Ai Weiwei or the courage we need

Watching Lincoln, the movie, I thought about heroes in politics. There are none left, with the possible exception of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, although both have somehow lost their glory. Mandela is involved in family affairs about money and the Burmese freedom fighter is a bit too close to the new leadership for comfort. What is it to be courageous in 2013? And who is, if we cannot count on a Ghandi or a Lincoln? Those who use their pen, chisel, brush and music to defy authority. I have written earlier about Arab poets who are thrown in prison because of their critical words. Hamza Kahgari is still in a Saudi prison because of his tweets about the prophet Muhammad. He was demanding his right to freedom of expression and all he received was punishment, not public support. On the contrary, there were many calls for his execution, as Salman Rushdie reminds us in a recent article. Courage is being turned into terrorist activities these days by shrewd authorities in China, Pakistan, India or Qatar who have successfully made potentially heroes into villains, whose voices against orthodoxy or bigotry are to blame for upsetting people. And the people believe this, obliterated as they are by religious passions and political brain washing. Even in the US, activists like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said have been called crazy and dangerous and in Said’s case even an apologists of Palestinian ‘terrorism’.

For a couple of years I have been on the board of PEN Writers in Prison and I know all too well how many writers, journalists and poets are behind bars for being courageous and speaking up against tyranny and dictatorship. We used to send letters to heads of state and magistrates to beg for their liberation. The letters of course never arrived and, for sure, were never answered. But we kept on signing petitions and sending letters. We hoped that one day the tyrants would get tired and close their shop. Naive, maybe, but what else can we do? When I left the PEN board, I stopped writing to the presidents. I shouldn’t have.
Thousands of intellectuals and artists all over the world are still in prison, probably under conditions so well depicted by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who recently made an installation about guards never leaving their prisoner, even when he sleeps, showers or goes to the toilet. Absolute mental torture, no need to use other tools than mere presence, 24/7. Ai Weiwei is our example and we must continue to support the courageous individuals who are fighting, not only for their freedom, but for ours as well. Let’s join Salman Rushdie and protest, protest, protest.

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