Muftah – 3 April 2017 – Translated by Rana Issa
To Samira, My absent Imam, always present.*
No special excuse is needed to engage the concept of freedom. Yet, it is not an evident concept or an ahistorical human faculty, or a universal political demand without contradictions. Freedom is an act of coming out, of cleavage and conflict; and it may be tragic. This text is a free reflection on freedom, closer to a tale written with abstract concepts, a story of adventure and a confrontation with all kinds of dangers.
It is a story that one writes to be rewritten.
The initial intuition of freedom implies movement, a coming out of here, stepping further than usual—taking risk, in order to discover a wider, hitherto unknown space. This first aspect of freedom challenges two states: the equally powerful tendency to dwell here—stay, or return, home— and be tied to a specific place—makan: In Arabic, the noun makan is derived from kawn (existence and universe); there is no makan except with a ka’in (being, so makan is the place of being). The second state is jail, the prevention of movement outside a specific and limited area.
In the first months of my imprisonment [in Syria] in the early 1980s I used to hear the phrase: “impounded freedom,” as a description of our arrest (the regime’s leftist prisoners). Seemingly, it indicated a lighter prison experience, estimated to be short term, sufficing with the restraint of movement, and the curtailment of our ‘danger’: the danger of connecting with others without surveillance, and of ‘free’ actions, in ways unacceptable to ‘the regime.’ I think the phrase is contrary to long imprisonment. It is also opposite to ‘torture prisons’ like Tadmur (Palmyra), as well as the separation of prisoners from one another, in addition to other forms of harm. (We would be subjected to most of these forms during our long imprisonment). But the phrase ‘impounded freedom’ thickens the contradiction between prison and freedom, and so underlines the fact that freedom is fundamentally un-impounded, unimpeded movement.
In as much as the tendency to return home is coupled with comfort, stability and safety, the tendency towards freedom is coupled with danger and adversity. We come out of our place, we go further, and we face what we do not know. We enter uncharted and un-surveyed areas; meet other people whose language we might not share; we get exposed to natural conditions that we do not know how to handle. This condition is both the most ancient one for the human race, and the most primal experience in our short lives (an inevitable childhood experience). It is in our deepest being. An old condition, therefore deep, thus continuous: each time we come out, go further; we take a risk without guarantees of safety.
We need to return to a stable and safe home each time. This is the place where we take off on a new outing, to take new risks. Home is the place we come out of and return to. We form the concept of home through this oscillating movement of going out and staying in.
We also form the concept of home through discovery; as we explore the world, of other homes that are not ours, as well as by changing our home. Living in a new house is a widespread experience today in all societies. For our contemporary society, this is usually a sign of independence: leaving the parents’ protection to a house that facilitates unimpeded movement. Whenever possible, we increasingly come out and return, to many temporary homes. For the youth, this is a recurrent experience, but it is also a possible choice for many others.
We may also not own a house, or are unable to dwell in one. This makes the person ‘homeless’ (or ‘exiled’ and I will return to this point).
Prison is in opposition to the act of coming out (of a home) towards danger; to the practice of danger. Prison strips us of our possible danger, by stripping us of our freedom. It protects us from the peril of freedom. Outside prison we meet others, we exchange words, things, familiarity and we could also participate in war. Claude Levi Strauss claimed that cultures are formed with the exchange of words, commodities and women, in other words, in language, material production, and kinship relations (yet he neglected the exchange of violence). Contact with others can initiate a new culture, and widen the field of exchange, or can launch a dangerous conflict, a war. We know from our experiences that those who move in wider circuits, and mingle more with others, are capable of developing richer and more sophisticated private worlds. Poorer and more ‘primitive’ are those who mingle less. The most imaginative cultures are the ones that mingle and learn from others.
Freedom leads either to culture or to war. Culture is the transformation of the outside to an inside and to a home. It plots uncharted territories, converting strangers to next of kin and partners, through relations of exchange. Is that not a contradiction? Freedom is leaving home, crossing the fence and going far away, but in the act of going far away, and by repeating this act, we chart new territories and become acquainted, and so cancel the barbaric exterior, we make of it a home, or an extension of home. (Hence freedom seems to be a tendency towards transgression; it does not rest long before it starts on new and dangerous adventures). The initial exploratory outing is followed by another outing—this time to invest, organize, graft. Culture arises out of this second outing. Habits and customs form in the return home that comes after the second outing. Through this second outing, which familiarizes the unknown ‘wilderness’ and charts it, we seem to bring along, or widen, our house: we do not come out but rather we bring it with us. Does this remain an act of freedom? When we widen our charted world—to include rooms that were new and foreign a moment ago, but are now familiar and close—have we not cancelled our freedom? Yes. Freedom is inventiveness, while culture is repetition. We become liberated; we go farther—until distance ends, and we chart everything. This is the moment when our world closes in on itself and becomes a prison. (It also compels the conclusion that there is no freedom in nations: our known and familiar worlds; freedom is in coming out on them).
