Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakul Kerman delivered a speech at the NAFSA Conference entitled "The Arab Spring and Role of Universities and Students in Promoting Freedoms and Democracy", which reads as follows:
It's a great source of joy for me to be with you, and the cause of my happiness is that I hold the special appreciation for the students and those who set to learn and gain knowledge. It’s from here the world is changing. In 2011, starting from the gate of Sana’a University, a peaceful revolution broke out against the failed, corrupt and despotic family regime. This is why I considered universities as a square for struggle for freedom and science, which are central for any nation that aspires progress and prosperity.
Unlike in developed countries, including the United States of America, which believe in the importance of freedom and science, some countries that adopt comprehensive and exclusionary policies often fight freedom and insult science.
Tyranny regimes seek to spread ignorance and restrict freedoms, including freedom of scientific research. Could you imagine how the status of professors and students would be in countries suffering from totalitarian rule? Do you expect them to be free in their opinions, choices or preferences? Would they be able to conduct researches, studies or debates on current situations and pressing issues freely or even semi-freely?
Here, for examples, you elect student unions and leaders without instruction from above. Do you expect that this democratic model would be allowed to exist in universities located in autocratic countries? The answer, of course, is no.
In authoritarian countries, universities suffer from the lack of both scientific freedom and political freedom. Students there are arrested and killed, and their professors are also arrested and imprisoned for treason and spreading destructive ideas.
Let’s talk frankly, totalitarian regimes consider universities suspicious places, and therefore they plant spies throughout, and take pride in this nevertheless. These regimes develop laws and regulations that restrict any attempt to have freedom of speech. I will list some of violations against students and professors in the Arab world just to show that the political tyranny not only monopolizes politics but also extends its control over all aspects of life, especially schools and universities.
In Yemen, when the Houthi militia took over Sanaa and other provinces on September 21, 2014, dozens of students were kidnapped because of rejecting any presence of armed elements inside their universities. Some of them were subjected to severe torture. In addition, teachers who were openly talking about what was happening were threatened. Could you imagine freedom of any kind would be possible under the control of the militias? Would students be able to attend their lectures? To your knowledge, children are recruited by the Houthi militia and sent to battlefronts. As much as this behavior is an assault on childhood and humanity, its also poses a threat to the future. Most of the students will probably not be able to return to school and restore their normal life easily.
The university community is a conscious and rational society, so its role remains essential in supporting democratic values and freedoms, in modernizing society and continuing the movement of scientific innovation. If democratic countries like the United States enjoy such a status, the situation is unlike in autocratic countries, which force most university professors to be their mouthpieces and support their repressive policies under false and unrealistic pretexts with the aim of misleading people, and most dangerously, serving as spies on their students.
Non-democratic regimes seek to manipulate universities through indoctrinating professors and students. But history tells that such attempts, even if partially successful, fail in the long term, as something else inside students and universities are prone to rebellion and freedom. When teachers and professors are aware of the importance of their role, the results are often great. I strongly believe that no scientific creativity could be there without freedom, and I think many share the same belief.
In the Arab world, the belief in the importance of change grows constantly despite the enormous challenges.
In late 2010 and early 2011, the Arab peoples decided to get rid of a shame they have been plagued with for decades; it’s the tyranny in its different forms. It’s the injustice. It’s the cruel and harsh oppression, humiliation and persecution against opponents. It is when approving and welcoming fake elections as if they were people’s choice.
More than four years after the outbreak of the Youth revolutions, some wonder whether they were a spring or autumn? Others are not ashamed of lying when describing these revolutions as an American and Israeli conspiracy against the Arab region and Islam. Unfortunately, such ridiculous claims are promoted by media and religious platforms that have unashamedly defended authoritarian regimes and portrayed their lies as unquestionable facts.
