultured to submit to a new language and regulated speech: War is peace; slavery is freedom; ignorance is strength. In such an environment, where society is dominated by fear, people start conforming to every behavior dictated by the authorities. So when a daughter hears her father criticize, in his dream, the leader, Big Brother, she reports him to the authorities. He is immediately arrested, tried, convicted and sent to prison. In the novel, Orwell describes how the father was grateful to his daughter for reporting him before acting out his dream so that he could be rehabilitated in time.
But the real scary part in my trial was not that speech, opinions, books, writings, and dreams were offered into evidence, but that the judiciary system was intimidated by the government and allowed them to be admitted into evidence. That’s why we applauded the jury’s verdict. Our jury represented the best society had to offer. Despite all the fear-mongering and scare tactics used by the authorities, the jurors acted as free people; people of conscience, able to see through Big Brother’s tactics.
Truly, free people are not intimidated by scare tactics. On the contrary, they exhibit a sense of fairness, display respect for the freedom of others, and are willing to stand up and defend their highest ideals. That’s the essence of a democratic society, where the people are unwilling to submit to fear or be intimidated or cowed by abusive authority and its tyrannical tactics. At the heart of this debate is the false dichotomy between security and freedom. Let me quote one of the American founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
It’s quite understandable that in a free society a balance sometimes is required between safety and freedom. But the price of security should not be born out by the most vulnerable groups in society, but by all. And if the majority are willing to cede their basic freedoms: to speak, advocate, associate, assemble, organize, mobilize, criticize, regarding any cause, no matter how unpopular, or any group no matter how detested, or any person no matter how despised; to exercise these freedoms without fear of being ostracized, marginalized, persecuted or punished; if the majority in society are willing to sacrifice these freedoms in the name of security they cannot then call themselves a free society. But if the majority want to sacrifice the freedom of others in order to feel safe, then such society can’t describe itself as democratic.
Which brings me to the tragic situation in the Middle East. People of good conscience need to challenge this notion that a militarized society that occupies the land of others, and enslaves and brutalizes its people, can also be referred to as a democratic society. Democracy cannot be divided or compartmentalized so part of the society can practice it while others are denied it. There is a term for such political posture. It’s called apartheid. The world recognized it and rejected it in South Africa. And it ought to do the same in Israel and Palestine.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
The Arab and Muslim communities in the United States are a minority and a vulnerable segment of society. Many members of these communities, as well as many of their organizations, have been targeted because of their beliefs and opinions. For many years now, fear has defined this community and become the hallmark in far too many homes, mosques, and places of work. Members of these communities cannot trust each other because of the government’s continuous efforts to harass their leaders, infiltrate their places of worship and institutions, and attack or shut down their organizations. They refrain from speaking about politics with each other. Or when they do, they whisper to each other, feeling extremely uneasy to talk freely because they fear, justifiably I might add, that their phones, emails, and other means of communications are being constantly monitored. Far too many people can’t speak their minds or publicly express their opinions for fear of being targeted by the authorities. This situation is not imaginary. But community after community in many states have been targeted and intimidated. Such a state of affairs is the conventional definition of a police state. When people start fearing their government, looking over their shoulders, afraid of the five o’clock in the morning knock on the door, losing their sense of privacy. Whether such fear is irrational or not, such state of affairs surely cannot represent democratic ideals and values. Again according to the author of the American Declaration of Independence, that’s the classical definition of “tyranny.”
President Obama addressed the Muslim World yesterday in what he described as a sincere effort to engage them. While this is commendable and encouraging, it rings hollow because he is yet to engage his own American Muslim community who feel they have been targeted, isolated, and treated like second-class citizens in their own country. Throughout his two-year presidential campaign and four months into his presidency, he has yet to meet with a single leader from the American Muslim community, the only group that has been completely shunned from the political process.
While the overwhelming majority of Americans may not realize such fear, or experience its effects, the corruptive nature of such appalling practices still affect their society. Society cannot feel immune from the fear “virus”. Unless it’s completely treated, the virus that infects part of the body will eventually destroy it. As the wise American politician Adlai Stevenson once observed: “A free society is a place where it's safe to be unpopular.”
If the unpopular today is fearful and therefore silenced, the favored and popular today may become the despised and unpopular tomorrow. A free society is one in which the whole society is free, every segment of it, not some or part of it, nor even the overwhelming majority, but when every weak, vulnerable, odd, strange, unpopular, despised, hated and marginalized member is also free. In a truly free society, members of the minority are protected; their opinions respected.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
About a century and a half ago John Stuart Mill observed that the struggle between liberty and authority is the most conspicuous feature in humans’ historical struggle for freedom. By liberty, he meant protection against the tyranny of the political class. Regarding those who suppress the opinion of others by force, he says: “To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” In other words, if any government has the authority to silence dissent and unpopular speech by resorting to fear tactics and malicious prosecutions, then it assumes the role of an infallible and tyrannical god.