We can further distinguish between widening the house as an expression of possession, appropriation, homeliness (or nationalism) and war, and a widening of the home in hospitality, welcoming, and a peaceful meeting with others. We greet, become acquainted, and share. This is a widening in the sense of opening our house onto other houses, in a friendly movement between houses: a hospitality that is also magnanimous.
Prison is derived from the first type of widening, the possessive widening of private ownership, not the communal widening towards the shared. It is opening the world as opposed to being open to the world. We imprison those we can incarcerate in special closed “houses” so that they do not threaten, or attempt to share with us, our possessions.
We assert absolute ownership of that which is outside prison. The prisoner is an excluded partner, in as much as the partner is free and welcome. Thus, when we imprison someone who protests, or who wants to go her own way, don’t we turn prison into the only home for freedom? And when we own all that is outside prison, don’t we turn it into a big and wide prison?
When we welcome others, we change them, and ourselves, and the house. Ahlan wa sahlan, al-bayt baytkum! (Welcome, make yourself at home!) That means you are not our guests, the house is not just ours, you too are the people of this house, like us! Ala ar-rahbwa as-si’aa! (Welcome aboard!) This experience is an initial and metaphoric declaration of friendship. It pronounces the place wide enough for everyone (the literal meaning of the latter expression in Arabic), therefore it is a preliminary basis for a culture of sharing. On the other hand, this experience seriously opposes possessive homeliness in its closed and aggressive form, with houses that widen and absorb others through war or prison, exile and enslavement. Open homeliness means to go towards others and others come to us, so that the widening of our house meets the widening of theirs, and we form shared homes, and the other does not remain other. In their long history, humans have done both; all cultures have done both. Even so, we can still say that the dominant form is that of the closed home, and that the open home is more humane than the closed home.
In a second intuition, freedom signifies change. Movement ceases to be an act of freedom when it repetitively takes the same paths to the same places, especially if the passage is enforced. Movement is the first shape of freedom; in the sense that it is a coming out (of a pattern) and not simply a coming out (of a place). Put differently, we do not become free when we come out, unless we do not come out in the same way each time, but rather come out on our coming out. Coming out of home becomes an experience of freedom when you discover something new, when you stumble into unknown places, when you come out on the way we have been coming out. You must bring fitkat bikr (phenomenal and unprecedented achievement) as al-Mutanabbi would say.The important thing with movement is its imminent motion, its returns in learning and mastery of new skills as it changes us and the world around us.
In Arabic, change, taghyir, means two things. It is the displacement of an object by another, and the transformation of the object into another. We change the place by going away to a different place, and we change the place by working on it to become another place. The first change of place is wandering, nomadic change, and the second one is urban change, the change of the place itself. I used the expression coming out of a place (and I will also discuss coming out of time, of society, of self, of religion, and of the world) in a sense closer to nomadic change that has a horizontal non-accumulative history— “cold” as Strauss would call it. But freedom is a movement from a condition to another, or as I already said, a coming out on coming out. It is not exclusively an outing from a thing to another thing. In the end, we do not come out of ourselves into other selves (our memory, imagination, and foundational bruises…), but we change our selves, their constitution, as if we gain new selves, with new frameworks for memory, imagination, and sensitivity, a new register of experience. Upon reflection, we find that this is equally true of time as it is of place, and of society as it is of the world. This is because the discussion does not deal with an isolated individual that has taken a distance from her home, liberated, before she comes back to it, or of one imprisoned at ‘home’ and is prohibited from her freedom. I talk about all humans, they change their houses and they change in their houses, they go out, and also come out on one condition into another, or from one house to a different house. Our history is both those things: a history of wandering and travel and a history of transformation.
