Burma: The Roads to Freedom

Sylvie Brieu

(Editions Albin Michel, 384 pages, 2016)


After fifty years of isolation under the rule of an oppressive military regime, Burma is finally opening up in a wave of euphoria. Despite the recent landslide victory of the National League for Democracy in the country’s first free election, the situation remains explosive and uncertain. The army still plays a powerful role and remains an obstacle to democracy.

Fighting between the Burmese military and armed ethnic groups continues, hate speech is spreading on social networks, and unbearable human tragedies are tearing the country apart: persecution of the Rohingya people who, although born in the country, are considered foreigners; food shortages in Kachin’s Internal Displaced Populations camps; and rapes in border areas.

Inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, a number of women activists from different walks of life have united to challenge ethnic and religious divides as well as economic and political challenges. These include a laureate of the Asian Nobel Peace Prize, a visionary social entrepreneur, a feminist Buddhist nun, and even an ecologist princess (a descendant of the last king of Burma.) These pioneering women are working to transform their society profoundly and to build sustainable peace. A number of men support them on their long march to freedom.

Moved by their stories, international reporter Sylvie Brieu set out to gain insights into the reality of Burma today through the incisive visions and the positive actions of its women. During three extended stays in Burma, from 2013 to 2015, she traveled solo from Rangoon to central Burma, from east to west, and south to north.

A graduate of the Sorbonne and University of California, Berkeley, Sylvie Brieu is an award-winning journalist and a founding member of National Geographic France. As an international reporter, an author, and an educator, she traveled extensively to amplify voices and visions of the world that are underrepresented in the international media landscape. UNESCO has granted its patronage to When our voices rise—Diversity, Dialogue and Solidarity, her long-term editorial project focusing on inspirational game-changers worldwide.


Death Is Not the Answer

by Anne-Isabelle Tollet

(Editions du Rocher, 248 pages, 2015)

In November 2010, a French journalist stationed in Pakistan came across the following headline in the English-language press: “A Pakistani Christian woman, who was convicted of blasphemy by a Pakistani court, receives a sentence of death by hanging.” This woman’s name, Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, was soon heard around the world, as hundreds of thousands of people around the world learned about her story, publicly voiced their support of her, and signed petitions for her release.

In Death Is Not the Answer, the French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet tells the story of how she befriended Asia’s family and drew international attention to her case. She wasn’t allowed to meet with her directly in prison, but she communicated with her through her husband Ashiq. This access allowed her to tell Asia’s story in a book that was published in 2011.

In Pakistan’s government, only two men dared to speak out against the blasphemy laws (which harm more Muslims than Christians): Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the minorities minister. By March 2011, both of them had been killed by fundamentalist militants.

After the memoir was published in 2011, Tollet traveled around the world advocating on Asia’s behalf and raising funds to pay for Asia’s lawyers. But she returned to Pakistan because Asia’s fate is still in the balance. Her death sentence has been suspended for the duration of the appeals process, and the Lahore High Court will hear an appeal on her case on March 26th 2016. Her advocates fear that even if she is pardoned, she will no longer be safe in Pakistan. A Muslim cleric is offering $10,000 to anyone who kills her.

Anne-Isabelle Tollet puts Asia’s story in the complicated context of modern Pakistan. She goes to great lengths to explain, for instance, that overtly religious campaigns to support Asia Bibi backfire, because many Muslim Pakistanis bristle at the notion of Christians interfering in their affairs. She writes with a wry sense of humor, driven by outrage and an unusual ability to connect with people she deeply disagrees with. During her stay in Pakistan, she joined a Quran study group, attended her cameraman’s wedding, and struck up an unlikely bond with Maryam, the wife of a Taliban leader. The product of years of observation, Death Is Not the Answer delivers a fascinating portrait of Pakistan and its people.

Anne-Isabelle Tollet is a journalist for various French media outlets, the official spokeswoman for Asia Bibi and her family, and the general secretary and founder of the International Asia Bibi Committee. She was the ghostwriter of Asia Bibi’s memoir Blasphème (Oh ! Editions, May 2011), published in the United States as Blasphemy: A Memoir: Sentenced to Death Over a Cup of Water (Chicago Review Press, 2013).

In Praise of Blasphemy

Caroline Fourest

(Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 52 pages, 2015)

**Full English translation available upon request**

Indeed a must-read. Few books are as bracing, stimulating, and immediately useful in the struggles that have been thrust upon us. Bernard-Henri Lévy

Liberty, equality, fraternity – and blasphemy? French journalist Caroline Fourest, formerly of Charlie Hebdo, is an impassioned supporter of freedom of expression and a fierce critic of religious fundamentalism. In In Praise of Blasphemy, her forceful essay written in response to the attack of January 7, she provides the context and history of the secularism debate in France and explains the controversy-ridden history of Charlie Hebdo.

“It has taken us hundreds of years of struggle against religious dictatorship to become a secular democracy. And the right to commit blasphemy is a cornerstone of our struggle, our most sacred asset,” begins Fourest in her introduction to In Praise of Blasphemy. She recounts her experience of the immediate aftermath of the attack: anger, disbelief, and indignation, followed by awe, solidarity, rebellion, and strength during the massive, supportive march through Paris. This current of emotion and firsthand experience runs through the rest of her essay, in which she supports the satirical magazine and its stance against racism and fundamentalism.

The establishment and maintenance of secular democracy is our only hope for the future, argues Fourest. And journalists must do their part: one of the most important duties for a journalist is to provide context, and yet that duty is often overlooked. The concept of “Islamophobia” is a poisonous trap, preventing nuanced, intellectual debate. Self-censorship is both patronizing and dispiriting. Blasphemy is distinct from racism and from an “incitement to hatred,” and poverty is no excuse for terrorism. And to those who claim to sympathize with Charlie but still blame its inflammatory drawings for the attacks, Fourest responds that this view is like consoling a woman who has just been raped while simultaneously chastising her for her short skirt.

Above all, Fourest is fighting for a world of emancipation. “The refusal to be intimidated,” she writes, “is the greatest challenge faced by today’s generation.”

Caroline Fourest is a journalist, director, professor, and recipient of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award who worked at Charlie Hebdo for six years, including during the infamous 2006 controversy over their publication of Danish Mohammed cartoons. She has published many essays about the extreme political right in France, multiculturalism, and fundamentalism, among them Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan (Encounter, 2008).