The Saudi Military Officer Who Became a Dogged Human Rights Activist

Meet Yahya Assiri, a Saudi military officer-turned-activist who runs an underground human rights group against one of the most oppressive states in the world.

Courtesy of Middle East Eye

Born in a region of Saudi Arabia that fiercely resisted the al-Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi allies, he grew up in a polarized family environment: his grandmother despised the government and its ultraconservative brand of Islam, while his father, like most in his generation, was more favorable to the royal family because of the wealth and security it provided.

Exposure to these opposing views instilled in Assiri a penchant for asking questions, even while he was climbing the ranks of the military. After failing to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a pilot, he joined the administrative side of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where he often worked on international arms deals (Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of military equipment). He regularly heard colleagues complain about their meager salaries and struggles with debt and poverty, which sat uncomfortably with the sheer wealth of the royal family and the claims that it brought prosperity to Arabia.

At 24-years-old he began to ask questions internally about these issues, describing himself as a sensitive person who could not ignore the suffering around him, even as he progressed swiftly through the air force and earned good money. Initially resisting the desire to speak out — knowing full well the risks — he began exploring the internet, finding a series of websites and forums in Arabic where people were debating politics. Thus began a double life in which Assiri worked for the government by day but spoke against it online through a pseudonym by night.

Eventually, his online activities gave way to participating in actual public forums, namely at the home of a prominent Saudi human rights activist, Saud al-Hashimi, who Assiri credited as a pivotal figure in his life. In 2011, Hashimi was arrested and jailed in for 30 years on the false charges of “supporting terrorism”, which galvanized Assiri further. Why didn’t regular Saudis have a voice? Why was the regime so afraid? And why was it so wealthy while average Saudis around him struggled?

As more activists got arrested around him, and the government began asking questions about his online activities, Assiri, who by now had a wife and two kids, made the difficult choice of leaving behind his otherwise prosperous life to seek asylum in the U.K. There he founded his own human rights group in August 2014 to keep the fight going.

Knowing that authorities usually dismiss international human rights groups as foreign agents trying to impose Western values, he cleverly chose the name Al Qst, which is a Quranic term meaning justice.

“I used this name to speak to the people. The name comes from our religion, so no one could say my human rights organisation is an attack on the culture of our people.”

The organisation is voluntarily run, relying on a vast underground activist network to keep tabs on everything going on at home. As of 2015, Assiri has eight groups on the messaging application Telegram — which is popular among activists in repressive countries — covering different topics including women’s rights, poverty, the fate of activists, and specific regional issues. The group also has an active Twitter account with over 45,000 followers (@ALQST_ORG)

Assiri wishes to keep the group exclusively Saudi-run so that it cannot be easily dismissed by the authorities nor skeptics. The ultimate goal is to grow Al Qst into a strong civil society organization, since civil society is very much lacking in the country’s stifling sociopolitical environment.

“I believe Al Qst will become the most important organisation dealing with human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is because we – the Saudis – are the best people to understand the complicated problems facing our country.”

Assiri is a reminder that even in the most blighted places, there is some flicker of hope, and not everyone who lives under an odious government is spoken for by that government (something a lot of Americans who otherwise hate one administration or another ironically forget).

Read more about him in this 2015 article (there was not much else out there that I could find).

Ushering in the New Year With Immense Gratitude

I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.

This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)

Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.

The Groundbreaking Haitian Revolution

Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.

Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.

It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.

Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.

(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)

Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.