When we are imprisoned we are not only impeded from going out of the ‘house’ but we are also impeded from bearing the house towards a different condition. We lose freedom in both senses. The house ceases to be a home, also when one is imprisoned in her home. You lose the right that connects you to your possession: I choose how to dispense with what I own. My home is that which I have the right to replace or change: to destroy, to abandon, or to leave for another. A prison is not a home in any sense. It is not a possession, so we do not own the right to come out of it, or to come out on it (change its constitution). Rather it is the thing that “owns us” and comes out on us. Sometimes in prison, we may struggle and learn how to come out on ourselves and move in unprecedented ways. But this is not a simple thing, and it is not easily achievable—if at all achievable—except in opposition to prison. The ‘intention’ of prison is to wrest our freedom so as to fix us in an unchanging image. We do not return to jail if we have a choice. Home on the other hand is not just what we come out from, but also that where we come back to as was previously said.
Prison is the appropriate location to discern another dimension in change: our changing relation to things, to house, to self, to the world, to society. We cannot change our relationship to prison; this is especially so in absolute prisons like Tadmur. We cannot change our selves in prison except in a very narrow sense. By contrast, absolute prison suffocates us, it fixes us in an almost unchangeable image, through the prohibition on movement inside it or out from it, by prohibiting its change, and the impossibility of changing our relation to it. Perhaps the hardest prisons harden us? True. What is hardness? It is cementing one to self, veering to gather in the self. The self solidifies as it withstands pressure and hardship. Indeed, if it is not destroyed. The hard self has no inner place for others. The hardness comes from the narrow interiority that cannot accommodate others.
Our relationship to things does not change if we are prohibited from changing and transforming the things themselves. Our selves do not change if we do not change things, and we do not change our relationship to ourselves if our selves do not change. (But there are no absolutes in such things. In each case relativity plays a role between the conditions that prohibit change, such as the differences in prison formations and durations, and the variation in internal resources among individuals and groups.)
Modern freedom is more transformative than migratory, more urban than nomadic. More than the dynamics of migration and wandering, it is the dynamic transformation of time and place, of self, society and world. But it bears an unsettling relationship to colonialism, which is a military migration and an aggressive expansion, as well as the appropriation of others’ homes. It is intimately related to the transformations that build national homes. Two freedoms for the colonizers—nil freedom for the colonized. No conquering migration, no autonomous transformation. When they are not expelled from their homes like the Palestinians, their actions, movements, and interactions are controlled. They are effectively imprisoned, just like the plight of the rest of the Palestinians in their land. In each case, they are separated from the possibility of changing the constitution of their home. The Assadi internal colonization that we know well in Syria is typical of such lack of freedom.
If the person is prohibited from coming out of her house, the house turns into prison. If she is somehow able to transform the prison into a home, and to turn it into a vital environment for her development, then it is termed enjailment. I treated this concept earlier in my prison book to depict the prisoner’s adaptation in jail by turning it into a context for personal development. There I clarified the personal conditions for enjailment that were available to me, such as my young age at the time of arrest, and my reasonable ability to learn. I was among many friends and colleagues, I shared a life and learned from them. Also, I was not an only child to my parents, and most of the time, visitations were possible. All in all, the conditions of my life in prison were not of the worst kind. Enjailment is not a general condition experienced by everyone who spends years in jail. Yet it is a conceivable experience; valuable when possible. My condition was wound up with—and limited to—reading and learning. This personal motivation allowed me to “come out” of prison, and prevented prison from colonizing and inhabiting my interior.
Enjailment cancels prison, deactivates it, and converts it into a space for liberation. Liberation from what? Liberation from other prisons we carry within us— various prisons. We carry internal prisons at all times in ourselves, in our familiar habits and beliefs. Liberation from the internal prison means changing the self. We expand our space, or inner home, and develop new routines and habits by learning alternatives and by reconsidering our thoughts and beliefs. Emancipation is a term that best describes the experience of being liberated from prison, whereas freedom is reserved for overcoming external shackles.
Emancipation is no easy matter, nor is it ever a terminal position to the extent of describing someone as emancipated. It is a movement that destroys the walls of the inner home—the self. The moment this movement stops, the walls rise again. In as much as we are in conflict with our self, we are not emancipated. As we grow older, our walls solidify and become almost impossible to destroy.
Enjailment is suitable for the annulment of prison. In fine, it is a conflict we undertake in prison against prison: against the inner prison. It allows us to curtail the effects of the outer prison. What makes this experience valuable, or rather revolutionary, is that we work towards destroying our inner wall, which lightens the impact of being restricted within the outer walls of prison.
