At Word Camp Birmingham yesterday,I was moved and inspired by a soft spoken, sprite of a young Muslim woman who is using WordPress to further the rights and freedom of all people, especially those in the Middle East, who do not have the most basic freedom of speech. It is good to be reminded of this, when in the US a Senator can stand up and call the President a liar. Although shocking, we are inured to the fact that the heckler will not suffer any retribution, other than the natural consequences of his behavior. It is good to remember just how much we take for granted and yesterday, Esra’a Al Shafei reminded me of this in a profound way. There are people all over the world who are being jailed and murdered for speaking their truth.
Before her session, the last of the day, the conference organizer told everyone to turn off their video cameras warning us that filming the next speaker could put her life in jeopardy. Esra’a lives her life on the premise that if you want your human rights you must fight for those who don’t have them because you are in essence fighting for your own. Everyday her work puts her life in danger. Esra’a is from Bahrain, a small constitutional monarchy, more liberal than most, in the Middle East. Being sandwiched between some very repressive regimes, the people of Bahrain are very much aware of the threats to their own fledgling liberties. Esra’a reminded us that the threats are not always from the government but can come from militant groups or from anyone that disagrees with your views or your actions. These threats can and do result in jail torture and death and therefor people are very concerned about speaking out for fear anyone might be ready to turn them in for just about anything.
Bahraini liberals have responded to the growing power of religious parties by organizing themselves to campaign through civil society in order to defend basic personal freedoms from being legislated away. Esra’s has done this by creating WordPress blogs for people across the region who want to have a voice about what is happening to them. She is passionate about freedom of speech and how it is a life and death issue for many that need to be heard. Esra’a, however, is an activist with a sense of humor saying with her wry smile and a giggle that WordPress blogs not only allow them to be heard and heard quickly with its “one step set-up” but also is a more attractive way to be heard than Blogger, with the thousands of well constructed themes. Esra’s heads an organization called Mideast Youth with its own blog and she has set up over 80 WordPress sites for people all across the Middle East.
Although Esra’a is a Muslim she not only takes a stand for the Freedoms of Muslims, but for freedom of all people and of all religions. One of her recent campaigns has been to help people practicing the Bahai faith in Egypt who were being tortured in extreme cases and in general being denied ID cards and thus any kind of services in Egypt. Esra’a was appalled that Egypt had a tourist video being promoted all over the world when abuses such as these were happening. Esra’a's group produced a satire of this tourism video showing this persecution of the Bahais which resulted in the Egyptian government recently allowing people of the Bahai faith to have ID cards.
She started one of her sites, Free Kareem.org, the afternoon she got the word that her 25 year old friend and fellow blogger, Kareem Soliman, was sentenced to prison for being critical of the President of Egypt.on his personal blog. Esra’a organized her team and within hours they had the Free Kareem blog built with 35 posts, photos, articles and such ready to rouse support for this man and his plight. Esra’a also uses the power of social networking to promote her causes. In Kareem’s case she could not get the major news organizations to be interested in the story of a lone blogger jailed for writing about his views. They did get interested when she got people in 26 cities around the world to hold rallies in front of the Egyptian Embassies including projecting images from Kareem’s blog on the Embassy walls. Esra’s said she wanted to make sure the Egyptian government knew that they could not stop Kareem’s words from being heard even if they jailed him.
Esra’ a is not afraid to ask for help with her blogs for freedom. Blog designer, Tammy Hart, who responded to Ezra’ a on a WordPress Forum, has designed many of Ezra’a's themes. Recently, All in One SEO plugin developer, Michael Tobert created a widget for people to use on their sites that furthers the Free Kareem effort. She is compelling. You want to help.
Another one of the projects that Ezra’a is passionate about is what she calls the The March 18 Movement. This movement was born out of a tragedy when on that date in 2009, an Iranian blogger and journalist Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, died in Evin Prison in Tehran. The December before his death, he was sentenced to two and half years in prison for allegedly insulting religious leaders, and engaging in propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Omid Reza was the first blogger to die in prison and his death reveals that getting censored is far from the worst thing that can happen to a blogger. The tag line of this movement is,
Let the first blogger to die in prison, be the last.
I have to agree with that. In reading a Brazilian blog, Chapa Branca, I came across this video by the FCC about the importance of keeping the Internets Open and Free.
As Edmund Burke said,
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
I was moved and inspired by this good young woman who is doing her part.