A Pilgrimage to the Oslo Freedom Forum

Hope and Ripple Effects in the Global Fight for Human Rights and Liberal Democracy


At first, I assumed he was Persian. But as he stepped onto the well-lit stage and began speaking, it became apparent that Saad Mohseni was an Afghani media entrepreneur whose topic would be Afghanistan, or rather its harsh predicaments and how to resolve them.

Instantly, through no conscious intent of my own, I felt the cynicism swell up through my body. My posture slouched, as if in defeat, and remained as such momentarily.

Saad Mohseni on stage at the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum

Somewhere, deep in the dark recesses of my mind, places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and my birthplace of Sudan, too often symbolized the near irredeemable. The destitute, and almost irreparable.

Nevertheless, 12 minutes later, I experienced a powerful shift in perception, and caught myself sitting upright, chest stretched forward defiantly.

In that moment, John F. Kennedy’s truism “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try,” held profound significance, and was no longer a cliche, but a potent call to do what is indeed achievable with moral courage, determination, sound strategy, and admittedly, some luck.

“One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

(To know what it is I’m talking about, I urge you to watch Mohseni’s talk in its entirety below about how his efforts beat the odds and positively impacted an entire nation).

Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban.
Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and thanks to the persistent efforts of media entrepreneurs like Saad Mohseni.

Such is the inspirational effect the Oslo Freedom Forum regularly has on its participants. This year, the 2015 forum was no different, with its theme Living in Truth.

Truth is, for many of us — activists, writers, dissidents, and human rights advocates — it can be a lonely existence. In normal settings, we’re outliers at best, and in extreme situations, reviled and persecuted heretics, or worse.

But not in Oslo. Not at the Oslo Freedom Forum, where the supremacy of human rights rightly takes precedence over the politically correct pandering and partisanship that mire much of today’s discourse on this crucial subject, in the West, and beyond.

As this profile of Thor Halvorssen, President of the Human Rights Foundation, which organizes the Oslo Freedom Forum, aptly notes:

“… human rights and individual liberty are not something that should be on the table in any discussion, they are the table upon which all other discussions rest.”

Precisely. And in Oslo that is genuinely the sentiment among participants, whose support for human rights, and frequently also for the values of classical liberalism, is refreshingly assertive and unapologetic.

It was my fourth year in attendance, (and would have been my fifth had I not been forced to seek political asylum in Canada in 2014).

As always, I felt honored, privileged, and deeply grateful to be part of this community. So much so that the experience has become akin to an annual pilgrimage, one that rejuvenates the spirit and helps renew one’s commitment to the cause. Moreover, increasingly, it is also one that informs and educates.

For without a doubt, this year, the takeaways from the workshops preceding the official event were valuable and highly practical.

Among the highlights was Nico Sell, CEO of secure messaging app Wickr, who delivered a disturbing and eye-opening workshop on online communication security. As a longtime organizer of the DEF CON hacking conference, she has deep expertise, and it shows.

Suffice to say, when it becomes apparent how easy it is, even for amateur kids with a little training, to hack your smartphone and turn your camera and microphone on without your knowledge, the revelation is bound to send chills down your spine.

No wonder IT security expert and former Oslo Freedom Forum panelist, Jacob Appelbaum, likens practicing safe communication to practicing safe sex. Basically, if you’re a journalist or an activist, you’re at risk, and you might as well consider yourself a sex worker. The advice? “Practice unprotected communication at your own growing risk.” Essentially.

The cover of Srdja Popvic’s book, Blueprint for Revolution.

Another highlight of the day was the workshop conducted by Serbian non-violent protest veteran Srdja Popovic whose book Blueprint for Revolution (which I enjoyed on my flight back to Canada) should be required reading for all activists and advocates. Step by step, Popovic illuminated the importance of picking battles you can win, and building up from there into larger victories. He explained case-studies like the Civil Rights era’s Montgomery bus boycott, deconstructed why it was so effective, and shared specific proven tactics from across the globe.

Applied to today’s struggles, it became evident that there’s great room for improvement in the strategies used by many activists and protest movements around the world.

As the sessions and artistic performances came to an end, we gradually dispersed, only to continue our brainstorms in smaller groups with shared common goals.

The Wanton Bishops performing at the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum

In part, it is precisely those behind-the-scenes synchronistic meetups that make the Oslo Freedom Forum so gratifying.

Over the years, those smaller intimate get-togethers have catalyzed profound personal transformations, including for me, as well as new disruptive initiatives, some of which I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing upon conception. Likewise, this year’s forum was no different.

The evenings of the subsequent days continued similarly, with informal in-between meetings occurring in and around Oslo’s Grand Hotel, in nearby restaurants, cafes, and bars, often late past midnight.

(Thank goodness for the abundant coffee that made it possible to power through the forum, jet-lagged and on little sleep).

Participants and speakers, posing for a photo at the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum.

Strikingly, this time around, numerous discussions centered on plans that are more entrepreneurial, scalable, and audacious. Whether these plans get fully realized as ambitiously intended, is another matter altogether of course, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Whether it’s Ji Seong-ho’s impossible 6,000-mile escape from North Korea on amputee crutches, Kimberley Motley’s fight to hold vicious murderers of women accountable for their crimes, or Saad Mohseni’s entrepreneurial efforts for a better Afghanistan, I wouldn’t bet against them. It would be unwise to do so, since you’d essentially be betting against their perseverance, courage, and ingenuity, of which they’ve demonstrated plenty.

Moreover, even if they do fail to reach their ultimate long-term goals, and they likely could, their daring efforts will surely still ripple through history.

That alone is worth rooting for.

Ji Seong-ho’s moving and powerful ending to his speech, lifting up the crutches he used to walk and escape out of North Korea.

In the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks… We must demonstrate, teach and preach, until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.” Indeed, we must. In all nations. Amen to that.

Amir Ahmad Nasr is the author of the searing memoir and banned book My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind — And Doubt Freed My Soul. He is a past Oslo Freedom Forum speaker, and a member of the Human Rights Foundation’s International Council.

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