But this emancipatory struggle against the internal prison, the self, is not an act of depletion or conquering of the self. It does not seek to inflict death or control on the self, rather it is an act of enlivenment and expansion, a blossoming into hospitality towards other ideas and other habits—towards others. The self is not the enemy, even if it veers towards becoming a dark and suffocating cave. If we open windows and doors, and not forbid the formation of solid walls, a grass fence is rather nice.
For our generation, the word “perseverance”, sumud, has been central to the lexicon of political prisoners as an expression of our confrontation with prison. Perseverance includes solidity, assertion and certainty. All these are necessary virtues for those detained by such a tyrannical regime, as the one we have been enduring for last two decades of the twentieth century. But it also includes perseverance and resistance to change. In jail, I heard a beautiful expression attributed to a Korean communist prisoner who spent more than thirty years in a South Korean prison, which said that: “even if I could not change the world, I will not allow the world to change me.” This is heroic, but mistaken, and unliberational in my opinion. The problem is not to be changed by the world, but to change in the world to become better equipped to change the world with our partners.
The problems of perseverance rest on firm belief and the cohesion of organizations as well as in the strength of individual trust. If this hard certainty is shaken, as has happened with communist organizations everywhere, perseverance fragments. If you were in jail during their collapse, you collapse too. Collapse is another pivotal word in the lexicon of political prisoners. In those conditions, there are those who resist the collapse. Yet in my opinion, enjailment is the more flexible and dynamic concept in the midst of collective collapse, even if it remains an individual solution.
The present is the home of time. We build this concept of time by coming out towards the past and the future, and by our return to the present. Rooted in all societies and cultures is the perception of the past as the father of the present. It is the house of maturity, wisdom, authority, and legitimacy. The present is a small infant, with its face towards the father—the past. The future is a repetition of this self-same pattern.
This perception was broken in “modernity,” in much the same way that the consensus about the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe was ruptured between cultures. Centrality today is for the present, ontologically and epistemologically. The time of brothers gains primacy or “sovereignty” over the time of the fathers, as well as the time of the sons.
The Islamist pastism, in salafism or otherwise, is the patriarchal resistance to fraternal time. Nevertheless, it too is engrossed in the primacy of the present, and can only emanate from it. The Islamists of today are not fathers, even if they defend patriarchy. They are siblings that compete with other siblings for power. They derive legitimacy for this power from the dead fathers. This relationship to the past is a possessive expansion at the expense of the past. It is not liberational, for it is bereft of the expansiveness needed to break away from the narrowness of the present. Instead it prefers to conjure models and images from the past. The temporal house of Islamists is the present, even if their thought bestows suzerainty on the past. Their past is an illusion: they inhabit the present like everyone else, and they cannot get out of it. For them the past impels their colonization of the present and lends sanctity to their actions and immunity in their exercise of power over living people. Similar to spatial expansions through wars and prisons and the suppression of others, coercive forms of temporal expansion work at the expense of the past. They force reinterpretations that impose the needs of today, through appearing so loyal to the past as to drag the present backwards. Yet what is possessed of the past is dead matter, stripped of the imagination that sustains life and that can provide an understanding of the present.
The past is a material structure, made up of dead events. Only the present is an imaginative structure: alive. Not only does the colonization of the past abuse the defenseless dead, but—indeed more importantly, the living are being imprisoned in the eternal present. Pastists are in reality presentists; they freeze the present in forms that are imported from the past. Only present variables and present interests motivate the group to colonize the past and transport its dead staleness to the lives of the living. They deaden into stagnation, and become more vulnerable to coercive controls. The salafist colonization of the past today is a project of deadening power. In it, the salafists employ their contemporary imagination to strip the multitudes under their control of imagination and life.
Others built the past differently. Europe reopened and possessed the Greek and Roman past in the imperial expansion that swept near and far regions of the planet. This continuity is not a self-evident condition. It is the product of possessiveness and reconnection, after a period of interruption and extinction. The past always looks like those who expand in it in the present, which is not its actual reality that we can only partially access. This knowledge becomes even more fractional the more deluded expansionists in the present represent the “real” image of the past.