The Groundbreaking But Largely Forgotten Apollo 8 Mission

On this day in 1969, the U.S. launched Apollo 8, the second manned spaceflight mission in the Apollo space program and the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, see all of Earth, orbit another celestial body, see the far side of the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” (first photo), escape the gravity of another celestial body (the Moon), and reenter Earth’s gravitational well. Apollo 8 was also the first human spaceflight from the Kennedy Space Center, located adjacent to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Originally planned as a test of the Apollo Lunar Module, since the module was not yet ready for its first flight, the mission profile was abruptly changed in August 1968 to a more ambitious flight to be flown in December. Thus, the crew led by Jim McDivitt crew, who were training Apollo Lunar Module, instead became the crew for Apollo 9, while Borman and his men were moved to the Apollo 8 mission. This meant the new Apollo 8 crew had two to three months’ less training and preparation than originally planned, not to mention having to take up translunar navigation training. The crew themselves believed there was only a 50% chance of the mission succeeding.

Fortunately, things went off without a hitch: after almost three days, Apollo 8 reached the Moon. The crew orbited the Moon ten times in 20 hours, during which they made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis—at the time the most watched TV program ever. (In fact, it is estimated that one out of four people alive at the time saw it either live or shortly after.) Even the Chairman of the Soviet Interkosmos program was quoted describing the flight as an “outstanding achievement of American space sciences and technology”.

Although largely forgotten today, Apollo 8 was seen as the joyful culmination of a tumultuous year, rife with political assassinations, instability, and other tragedies worldwide. For a moment, humanity received a well needed morale boost. the success of the mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill America’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. They were later named TIME’s “Men of the Year” for 1968.

The iconic Earthrise photo has been credited as one of the inspirations of the first Earth Day in 1970; it was selected as the first of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs That Changed the World.

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.

Ghana’s Public Health Milestone

Here’s the sort of progress that rarely makes the news: Ghana, a country of about 30 million best known for being the first African colony to achieve independence, has now earned another distinction–eliminating one of the nastiest infectious diseases in the world. As The Telegraph reports:

Trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world, is spread by flies and human touch, and is linked to poverty and lack of access to clean water and sanitation. It starts as a bacterial infection and, if left untreated, causes the eyelashes to scratch the surface of the eye, causing great pain and, potentially, irreversible blindness.

In 2000, about 2.8 million people in Ghana were estimated to be at risk of the disease but the World Health Organization (WHO) has now officially recognised that the country has eliminated it.

The WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hailed the country’s achievement: “Although there’s more work to do elsewhere, the validation of elimination in Ghana allows another previously heavily-endemic country to celebrate significant success.”

Ghana eliminated the disease through a partnership between its ministry of health, the WHO, pharmaceutical companies, and charities. Around 3.3 million doses of an antibiotic effective against trachoma were donated by Pfizer, one of the world’s larges pharmaceutical companies; another 6,000 had surgery to treat more advanced stages of the disease. (Amazing what civil society can accomplish when it comes together.)

Thanks to these efforts,Ghana now joins six other countries where trachoma is endemic — Oman, Morocco, Mexico, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal — that have eliminated the disease.

Nevertheless, trachoma still remains a significant global problem: over 200 million people across 41 countries (mostly in Africa) are at risk of infection. Ghana and several other nations have shown the way. Here is hoping more health agencies, pharma companies, and charities take note.

The International Space Station

One of Wikipedia’s latest featured photos: the International Space Station (ISS), taken in 2011 by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli from a departing Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the ISS was docked Space Shuttle Endeavor. It is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit and can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth, making close to sixteen rotations around Earth daily.

First sent into low Earth orbit in 1998, the space station has been continuously inhabited since 2000; though the last component was fitted in 2011, the station continues to be expanded and developed, with more additions planned for next year. The ISS operated jointly by the American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies, and has been visited by personnel from seventeen nations. Its ownership and use is governed by various treaties and agreements.

The station is divided primarily between the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). It also consists of pressurized modules, external trusses, solar arrays, and a microgravity and space environment research lab where crew members conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and many other fields. It is also suited for testing spacecraft and equipment required for lunar and Martian missions.

The ISS has been serviced by a variety of spacecraft, including the Russian Soyuz and Progress, the American Dragon and Cygnus, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and formerly the American Space Shuttle and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. Since 2011, the Soyuz has been the sole means to transfer personnel, while the Dragon is the only provider of bulk cargo return to Earth.

