Monday, 7 July 2014

Freeing Freedom

Last academic year at the end of March, The SOAS Spoken Word Society teamed up with The Black and Minority Ethnic Network (BME) at The University of Nottingham to organize a poetry tour entitled Freeing Freedom.  The tour would have been held at universities across the UK including SOAS but unfortunately it had to be cancelled on short notice due to a dispute with the management of the poet headlining the tour.  

However, our intention as organizers was to entertain and enlighten.  We hoped that the tour would be the platform for students to re-evaluate and re-conceptualize a term ingrained in our moral consciousness.  We thought we would articulate our thoughts on 'Freedom' in this blog piece and expand on what we meant when we said 'Freeing Freedom.'  

Can freedom be emancipated? 
Very few words hold the weight that ‘freedom’ holds.  In the 21st century, its emancipatory power and its oppressive potential has liberated and destroyed nation states.  Today it’s been used to describe largely economic freedoms, the freedom to choose to buy, sell and go about our daily lives.  It has increasingly become the neoliberal’s choice phrase in the construction of what constitutes ethics today. 

When this very narrow, specific type of ethics is considered something that needs to be universal, problems arise.  There tends to be a focus on the literal unveiling and liberating of communities when our collective veil of moral legitimacy in the West remains firm.  Whether it’s the ‘civilizing’ of states in the Global South or the coerced liberalizing of economies, our way is the only way and The Enlightenment is the ultimate vindication of these values. 

The very same elite setting the agendas and discourses of today hold freedom prisoner.  Its emancipation requires a discussion on the concepts, norms and realities we treasure as universal truths. 
From the Kuffiyeh to the Bindi, symbols which represent cultural, spiritual or religious significance are stripped of all meaning and left commodities, reserved only as decor.  We are often left to occupy the vacuum left by this rationalistic purge and told these remains consummate modernity.  Similarly, appropriation of language has meant terms like freedom have been rebranded to fit the narrative of the 21st century globalized world. 

But this exchange of ideas is a one way street and alternative ways of thinking often silenced.  In the face of this continued suppression, it is essential to reclaim freedom.  
Part of this reclamation is in understanding that the struggle of the self is still incomplete.  If we subscribe to the binary view of freedom being a battle between good and evil, right and wrong and the oppressed and the oppressor we often forget the oppressor is the self.  The fear, anger or jealousy in the heart of a human being is often reflected in the actions of his leader.  

But how does this spiritualism relate to the reality we face today?  A world where global inequality remains an unquestioned physical reality.  A world where Bangladeshi garment factories collapse for the West to enjoy the latest trends for cheap.  The problem comes down to control.  The control that money has over us and the control we have over our self. 

For these problems, the East’s spiritualism has many answers to the rationalism of the West.  As Persian poet Sa’adi Shirazi’s beautifully articulates in The Rose Garden;

In deserts, amid shifting sand and drouth,
Nor pearl nor shell is manna to the mouth.
Ah! what avails, when food and strength are gone,
The girdle with its pearls or pebbles strown?

In the enormous capacity of the dessert, the pearl means nothing.   Money cannot be consumed yet its consuming capacity puts humanity on its knees. 
These messages of sages, scholars and spiritualists of the East have offer solutions to the global issues we face today.  That wisdom and intellect are two separate things altogether.  That if freedom were a caged bird, we must discover it and let it go rather than put a price on it.  That land is to be roamed rather than sold. 

The persistent habit to measure, weigh and count is detrimental to freedom.  These norms imprison us.  This collective search to measure the other up to our standards is antithetical to the very beliefs the West espouses.  Freedom should be independent of ideology, agenda and even people.  It transcends these things. 

In contrast to this Farid Ud Din Attar’s poetry informs us of the necessity of introspection.  This introspection is echoed in the works of Jalal ud-Din Rumi and Rabia Al Basri.  In their poetry, there is a clear link between the inner and the outward state of man, the ruled and the ruler.  That self reflection necessitates greater control over the self and ultimately that is all we have control over.  This process of realization is true liberation. 

The tendency to quantify comes from the hubristic inability to accept our limitations.  Figures like Persian poet Sa’adi Shirazi or Farid ud-Din Attar understood freedom like they understood the universe.  They saw the universe as something that is forever expanding and evolving, often beyond their own understanding.   
In accepting this infinity, these men were better in tune with it, only then did they exercise control over the self.  This is where freedom starts and ends, evolving and expanding and where it defies all definition. 

Hadi Abbas and Mohamed-Zain Dada.