Slaves of freedom | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 29, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 29, 2008

Cross Talk

Slaves of freedom

WHAT has happened to the dissenting voices, people who disagree to agree and speak their minds in the face of mortal challenge? The whole world believed that the sun revolved around the earth until one Nicolaus Copernicus proposed his contrary hypothesis. People of ancient Arabia indulged in idolatry and the Prophet of Islam proclaimed that Allah was the one and only God. When one Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door, the Catholic Church proved critically flawed.
Even in the darker days of the world, one voice could have the power of many. It rang through the walls of repression, and defied rulers and religion scoffing at freedom. But then the world made its journey to light. The Enlightenment era struck loose the sturdiest of chains. It unfurled the human mind and gave it the freedom to bring upon lips what brewed at heart.
Ever since, a new reality has dawned. Democracy presented the age of freedom and equality, the freedom of choice and freedom of speech, the right of every man to agree to disagree. But is that changing? Is it turning around for a relapse? Is freedom becoming its own nemesis?
In the name of freedom, speaking of truth is being grievously discouraged. Dissent is now repressed to protect freedom. It is risky to tell in the United States that George Bush has lied to invade Iraq. It's one thing if you say it as an American. For a foreign citizen visiting the country, it could mean courting trouble with the Homeland Security.
A terrible trend exists in Egypt. Reda Hilal, a journalist, disappeared four years ago. Libyan dissident Mansour Kikhia vanished in Cairo in 1993. This month an Egyptian scholar named Saad Eddin Ibrahim has been sentenced to two years in prison, with hard labour, for harming his country's reputation through his writings in the foreign press.
The number of Egypt's prisons has grown fourfold in 25 years, and security police forces comprise of 1.4 million officers, nearly four times the size of the Egyptian army. Egypt's jails contain some 80,000 political prisoners.
That doesn't isolate Egypt as an island of repression. North Korea has 200,000 political detainees. Political repressions are common in China, Russia, other Asian, African and the Middle Eastern countries, parts of Europe being a modest exception.
People are being thrown in jail, their lives threatened, and their reputations ruined. The dissidents are ruthlessly gunned down, and most regularly accused of spying against their own countries.
Truth and freedom have always been on the collision course, more so in a climate of exploitation. Mukhtaran Mai in Pakistan was gang-raped and forced to walk naked in front of the villagers because the freedom of her tormentors was unrestrained.
But they threatened to kill her when she defied them and went to police to tell the truth. The vested interests quickly coalesced to the highest level and the Pakistan government tried to stop her from travelling to New York. It feared she was going to embarrass them.
People spoke up in ancient times, truth being their expression of freedom. But it always conflicted with people in power who exercised their freedom as expression of their truth.
Girolamo Savonarola, the great Florentine friar, was hanged and burned at the stake for his conflict with the papacy. Syed Meer Nisar Ali Titumeer, who died by a cannon shot while fighting against the British army, inspired others to start revolting against the British rule.
In Orwell's 1984, Big Brother propagated three main slogans: war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. Power distorts truth for the freedom to rule. For those who are ruled, fight for truth is essential to defend freedom. The dissenting voices play a balancing role.
They refuse to accept the distortions, stand up to set the records straight. It's the good germ, bad germ situation. The germ which keeps truth healthy for the freedom of one group infects the truth of another group and afflicts its freedom.
Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky met with President George Bush right after his re-election. Bush admired Sharansky's book The Case for Democracy, and Sharansky returned his praise with praise.
He called the US president "the world's leading dissident," because his administration supported the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture against the weight of world opinion.
Mistake is that dissidence is not arrogance. Dissidence is when a person disagrees with a government or a powerful organisation. Arrogance is scorn for others, an overbearing pride over the superiority of one's authority or opinion, or both. When one man goes against the rest of the world and he has the military and economic might to back up his arrogance, it amounts to authoritarianism.
"End of History" -- famed Francis Fukuyama has asked in an article written last Sunday in The Washington Post: "Are we entering the age of the autocrat?" The response he gave is conditional.
The next era in world politics will depend on whether gains in economic productivity will keep up with global demand for such basic commodities as oil, food and water.
That should decide if we are going back to the good old days when freedom was repressed with repression. How does it work now? The great emphasis on liberty and equality, the doldrums of democracy is repressing freedom with freedom. While custom-made democracy is peddled to the countries, any resistance or criticism is bitterly opposed.
The voices are muffled and cookie-cutter minds are producing clones. Thoughts are rationed in morsels of freedom. Once again, the picture of freedom is being fitted within the tight frame of narrow interests. Repression defined freedom in the past. This century, freedom is defining repression.
When great minds scramble at the sight of an assistant undersecretary, the compulsion comes from the Big Brother's mould. Nobody should raise his voice; just comply, don't contest. The world has changed. For twenty centuries, the slaves longed for freedom. Now freedom is longing for its slaves.

Mohammad Badrul Ahsan is a columnist for The Daily Star.

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