The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, and only the second not to be Russian, following the Soviet / Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations and the American Skylab. It also surpassed the record for longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of nine years and 357 days.

The station is expected to operate until at least 2028, with the American portion being funded until 2025 and the Russian portion until 2024. Both Russia and America have discussed developing an ISS replacement, although NASA has yet to confirm for certain if this will happen; for their part, the Russians have proposed using elements of their section for a new Russian space station, OPSEK.

The ISS is an enduring, if limited, demonstration of the fruits of global cooperation in space exploration. Various other rising space powers, including Brazil, China, and India have also discussed joining the project, or devising their own space stations.

The Saint Among Princes

Emir Abdelkader was an Algerian religious and military leader who led a tenacious struggle against the French colonial invasion in the mid-19th century. An Islamic scholar and philosopher from the mystical Sufi tradition, he unexpectedly found himself leading a military campaign, after a meeting of tribesmen elected him as leader. He built up a coalition of Algerian tribes from across the region, successfully holding out for years against one of the most powerful armies in Europe (as well as the second largest colonial empire at the time).

Abdelkader was well regarded by allies and opponents alike, not only for his military and political acumen, but for his markedly good character. He sought counsel from both Jews and Christians, and respected their religious traditions, seeking to create an Algerian state for all faiths. He was honorable and merciful to combatants, ensuring that prisoners were treated well; in one instance, he released prisoners because he could no longer afford to care for them properly. France’s highest-ranking military leader declared him one of the three greatest living men (the other two were Egyptians also known for their skills on and off the battlefield).

Due to this  well-earned grudging respect, when the sheer weight of the French military finally forced him to surrender, Abdelkader was permitted to live in exile in Ottoman-ruled Damascus, with the French government paying his pension, on the condition he would never disturb Algeria again. He lived a quiet life dedicated to debating and writing Islamic theology and philosophy, until another event again catapulted him into fame and world renown.

Years into his exile, a conflict broke out in the region between Muslims, Druze, and Christians. Abdelkader warned local authorities and French diplomats that the Christians of Damascus were in danger. When violence finally broke out, he sheltered large numbers of Christians and ordered his sons to go throughout the city to offer Christians aid and protection. Reports from various survivors and religious orders attested to Abdelkader’s decisive role in saving thousands, and he became an international celebrity.

His erstwhile enemy France increased his pension and awarded him the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. Greece, Turkey, and even the Vatican also bestowed him with official honors; he is one of the few non-Christians to have the Order of Pope Pius. Even Abraham Lincoln recognized his deed, giving him a pair of inlaid pistols that are now on display in Algeria’s national museum.

For these reasons, he was widely hailed across the world as the “Saint among the Princes, the Prince among the Saints”.

The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties. Continue reading

The Treaty of Tlatelolco

46497943_10161228587365472_3220843945760129024_nDid you know that Mexico played a leading role in keeping nuclear weapons out of the Western Hemisphere? (Outside the U.S. of course.)

Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Mexican diplomat Alfonso García Robles was a driving force for an initiative to develop a framework for keeping the region nuclear-free.

Following a series of conferences with nations from all over the region, the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco was drafted to prohibit and prevent the “testing, use, manufacture, production or acquisition by any means whatsoever of any nuclear weapons” and the “receipt, storage, installation, deployment and any form of possession of any nuclear weapons.” (The treaty is named after the district in Mexico City where the meetings were held.) Continue reading

Olympe de Gouges

On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges was guillotined during the early stages of the Reign of Terror for her revolutionary ideas.

45302282_10161165779455472_6445264199118487552_nWell ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally, she dared to write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied public and political space. Following the publication of a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and her very involvement in the male profession of theatre. Gouges remained defiant, writing “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, pressure and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days. Continue reading