I first discovered that I had very “uncensored thoughts” while wandering around a market in Casablanca, the city where I was born but never lived. When a procession of shops exposing dozens of glorifying portraits of Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, appeared in front of me, I became enraged. I initiated an animated discussion about the reason behind selling the images of one who seemed to me to be a despot, who was not only impoverishing his people while enriching his court but was also imprisoning and torturing West Sahrawian people in the name of national security.
The family member who happened to be with me stopped me as soon as he understood what I was ranting about. Looking around for listening ears and scared to his bones, he ended the conversation with only two sentences: “He is a very good and democratic man.” and “If you don’t stop one of us will disappear.”
The topic died there and was never brought to life again. My family concluded that I was not Moroccan enough to understand the King, and they stopped talking Moroccan politics with me. This first encounter with self-censorship had filled me with indignation and a larger sense of restlessness.
While living in Europe, never once had I questioned my right of expressing in words and (peaceful) actions my dissent, especially about politics and/or politicians. Every government I lived under had to face demonstrations and accusations of many sorts. Some survived while many others did not.
After the episode in Casablanca, I often found myself wondering about the factors that would bring someone to censor her or himself. I tried for years to dig deeper into the dichotomy of my relative’s two sentences. However, I was never successful in reaching a conclusion that could fully satisfy me … until I caught myself in a sequence of self-censoring behaviors in which I had never before engaged.
A list of these behaviors included not engaging with a taxi driver that animatedly asked what I thought about the top ruler of the country while flashing by a gigantic portrait of him, not even going near a demonstration of political dissent, choosing not to post a particularly critical article on social media, and liking a social media post that could be interpreted as defamatory of the ones in power, and then un-liking it in the span of seconds. All of this for the benefit of not having my visa revoked and being kicked out of the country.
It took me only a couple of months in a new country and a job that involves creating spaces for peace dialogues in a region where peace is under the whims of military rulers to finally begin to understand my family member. My daily role as a peacebuilder entails facilitating peace processes, reconciliation, and promotion of social cohesion through empowering dialogues that engage all parts of society. In realities where the drivers of conflict run deep in the state and threats to one’s person are omnipresent, many words remain unsaid.
As a peacebuilder, I need to encourage people to speak because only if words are spoken out loud can change occur. However, the recognition that I am silencing my own opinions and actions makes me feel deeply unfit for this role. Encouraging people to let go of their fears and speak for themselves knowing that I am not doing it myself hampers my motivation and results in questioning the legitimacy of my peace efforts.
Thus, daily, I confront myself with a very personal dilemma: is a compromise between voicing one’s opinions and partaking in effective peacebuilding efforts ethical? Through numerous encounters and conversations with people who experienced serious retaliation for not censoring themselves and with fellow peacebuilders and activists that found creative ways of pressing for change while staying under the radars of authorities, I can finally recognize that the dilemma between self-censorship and peacebuilding is a very precarious one.
The very idea of self-censorship being a choice is profoundly problematic. When the choice one has is between speaking out and facing physical and/or psychological reprisals, censorship can never be a choice.
Self-censorship can exist only where peace and freedom of expression are fully developed and respected. In many places, speaking up does not come with deadly risks, while not voicing one’s opinion comes with an ethical dilemma, which can still be openly discussed. Self-censorship cannot exist where the choice given is between being personally persecuted and one’s nation or community staying oppressed.
We hail the ones who speak up despite the risks, and we bring them up as examples during our dialogues with their fellow citizens hoping that they will follow suit. Yet, some of us, myself included, avoid doing so for petty reasons like a visa. This is my privilege as an “external” actor in a society where being foreign (western foreign) gives you the choice of self-censorship.
As peacebuilders, instead of shaming ourselves for this privilege, we should take advantage of it. Rather than inviting people to speak up despite the risks they will incur, we should create a safer space and environment for them to express their concerns and opinions in alternative and creative ways, where the message can be clear and loud but not always detected as such by the ruling power.
Zineb Naini is currently working with the Asian Resource Foundation (ARF) and the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN) as Program Coordinator. She is also the Coordinator of the International Institute of Peace and Development Studies (IIPDS) based in Bangkok, Thailand, and a certified electoral observer. Zineb was a participant in MPI’s The Praxis of Conflict Transformation online course in 2021.