In principle, coming out into the past could be an act of liberation from the present, but its liberational force is conditional on two points. Firstly, the consideration of the pastness of the past, a time bygone, a concluded moment. We must consider that home is the present. This necessitates that the present has to indeed be the home, in that it supplies comfort and security for the living. This is not the condition of our present. The past remains an imagined home as long as the present is the abode of misery. Only the closure of the past makes our relation to the past free. This is not what the Islamists want because their power and their calculations rest on the centrality of the past, like the papacy rested a few centuries ago on a universal system that centered on the earth (this is why the Copernican revolution in our part of the world is a temporal and historical revolution, and is not a spatial cosmological one—the Muslim Galileo must direct her telescope on the sociological, political and ideological history and not on far away planets). Secondly, we must also come out into the future: imagine other worlds, other lives, and attend to the lives of offspring and their worlds. Utopia becomes an inherent aspect of thinking the present and its policies and modes of living: to think and to work for “better” cities instead of erecting “the kingdom of God on Earth” as Sayyid Qutb along with the Islamists and the Jihadists aspired. Thus, we must think in the spirit of the author of the “The Virtuous Republic”, al-Farabi, and the other philosophers that challenged the deadening spirit of the Salafis and the Jurists.
In order to practice coming out to the future and to the past, we may explore “the present as history” and more so, to think of the arbitrary nature of the present. Many of the things that are interrelated in our present are arbitrary, temporary, and fleeting, begot through coincidences and conditions that eventually seem deviant and sick. Traveling to the past and the future help in discerning the present’s control mechanisms and randomness, and consequently ponder present lives of alienation and perceptions of the strangeness of the surroundings.
If we build on what has already been said on freedom, home, and prison, then freedom is the coming out into the past and the future, and the hosting of past images, concepts, and material for thought, organization, and labor, coupled with future possibilities—those who are our partners in the present. This helps to widen the present and to free our relationship to it. Prison is the shrinkage in the present/home, as in the example of Assadi eternality (abadiyya) in Syria, and as the Islamists would also like to do. By divining the past, the Islamists do not inhabit the past but eternalize a present that they control or wish to control, and prohibit any coming out from it or on it.
In modern history, what pins us in a putrefying present is that the freer and more vital power, the modern West, consistently externalizes its past, pushes it outside, thereby expanding its interiorities and its present, its sovereignty and reach. This has been the effect of colonial capitalist expansion, with its unrestrained encroachment and annexation. Invasion that is no longer acceptable inside is enthusiastically sanctioned outside. Thinking of the colonized in terms of their religion, beliefs, and ethnicities is sanctioned outside, if not imperative. Yet such thinking is no longer sanctioned inside. Freedom that became protected inside remained easily violated outside. In sum, we became—through various mechanisms, such as direct colonial penetration, including the politics of local elites that reproduce colonial relations with its subjects—exterior to the free, sovereign West, and the exhibit for overcome images from its past.
In the freedom of the modern contemporary West there is prowling expansion, war, imprisonment. From the time of Columbus until today, this freedom also includes the transformation of things and circumstances, and a little expansive hospitality and cooperation. Since the Renaissance, two expansions were inaugurated: a temporal expansion: the repossession and infusion of necessity to the present relation to Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian time. The nascence of the present was derived from this temporal expansion (this is an act of power: The present fathers the past here). On the other hand, there was spatial expansion, with Imperialism as its fundamental and most obvious expression, as well as its persistent structure.
The dynamics of capitalist expansion that shaped the history and the globalization of the contemporary world has consumed its energies in phases: The end of colonialism, the international spread of capitalism, the failures of direct occupation after the cold war. Today there seems to be an opposite dynamic from our side, with “terror” (which is the invasion of the weak and their war) and asylum seeking.
I find it tempting to say that Islamic Salafism in its known examples, like Daesh, al-Nusra and their likes in Syria, are types of inverted colonialism, a dynamism of penetration, transgression and expansion at the expense of the interior and of the past, motivated by the eternalization of the present and the prohibition of the future from arrival. And it is in no way less cruel, foreign, and discriminating than colonialism in dealing with the population.
Coming out of home may result in “culture”: the exchange of speech, commodities or women according to Strauss; or in war and the exchange of death. We attempt to grab what others possess: their things, their language and their women (in principle, war is a manly act). We also seize their homes, their worlds, or control their movement and actions so that we benefit at their expense, and we improve our situation vis-a-vis possible competitors. War is a dangerous outing, unsafe; and we could profit from it if we triumph. We may acquire a special measure of freedom: sovereignty—we decide for others, and no one decides for us; we exempt ourselves from rules but no one else is exempted. We force the losers to serve us, and we only serve ourselves; we kill others, but no one kills us.