Even in Islam, a faith that has been falsely accused of being intolerant towards other opinions and beliefs, it sanctions any serious debate, including even the argument of questioning the existence of a god or the validity of the prophet. It’s reported that the prophet Muhammad once said: “Say what is true, although it may be bitter and displeasing to people.” The essence of this statement is that at the heart of freedom of speech is the belief that the speaker is presenting his or her version of a truth, even if it angers the authorities. One may think he or she knows the truth and holds its essence, but that does not give anyone any right to bar others from thinking the same and offering their version of the truth. Let freedom of speech then be a competition for the search for the truth, not a monopoly by the authorities or the elites of “their truth.”
“All tyranny needs in order to rule the day is for people of good conscience to remain silent or do nothing.” To protect freedom of speech is to speak more not less, to challenge authority run amok, to speak truth to power, that too often substitutes fear for rational thinking in order to control and dictate. But also too often the vulnerable members of society are too traumatized to speak on their own behalf or defend their rights. So it becomes incumbent upon people of good conscience, our collective duty, our solemn responsibility, to champion their cause; to educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty. That only comes through freeing ourselves from fear and by exercising our right to speak and express ourselves freely. What distinguished great leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela was their willingness to speak truth to power, and if need be, pay the price for it.
In his closing argument, my attorney summed up the case to the jury by saying: "I suggest to you that somewhere very close, the people who wrote those words, 'we the people,' are listening and observing these proceedings and wondering whether we have the courage to maintain what they set out for us; whether we will remain the beacon in the world to someone like Sami Al-Arian to come here and to speak his piece." He then concluded: "I have a daughter. I hope that she will live in a country where she can speak her mind and believe what she wants without fear. That's what this case is about." The jury surely believed strongly in Mr. Moffitt's passionate defense of the right to speak freely, as they did not return a single guilty verdict despite a six-month onslaught by the government.
Looking back at the more than three decades I lived in America, I'm indeed grateful for the opportunities afforded to the son of stateless Palestinian refugees in a foreign country, while denied such opportunity anywhere else. During this time, I strove to be a voice and advocate for the Palestinian victim, denied his or her basic human rights. In the process, I’ve tried to uphold the great values of my faith and culture and the honored ideals and principles of a free society. I'm very proud and grateful to have been able to contribute positively in many endeavors. But a free society would pass or fail its ultimate test based on how it treats unpopular opinions and dissent during times of crisis. To be a Palestinian or a Muslim in America today is a challenge, and history will ultimately render its judgment on how Palestinians and Muslims in America were treated during this time of crisis. A resilient democracy admits its mistakes and takes corrective action rather than arrogantly deviating from its professed values and ideals.
But despite my imprisonment and experience, my faith in dialogue and commitment to freedom of expression, will never waver. It’s been my life long passion. The accomplishments we’ve achieved, the countless speeches I gave at universities, churches, mosques and synagogues, about Palestine, justice, civil liberties, political empowerment, and interfaith dialogue are testament to the power of ideas and necessity of dialogue. The fruits of my work were evident when one looks at those who supported us during my ordeal: ministers, grassroots organizers, journalists, judges, human rights organizations, and thousands of conscientious people around the country and the world. This experience taught us that when the American people are educated and empowered with truth they respond positively and display a sense of fairness. They are outraged about what’s being done in their name. I firmly believe that through education and civil engagement people change. Little by little they will understand the plight of the Palestinians and the importance of defending civil liberties and human rights. Increasingly, people realize that no democracy can survive at the altar of sacrificing free speech or dissent.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Malcolm X once said: “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” Our charge today is to pledge to defend the rights of our most vulnerable members of our world community: the tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience around the world, those who are under occupation or under siege, the millions terrorized by dictators and war lords, the poor and the sick, the uneducated and the exploited, the children, the abused women, and the elderly. Each one of these classes of people needs a voice and an advocate. They need to gain their freedom to realize a life of dignity and peace. So whether we recognize it or not, we are at the forefront of this struggle for their freedom. Let your collective conscience speak on their behalf.
One cannot achieve peace without realizing justice, realize justice without seeking out the truth, seek out the truth without practicing freedom. So there you have it, living and thinking free is the root of achieving peace in our world.
Thank you very much.