Saturday, October 18, 2008

The plight of Freddom in21st century--

How Long we have to fight for the Freedom of Speech & Expression!

Speaking all truth to the establishment


Md. Anwarul Kabir


Speaking all truth to the establishment, especially in public, is not that easy and some time it is risky too. Here the term establishment signifies people at the power centre who run the state machineries and their cohorts.


The establishment, since the ancient time seldom likes to embrace unpleasant truth voluntarily. If we probe into the ancient history, it will reveal that in 399 BC, the great philosopher Socrates had to face trial and subsequent execution when he was nearly 70 as he spoke the truth following his conscience to the establishment. His unconventional attitude and expressions towards divinity contrary to the established norm of Athens at that time angered the people at the power centre. The quote from 'The lives of Eminent Philosophers', authored by Diogenes Laertius of the 3 AD supports this assertion. He explicitly pointed out that "Socrates discussed moral questions in the workshops and the marketplace." Often his unpopular views expressed disdainfully and with an air of condescension, provoked his listeners' anger. Laertius further stated that "men set upon him with their fists or tore his hair out," but that Socrates "bore all this ill-usage patiently." Eventually Socrates was tried and convicted by the courts of democratic Athens. He was charged of corrupting the youth and disbelieving in the ancestral gods as he exposed his truth that went against the belief of the establishment.


The history of the Semitic religion has revealed that Jesus Christ (7–2 BC—26–36 AD) had to undergo Jewish and Roman trials and was sentenced to death by crucifixion as he introduced new truth concerning religion contradicting Judaism and pagan Roman beliefs which the establishment at that time followed. The prophet of Islam, Hazrat Muhammad (sm) (570-632 AD) also had to face much struggle and hardship as he attempted to introduce monotheistic belief replacing the prevailing pagan polytheistic religion despite the fact that he was born into the Koreish, the leading tribe of the establishment in Mecca of his time. Ironically, his preaching of Islam was not accepted even by many powerful members of his own tribe and so eventually he was forced to leave Mecca in 622 AD with his followers and had to take refuge in Medina until he along with his followers succeeded to conquer Mecca in 630 AD.


Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the great scientist also fell under the rage of the establishment of his time while he tried to reveal the truth of science observing physical reality by stating, "I hold that the Sun is located at the centre of the revolutions of the heavenly orbs and does not change place, and that the Earth rotates on itself and moves around it." In this context it is worthwhile to note that throughout Europe, the church still held the core power of the establishment during Galileo's time. And the new discovery of Galileo contradicts the biblical creed which holds the notion of earth centric universe. So, after his scientific write-up entitled "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World - Ptolemaic and Copernican" containing the new discovery discarding the divine quotes of the Bible was published, Galileo was condemned to lifelong imprisonment.


In ancient and medieval times, religions played crucial roles in establishments and so speaking the truth cost enormous suffering for those who following their conscience revealed the truth. However, in modern age too, due to fanatic opposition of religious bigots especially in the Muslim world including ours, many free thinkers undergo miserable sufferings in their lives. For instance, we can mention the name of Araz Ali Matabbar (1900-1985), an eminent self educated intellectual who tried to judge the religion rationally and asked unpleasant questions in his write-ups, became a victim of the establishment during the pre-independent period of Bangladesh. Even after the independence in 1973, poet Daud Haider was set upon by mullahs and their thugs for a poem in which he had raged at God for allowing the massacre of three million Bangladeshis during the liberation struggle and criticized leading religious leaders including Muhammed (SM). The Government of Bangabandhu, hailed for guiding Bangladesh to the path of secularism, imprisoned Daud for 'his own protection." Later in 1979, during Zia's regime after being released from the jail he had to flee to India for saving his life from fanatic groups as his passport was impounded and later, he took asylum in German.(Still he is in German). For viewing religion through their rational lens, litterateur Ahemed Sharif (1921-1999), Humayun Azad (1947-2004) and some others in our country had to face much struggle including death threat from the religious bigots. In all cases the establishment took least interest in protecting these freethinkers showing little respect to freedom of expression.


Perhaps the most heinous slap on freedom of expression in the world occurred in the case of the feminist writer Taslima Nasrin who wrote Taslima some columns that have exposed how the medieval traditions of Islam have become major obstacle on the way to women emancipation and empowerment in our contemporary society. The Islamic goons of the country did not tolerate and subsequently they started agitation. Portraying her as Murtad they declared bounty for her head as it was in the case of Salman Rushdi. Instead of protecting Taslima from the rage of the Mullahs, the then government banned her book 'Layjja' and in 1993, she was charged with blasphemy. An arrest warrant was issued and Taslima went into hiding. After two months she surrendered to the High Court and immediately after receiving bail left Bangladesh. Since 1994 she has lived in many countries in exile including France, Sweden and India. However, the acts of the government on Taslima's issue did not translate that the government did all the things due to its love for Islam. Rather, in our country, all governments patronize Islamic fanatics for political reasons—for safeguarding its vote bank.


