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In a world of ideas

  • Published at 05:57 pm September 6th, 2018
Free speech
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The 2,400-year-old fight for free speech

“The man who stood for freedom.” That’s how Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been branded by the world of academia. 

But what, precisely, is this freedom that puts Ai Weiwei at the centre of attention of scholars from across the world? 

The ancient root of this struggle can be traced back to a courtroom of the year 399 BC, where Socrates defiantly confronted the jury at his trial: “If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind ... I should say to you, men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.”

Socrates preferred to drink hemlock over giving up his teachings. 

But the concept of free speech that we are familiar with today emerged more directly from the documents of the great struggles against autocracies of the early modern era.

Almost 500 years after signing of the Magna Carta, the British parliament established freedom of speech when autocrat James James II was overthrown by the English Revolution in 1689.

A century later, the French Revolution adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man.”

In 1791, America followed the French example. The First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights guarantees four freedoms: Of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble. 

In all those events, directly or indirectly, free speech symbolized uprisings against autocratic ruling classes where revolutionary academics championed the cause. 

John Milton, in 1644, wrote, “Areopagitica: A speech for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing.”

Voltaire followed the tradition with the famous letter: “Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

Now, I must admit, that I have been sidestepping from examining the arrest and imprisonment of Shahidul Alam. For two reasons.

One is that, emotionally, I’m struggling to come to terms with this state-sanctioned injustice that is so reminiscent of the harassment subjected to artist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese authoritarian regime. 

The other is a resemblance of a 2,400-year-old prophecy that has been gripping me. Socrates, at his trial, prophesied to Athenians of the grim consequences of their actions. His death was the beginning of the collapse of Athenian democracy. 

Soon after his death, democracy lost its place as the major political model in Greece, and Athens was conquered by Macedonian autocracy. 

Aren’t we there already, one way or other? 

If not, then how could a democracy even possibly think of sending a person, a public figure, to prison, just because he has chosen to speak his mind?

And what, exactly, does it mean for the prosperity and future development of Bangladesh? 

The major problems Bangladesh is facing today -- corruption, mismanagement, the deficit of ideas, inequality, religious fundamentalism, -- all are connected to a singular flash point, that is our unwillingness to facilitate the freedoms that are considered essential for talents and ideas to flourish.

Although the Constitution of Bangladesh acknowledged this freedom as one of its fundamental values, to the ruling class of the country, it has always been just an article that makes the constitution socially more acceptable.

The chilling threat that accompanies the harassment of Shahidul Alam -- that whoever dares to dissent will face the same fate -- explains this mindset.

This severe lack of freedom now has created an environment where the best and brightest minds of the nation do not see any potential for the development of their intellectual capacities and prefer to leave the country. 

Isn’t that the case these days, except for a few exceptions?

Coincidentally, Shahidul Alam is one of those handful few exceptions, and what an irony that he had to become a victim. 

It is beyond my comprehension how callous a nation has to become to send an acclaimed scholar to prison, who, instead of choosing any prestigious university of the world, dedicated his life and work to the country he was born.

Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy is a blogger.