What the San Francisco Freedom Forum was all about
The motto of the first San Francisco Freedom Forum, the American outpost of the Human Rights Foundation's annual Oslo meet, was "many paths, one goal." And while the event was somewhat smaller than its European version, which has been described as a kind of "Davos for dissidents," it still brought a truly global group of activists and journalists to downtown San Francisco. The paths of the various speakers, which included such diverse figures as The Dictator's Learning Curve author and Slate's politics and foreign-affairs editor William J. Dobson and Saudi female driving activist Manal al-Sharif, were indeed many. Yet one speaker -- the iconic Burmese opposition leader and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi -- gave a provocative articulation of what the goal, and the almost-obsessively invoked idea of "freedom," might actually mean.
An overview of the world's human rights rough spots, the Forum consisted of a series of speakers who drew attention to abuses both obscure, like the massacre of Kazakh oil workers in December of 2011, and well-known, like political suppression in China. Although Human Rights Foundation director Thor Halvorssen opened the forum by explaining that "all of us believe ... there should be limits on state power," one of the day's more captivating presentations was from Ahmed Benchemsi, a dissident Moroccan magazine editor and current Stanford University fellow who spoke about the need for Arab publics to recognize the skeptical and secularizing currents that already exist in their societies, and, he argued, in all societies. "Do you really think that Arabs are Orwellian robots who do not doubt?" Benchemsi asked attendees, advancing an argument more targeted at an entire political and social complex than at any individual state or government.