In Memorium Bassel Khartabil

This is my personal reflection on the devastating news that Syrian open knowledge advocate Bassel Khartabil was executed by the Syrian government in 2015. 

Qasr al Hallabat, Jordan, CC BY Lorna M. Campbell

Some of you will already know that before I worked in open education I used to be an archaeologist.  My main interest was the North Atlantic Iron Age and I spent a lot of time working on excavations in the Outer Hebrides where I was born and brought up.  However I also spent one memorable summer working in the South Hauran Desert in Jordan near the Syrian Border.  It was a bit of a life changing experience for me, I fell quietly in love with the Middle East and when I got back to Scotland I realised that I was stuck in a rut with my job so I decided to leave archaeology while I still loved the subject and turn my hand to something else instead.

By rather circuitous routes that something else turned out to be open education, and it’s something which I have had a deep personal and ethical commitment to for over ten years now.  I never lost my love of archaeology though and I always regretted that while I was in Jordan we didn’t cross the border into Syria to visit Palmyra and Damascus. We had one week free at the end of our fieldwork project and it was a toss up between Petra or Syria.  Petra won.  Years later I watched in horror as Syria descended into civil war and Palmyra became a battleground.  Tragic as the destruction of Palmyra has been, it pales into significance beside the huge number of lives that have been destroyed in the conflict.

Consequently, when I first came across the New Palmyra project I was really inspired.  Here was a project that used openness to capture the cultural and archaeological heritage of Syria before it’s lost forever.  What a fabulous idea.  I vaguely noted the name of Bassel Khartabil among the people involved but at the time I knew nothing more about him

“Bassel Khartabil (Safadi)” by Joi Ito – http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/4670781482CC BY 2.0

About a year later Adam Hyde of Booksprints.net, who ran a booksprint for us at the end of the the UKOER programme, contacted me and asked if I would be willing to write a piece for a book to raise awareness of the disappearance of Syrian open knowledge advocate, Creative Commons representative and active Wikimedian, Bassel Khartabil.  I was horrified to learn of Bassel’s disappearance and immediately agreed.  My contribution to the open eBook The Cost of Freedom: A Collective Inquiry is called The Open World. Since then I have talked and blogged about Bassel at every opportunity, most recently at the OER17 Conference The Politics of Open and re:publica, in order to help raise awareness of his plight.

I never met Bassel, but his story touched me deeply.  Here was a man who lost his liberty, and we now know lost his life, for doing the very same job that I am doing now. This is why openness, open knowledge, open education, open advocacy matter.

I was on holiday in Brittany when I heard about Bassel’s death via Catherine Cronin on twitter and I was deeply, deeply saddened by the news.  I still am, and I’m still struggling to express this in words. At the moment, I’m not sure I can put it better than the words I used at the end of my OER17 lightning talk Shouting from the Heart.

The plight of Bassel Khartabil is a sobering reminder of the risks of openness, proof that open is always political, but it’s also shows why we need openness more than ever, because openness is inextricably bound up with freedom.  And in the words of another older declaration, the Declaration of Arbroath.

It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

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