When King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz stressed the importance and value of freedom in his latest address to the Saudi Shura Council, he touched on a very critical issue.
In his unconventional speech, the King said, “With freedom we can preserve our own freedom, define its aspects and declare to the whole world that these are our values and noble manners.”
The king moreover stated that he welcomed criticism and that he practiced harsh self-criticism, inviting others, in fact demanding, that they do the same. Such words indicate a sound and balanced political perspective. Those who fear and are intimidated by criticism are the weak who cannot conceal their defects. Conversely, the confident and honest who are truly concerned with change and reform and who are preoccupied with that burden, not out of pretense and deceit, but out of a frank and deep-seated belief in reform are tolerant of criticism and disclosure – as long as it is for the sake of reform and advancement.
In Saudi Arabia, and various other Arab countries, people have become accustomed to glorifying their leaders and crediting the regime with any adopted action and trusting all its unannounced hidden agendas. Such an attitude is usually the result of fear or out of an incapability to suggest solutions and alternatives.
The truth is adopting this hypocritical attitude towards the government is greatly detrimental to the two involved parties, the hypocrite and the government. Good governance does not allow for such an attitude; in fact, it abhors it since it entails fraudulence and deceit. The situation is comparable to watching someone walk close to the edge of a cliff and when they ask you if they’re walking in the right direction; you say to them: Go ahead; you’re on the right track!
Criticism and the space allowed for freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia has increased of late – despite the obstacles. The king has also endorsed the opening of communication channels for dialogue, such as the case of the national dialogue project that made it possible for Sunnis and Shiites, liberals and extremists to sit on the same table to negotiate.
It’s true that the king’s initiative may be regarded as a ‘first step’ towards dialogue, however it is a positive step, especially since our society is not accustomed to meeting and deliberation. Rather, we are accustomed to ‘advising’, giving and receiving advice, recommendations and guidance and what a difference there is between those who meet to discuss and negotiate and others who meet to receive advice from others.
Moreover, the media has been exercising increased freedom of expression to the extent that various ministers have complained against the harshness of criticism leveled against them in the press and stated that they only welcome constructive criticism. However, the expression ‘constructive criticism’ is escapist and meaningless, as some wise people have realized – except if it entails no offense and does not infuriate any party, which then ultimately means that it is useless.
But freedom is even more wide-ranging nowadays; today we see personalities on satellite channels criticizing the policies of states, whether economic or relating to foreign affairs, women’s affairs, as well as matters relating to the judicial and educational systems.
And yet those who openly criticize do not get detained for their words and actions and people do not fear them or shun them to avoid the wrath of the authorities. Perhaps some officials are disturbed by the manner in which criticism is hurled against them, however at least it is no longer deemed to be on par with national treason, complicity with foreign parties or deviating from the course of ‘Muslim community’.
This in and of itself may be considered a qualitative development on which others should be based and expanded upon so that our regimes and societies could become more accustomed to disagreeing and engaging dialogue. Those are the winds presently blowing in Saudi Arabia and which any discerning observer would be able to detect; it is the wind of change for reform and that is what matters.
As for the details and steps entailed for this reform to take place, they may be right or wrong at times – no matter, we’re human. There is no fault in committing errors as governments or societies, we experiment and there is nothing wrong with that. The greatest of all errors is for change and reform to be rejected and that they not be considered priorities.
What is being referred to here is genuine and dedicated efforts that strive towards a healthy atmosphere in which freedom can be nurtured, in addition to exposing and educating people and societies about freedom so that it becomes part of their lives. The ultimate objective of this pursuit is to achieve mature true democracy – not the distorted version that we witness around us and of which the worst culprits are the members of parliaments.
So, why is freedom important? And why must it be protected? Is freedom synonymous with laxity? And will change, which is a natural course of life, be considered a lapse by the conservatives who are the guardians of traditions? And can people adapt to that newfound freedom or will it stifle them?
These are all fundamental questions; however, suffice it to consider one generic answer.
Freedom in the essence of mankind without which humans become deformed and paralyzed; if an individual loses his/her freedom then they will have lost their meaning and their secret. In the words of famous Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani:
I am my freedom, and if they steal it
The earth and skies will collapse
Freedom may also be deemed the genuine stipulation common to all religions since the Divine Covenant is based on freedom of choice. Moreover, reward and punishment would be rendered meaningless if a person were coerced and did not have the freedom to choose in the first place.
Freedom is a stipulation that precedes civilization since the totality of innovations, ideas and experiences that humans incorporate into sciences and ideologies, which is responsible for eliciting change and opening up new horizons, is based on it. Without freedom, the road is riddled with obstacles and prohibitions, thus people settle for repetition and reflection – and whosoever dares to jump over hurdles or breach the prohibitions is accused of treason and becomes socially and politically condemned.
Freedom is a necessity for the subsistence of states inasmuch as for the solidity of political regimes, since it is the sole factor that ensures the preservation of a diverse plurality and guarantees the survival of criticism. This criticism is the driving force behind reform in states and societies and if it were suppressed and challenged, then the subject under criticism will not be reformed but will rather continue to swell and bloat until it swallows up the whole state and society in its entirety. The healing scalpel of criticism has the power to heal what is diseased before it becomes malignant.
Moreover, freedom is also a stipulation for beauty and creativity. In its absence literature; poetry and prose, art and music would not exist. These art forms require freedom to breathe and flourish, which is why literature and creativity in Arab countries, and other states that have the same conditions, are impoverished in comparison to other advanced and developed states.
There is an invisible war between the supporters of freedom and the disciples of cultural and ideological slavery. The battle will determine the destiny of this part of the world. In this secret war, all weapons are used against the freedom advocates; weapons include denouncing others as traitors and collaborators and accusations of being untrue to their identities.
Religion is also used as a weapon in this war and its provisions have been turned against Arab writers, intellectuals and artists to denounce them as infidels. Recently, an Egyptian intellectual figure was accused of being an unbeliever while the list of others includes the [poet Ahmed] Shahawi, Sayyid al Qamni, [poet Abd-ar-Rahman] al Ashmawi, Nasr Abu Zayd, Naguib Mahfouz, and many others. Today, the latest update in this bitter harvest reveals that two Saudi writers have been condemned by a Saudi scholar of being infidels.
Such attitudes will continue so long as denunciating others and declaring them as heretics and traitors to their religion and nation is easier than sipping water. In a doctorate thesis in one of the Saudi universities, an Arab researcher enumerated approximately 200 names of Arab intellectuals who had been denounced or accused of treachery and heresy.
Will the lungs of society collapse under the rarified air of freedom?
I believe that only the weak fear freedom and this applies to individuals, societies and ideologies. Whosoever has a deep-seated ideological belief or lives in a strong prosperous society does not fear the multiplicity of ideas, voices and winds of freedom as they can only add beauty, strength and splendor. And as Saudi King Abdullah said in the aforementioned address, “Responsible freedom is the right of all pure souls.