It is no secret that the Arab Spring is facing an open war. Young people and girls who took to the streets and squares, and chose the path of peaceful change were countered with oppression, killing and arbitrary arrests. Once these procedures and tricks failed to impede the movement of the masses, extremist groups and movements were encouraged to leave their caves and hideouts to stop this march. Instead of efforts to establish genuine democracies, efforts are fully focused on fighting terrorism and extremism rather than on establishing genuine democracies.
What raises both suspicion and sadness is that Western governments, which have long talked about the importance of democracy, respect for freedoms and human rights, did not have clear positions towards the Arab Spring and preferred to stay in the grey area. Later, however, it turned out that these governments did not like it that the Arab peoples choose their rulers freely and independently, fearing that their traditional interests would be affected by the arrival of elected national governments to power.
At this moment, there is no doubt that the Arab Spring face difficulties. Wars, chaos and the rise of extremist groups make many people to argue that the popular uprisings are not only a fall, but also a very cold one. Let me tell you with an open heart that revolutions are not just a passing event, but a continuous and complex process, and therefore difficulties are serious and complex. Nevertheless, we are determined to take our rights and freedom, and would never give in to the logic claiming that we are not ready for democracy and change. This will not happen. On the contrary, this war against the Arab Spring will not force us to retreat, but it will make us more convinced that what we have done the right thing.
There are many fears that the Arab Spring revolutions will turn into permanent chaos. Actually, such concerns are legitimate, but could those who are increasingly concerned about this tell us the solution?
Does the solution lie in stopping the demand for freedom and democracy, and in beginning to accept authoritarian regimes? Could such solution be rational and just?
For me, continuing the peaceful struggle and taking advantage of previous mistakes will lead us to good results and will force those whose hopes are pinned on our tiredness to respect our will. But how could such belief in peaceful change be preserved amid all these wars and chaos?
I still believe that Arab youth will keep believing in peaceful struggle as the most appropriate option to bring about the desired change. The forces that chose the path of war are the forces that saw, and still see, the Arab Spring revolutions as a national betrayal and a conspiracy backed by the outside.
But are democracy and freedom worthy of all these sacrifices, ask some sarcastically or maybe compassionately?
For me, anything is more important than freedom, and as I said on previous occasions: It is our right to live free, otherwise life will be worthless. Accordingly, we are willing to sacrifice, no matter the price.
I can say that the Arab Spring has become a reality. But the Arab Spring, like all beautiful things, has been in confrontation with the forces of tyranny, corruption and terrorism that have united at a historic moment to preserve their illegal interests. This confrontation undoubtedly is unequal, but the values of good and the will of peoples will triumph in the end.
It is important for the international community to realize the importance of the Arab Spring and democracy in bringing peace and stability to the world. According to about all statistics, there is almost no war between democratic states. Democracy a basic factor to prevent wars, extremism and terrorism. This fact, of course, bothers the arms companies, but we who want to live peacefully are not bothered.
More than a hundred years ago, Abdel-Rahman Al-Kawakibi, one of the most prominent Arab and Islamic intellectuals, died. He was well-known for his hostility to tyranny. His masterpiece “The Nature of Despotism” is like a guide to tyranny in all its forms. “The despotism affects most of natural tendencies and virtuous morality, spoiling or weakening them”, wrote Al-Kawakibi.
We stand in the face of tyranny not because it monopolizes politics, but rather it kills everything, turns life into a cycle of torment that ends only with death.
At the conclusion of this lecture, I reiterate that the Arab Spring will win the battle sooner or later, as God and we will not accept the return of tyranny, whatever the sacrifices. I have a certainty that the Arab peoples will enjoy democracy and freedoms like others. To those who trying to say that achieving such a dream is impossible: have ever people been driven to despair, or have accepted to live without dignity?
Your struggle for a knowledge society strengthens our struggle to build democracy and peace, and our struggle for democracy, rights and freedoms strengthens your struggle to build a society of knowledge, light and enlightenment. Ladies and gentlemen, your struggle is our struggle, and vice versa.