Religion is a sensitive issue, especially in the contemporary Muslim world and so the establishments there do not take risk to give freedom for expression that goes against long practised religious culture and beliefs. But what is the freedom of expressions in democratic secular world? Are people there free to speak all truth to the establishment? Take USA , the most powerful 'democratic' country in this uni-polar country, as an example. Are Americans free to talk all truth to the establishment? To get the answer to this question first we need to unmask the reality in USA establishment. Who represent the US government? Either Democrat or Republic? But both the two major parties Republic and Democrat are patronised by the big multinational companies. As the other political parties who stand against capitalism and who campaign for the working class including 13% of the people who are under poverty line cannot succeed in the election, mainly due to crisis in party funds. It may be noted here, in the developed countries also money is the most powerful instrument in the national electoral process most like the practice in our country. So, this assertion becomes evidential when we see that over the half of presidents of the USA came from the wealthiest 3% of the Americans while at least a dozen sprang from the loins of elitists in the top of 1%. Statistics from 2005 shows that 143 of 435 US representatives and one in three senators were millionaire. These people, no doubt, were connected to the corporate world in one way or another. Presumably, recent statistics will reveal the similar pattern of representatives in the US government. So, in reality, deviated from Lincoln's philosophy, the USA has redefined its democracy as "government of the rich, for the rich and by the rich"


Due to their inherent background, the representatives of US government exert strong influence in formulating policies in favour of corporate interests. If we investigate then no doubt it will be revealed that the government of US itself follows the corporate structure. In this context, we may argue that US is leading towards fascism in line with Mussolini's fundamental definition of fascism: "Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power." The dangerous implication of this is corporatism of the mainstream media, the major tool for making public opinion. Presumably, speaking the truth that goes against corporate interest has no access to the mainstream media. So, when Bush administration imposed unjust war on Iraq, many humanitarian intellectuals who were against the war opposing the corporate interest got little access to mainstream media. Peace loving intellectuals at that time vastly relied on alternate media but due to its limitation they failed to create public opinion against fascist Bush and his cohorts. Due to this failure Bush could succeed to get elected for the second term to run the administration in a fascist manner.


Naomi Wolf, in her famous book 'The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (2007)', with concrete evidences revealed the fact how the US controls the press. Referring the Committee to Protect Journalists she points out that the arrest of US journalists is at an all-time high. Contemporary US historian Prof. Carolyn Baker in her book "US History Uncensored" (2006) has rightly argued that over the decades US has turned into a close society from an open one. In a close society, as we observed in the case of former communist USSR and its folds, speaking all truth to the establishment was quite impossible. So, Russian free thinkers like Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), Boris Pasternek (1921-1999) and many other had to face much hurdles and pains for expressing truth to the establishment.


In contemporary West Europe, especially in the UK, the scenario of freedom of speech is relatively much better. Still the situation there in this context is not unquestionable. The Civitas, an independent think tank has expressed its observation (2006), "For centuries Britain has been a beacon of liberty of thought, belief and speech, but now the freedom of its intellectual and political life is being subjected to a subtle form of 'censorship'"


The world's largest democratic and our neighbouring country India although comparatively better than other sub-continental countries, restricts freedom of expression in many political and religious aspects. No political party there can boast of respecting the freedom of the press. There have been numerous instances of newspaper offices being vandalized and editors and journalists being roughed up by political flunkeys for publishing articles that were critical of their leaders. Banning of books is not uncommon by the central or state government. For instance the ban on Dwikhandito, a book written by Taslima Nasrin by the West Bengal Government can be cited.


Apart from the religious issue like many other countries, speaking truth on other secular issues that go against the interest of the establishment is also difficult in Bangladesh. So, for implicit reasons our writers/journalists dare not unveil the fact on Chittagong Hill Tracts turmoil or the much debated issue of 'cross fire.'


In conclusion, we can argue that the freedom of speech or right to speak to the establishment will not be translated into reality in this planet unless we work out for it. For this, we need to go a long way overcoming all hurdles and pains following the footstep of the free thinkers of the past. For this, we need to nurture the courage of our own conscience so that we can make our planet a place blessed with the freedom of expression.(BY Courtesy-Mukto Mona-Bangla Desh Humanist web site.)





Bipin Shroff