For my first post on Global Voices Advocacy I'd like to entertain a discussion on an issue that has been bothering me since news of the first censored political website in Algeria was broken. That is, how far would one go in defending the human rights, and most relevant the right to free speech, of one's political arch-rivals*. Picture in your mind your most hated group, a group that you think would definitely alter your life in extremely unpleasant ways were they to obtain power that you think your raison d'être would be to defeat them politically every possible way. I'll help you do that by explaining the background to this.
The website that was censored in Algeria is that of Rachad. Rachad is a political organisation in exile that seeks to “overthrow” the regime peacefully. They do no hold any big political weight (which makes their dubious honour of being the first censured website rather disappointing – one would think the regime would censor some real threat). But many of its members are associated with the now banned islamist FIS party. FIS was about to win the majority in Parliament in 1991 on an islamist platform that sometimes hinted at doing away with democracy all together in favour of a totalitarian regime a.k.a Iran. The process was halted by the military and the rest as they say is history. Nearly 20 years later and over 100000 deaths and now the FIS's previous members are looked at with extreme suspicion.
Add to this the distrustful nature of typical Algerians after many years of lies, deceit and behind the scene politics, the result is a political atmosphere that is electric and unproductive. The conservative islamic parties do not like the FIS who do not like the communists who do not like the socialists who do not like the liberals who do not like islamic parties, and all mutually do not like each other to the core, to the point of not trusting any other with power whatsoever. Each believes that their ultimate annihilation would come if the other won power, and that their ultimate responsibility is in taking the country exclusively in the direction that they set to the exclusion of all others, with the result that nobody wins (or, the winner is the status quo). You'd think that the two Kabyle parties would agree on some things? nope, the socialists and the communists? nope, The moderate islamic parties and the FIS? nope.
What has this background to do with censorship though? When Rachad's website was censored several blogs and websites carried the story including mine, with a petition to oppose all forms of censorship. Replies were extremely distrutful and vehement. Hchicha, a famous Algerian blogger who blogs in French, had a Youtube video that denounced censorship in all forms. He was attacked mercilessly and had multiple video replies. He says he was swamped with angry emails. I received emails to the tune that I am an islamist in disguise for starting the petition and had to alter the text to make it generic. “How dare you defend the rights of Islamists?” was their argument. These emails and Video replies were coming from people who, themselves, oppose the current regime to the core.
In keeping with Algerians’ distrutful nature, the opposition to the opposition to censorship took strange turns when they accused Rachad of manufacturing censorship to stir up controversy. The accusation took on legs and stifled much of our effort to combat this censorship, even though all docile (Swiss business) websites that were hosted on the same Rachad shared servers were also shown to be censured.
Denouncers of censorship tried to argue the universal nature of freedom of speech, alluding to the well known poem by Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Many Algerians simply cannot stomach this message. To many the threat of another militant islamist takeover that abolishes democracy is still real. Americans, for example, do not see a problem with freedom of speech for neo-Nazis or the KKK. In western free countries, there is an intellectual class that would vehemently oppose and deny extremists and undemocratic currents the ascent to power. There is virtually no chance that, say, the KKK wins enough popular support to win anything of value because the intellectual outcry will eventually defeat them. In countries like Algeria though and many other third world countries, such an intellectual force is not strong. Regimes are often discredited and hated and that tends to make voters vote for any credible alternative, however bad it may be.
This brings me to the question: beyond the slogans and the principles, how far would you go in defending your political rival some fundamental human right, even if you know that the rival presents a substantial threat to your way of life? Upping the stakes once more, what if even the values that you're defending for them may be substantially jeopardised in case they win power?
[* I'm not stating that I am the enemy of Rachad (the censored website) or any other political group. This post is not passing judgement on possible future actions Rachad or any other political group.]