Ill with flu last week, I watched the events unfolding in Paris with dread, rage and disbelief – feelings that surge every time there is an Islamicist atrocity. To kill so many over line drawings or as an expression of religious zeal? What drives these fanatics? In normal circumstances, I would have been on TV and radio channels providing immediate responses, soundbite explanations. Bedbound, I had time to reflect more deeply on this carnage and the question of freedom: what it means, how precious it is and how fragile. That fundamental human impulse and right has now become one of the most volatile and divisive concepts in the world today.
Yes, we, the fortunate inhabitants of the West, are more free than those who live and die in the South and East, but some of the claims made by our absolutists are hypocritical as well as outlandish. Public discourse is expected to be within the bounds of decency and respect; language matters and the wrong word can incite high emotion.
Internalised caution in normal life is a good thing. Not good is the way the powerful control our right to know or speak. People are prosecuted for thought crimes; the BBC films on the monarchy have allegedly been blocked by the royal family; the Chilcot report on the Iraq war is still withheld and when it is finally released the full truth will be censored. I don’t see Index on Censorship kicking up a fuss about these serious attacks on free expression. State power in Europe and North America overrides the citizen’s right to know or speak. These things are never simply black and white or about them and us.
Things get even more complex when you think about freedom and Muslims. Muslims living in the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia or Turkey have no freedom to say what they think about the political system or the faith. Turkey imprisons more journalists than any other nation. Iran is the second-worst country for journalists and bloggers. In Pakistan people are tortured for blasphemy – often false charges trumped up to keep people in line.
Last Friday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Raif Badawi was dragged out of prison in shackles, brought in front of the mosque and flogged 50 times for “insulting Islam”. Imagine the scene: worshippers who had just finished praying to a merciful God then watched the merciless punishment. This will happen every week until he has been lashed a 1,000 times. He will also spend 10 long years in a Saudi prison. His body and mind will thus be shredded. Badawi, an activist, had started a website, the Liberal Saudi Network, and shared some of his perfectly reasonable views. For that he had to be punished so severely that no one would ever try to do the same again.
In Pakistan, Afghanistan, most central Asian states, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Libya, even “liberated” Iraq, people know they must not say what they think about their rulers or their imams, not even to neighbours or friends. The only choice is to conform and live, keep your boiling thoughts locked in your own head. Imagine the psychological consequences.
When, in 2010, the Arab Spring unexpectedly arrived, Muslims rejoiced, and thought they could at last speak freely and get proper democracies. I was in the Middle East in the most optimistic months. Spring turned to winter and even harsher restrictions were imposed everywhere. Now thousands of Muslims try to flee every day, to get to places where they can earn a living, be safe, most of all be liberated from oppression. Those people on boats who turn up on Europe’s shores want what the brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly had before they blasted it all away.
Large numbers of Western Muslims are disturbed by the rights and liberties they have inherited and sometimes reject them. Meanwhile Muslims who have never known real freedom yearn for, indeed die to get those same liberties and human rights. That gap between Muslims who have and don’t want and those who crave and can’t have grows bigger all the time. For too many British Muslims, familiarity breeds contempt for freedom. They talk about it not as a priceless entitlement but a peril, out-of-control hedonism and lasciviousness – as a sin. I find that deplorable.
After my book Refusing the Veil came out last year, some female Muslim acquaintances organised a soiree for me to read from it and discuss its contents. These were reasonable, educated women. Here are some of the comments made:
“Why did you have to write this; who gave you permission?”
“Even to think these thoughts is wrong, and you go and publish them? If you were in a Muslim country you would be in jail.”
“If your mother was alive she would have slapped you for writing this.”
When I replied that my mother refused the veil when she was 22, the woman came back: “Then I feel sorry for you. She was the sinner and she made you one too.”
“OK I have not read the book because it will dirty my pure thoughts, but if you are a Muslim, you follow Islamic rules without question. Are you even a Muslim?”
Only two out of 14 women defended my right to write the book. But then said they could never challenge Islamic practices so openly.
What has led to this lethal closing of the Muslim mind? Third-generation Western Muslims are less liberated than were my mother’s generation in the Forties and Fifties. White women who convert are even more rule-bound and obedient. It just shows human history is not a straight road towards enlightenment.
Those of us who value freedom need to understand better what it means. Especially in a world which is both coalescing and splitting apart, where technology has unleashed hope and possibilities as well as limitless hate, where political and religious control is tightening. To seek to be free is a big responsibility. Too big and scary for some people, Western Muslims in particular. This is the debate that needs to open up now within Islam. Will it? No. And that’s our tragedy.