Sooner or later war begets war; it begets enmity and animosity that push towards another war, and this to another war, and so the wars reproduce endlessly. War protects its eternity through producing the warring and long lasting social frameworks: tribes, sects, and nations. These are vengeful socio-political creatures that carry war in their genetic codes.
War has not changed across millennia. The losers are no longer only killed or enslaved. Some will be killed but all of them will suffer an ontological and political demotion, as if they were killed or enslaved. Neither has the motives for war changed. It may not be inevitable that the possessions of others are grabbed, but the expected domination and control in most modern wars produces similar effects. Booty in any case is not a thing of the past. The large-scale expropriation and theft of the property of others continues unabated. After the Second World War, the Americans described the Middle East, because of oil and location, as the most valuable material prize in the world history. They planned to monopolize it, and they did. This is booty logic and booty politics.
Where there is war, there is control and domination. There is booty, hatred, and an intention for revenge. There is also the creation of tribes, sects, nations and their ilk, prison, dispossession and exile. There is no freedom.
Would war end some day? Would it change? Be replaced with something less destructive? War must end, and any effort made to avoid it remains less costly and destructive than a war that only begets more war.
For as long as there is war, there is no equality in freedom. Instead, there is a perverted type of freedom called sovereignty, and this is the flourishing form in the West. This is a military freedom, unjust and ungenerous, unfriendly, and disrespectful. It only produces people who are unfree: masters and slaves. The former are slaves to their arrogance, selfishness and distinctions, and the others are slaves to their masters, their myths, and animosities. For when there are unfree people, no one is free.
Freedom is also a coming out on society. “Society” is a collection of rules, measures, customs, and habits, which define acceptable and expected behavior from individuals and groups. Their regulations, customs and habits, or what could be called tradition, are indispensable “homes,” which could turn into prisons if it becomes difficult to come out on them. No society can form without developing traditions, repetitive paths that people get used to, and that help in organizing reality by facilitating predictability and life planning. However, society suffocates if it must always repeat the same things. In some of our environments, which more or less are justly described as traditional, life seems to be really repetitive, and does not encourage the untried paths. Instead, it frequently penalizes the innovator at the level of thinking, action and life style. This life is truly unfree, even if it believes in the “warmth of family life” and “intimacy”, things that some adults long for after “they outgrow the nest” of their youth, and “yearn” for family and origins, memories of childhood; so, they voluntarily leash their necks. This experience is prevalent in our contemporary societies, and all of us can find such examples within us and among the people around us.
In close measure, life without rules seems impossible, for groups more than individuals, but also for individuals. Each one of us develops a routine for her life as a condition for productiveness and for orientation in the world. Some of us may not do so, but that does not make them free, or especially productive. Some may drive the self with inherited customs and so fall in step with an ancient communal routine as a result of their failure to develop a personal routine.
Yet even personal routine can become a suffocating prison that must be broken in order to allow for alternative experiences. This may occur coincidentally or necessarily, but it can be fruitful, and liberating. Freedom in any case is the movement of coming out of personal or collective routine, even if inevitably we need to re-construct routines that allow the person as well as society to cohere, so that they may work and produce, as well as take respite.
The big problem of modernity in the Arab world has been its failure to produce a tradition, especially on the social and political levels, and thereby to form a society and a “home” in our societies. It remained a private home, the abode of some—those who occupy the highest point in the political and social pyramid. It did not develop protocols that control power, nor supported individuals, nor did it guarantee freedom of thought. It did not spread modern conditions for politics, education, and public institutions, so many of us continued to feel alienated. As for our intellectual modernity, it always thought of itself as coming out, going out, and alternative, but not as return, as home, and base. Our modernity has no home. It was almost a guest in a Western home. It did not participate in its construction, in stipulating its rules and systems, nor was it invited and it surely is not welcome. Those who live in such conditions are unable to host others. The preachers of modernity among us give the impression of a frugality of souls, and they never cease to criticize others. One is ill at ease in such surly proximity.
Modernity remained external and past-oriented. This modernity has its livid bidders who grip at it while they summon us. As such it resembles the Islam of Islamists: we are also summoned to it, as the private property of the livid. Nothing liberated or liberating whether here or there. Coming out on this modernity can be liberating. To work to develop a liberated modernity, that comes out on traditions, builds new traditions, and does not linger on the threshold of a home it is not invited to, nor has any dignity in, and that preaches a lack generosity towards strangers.
Religion, indeed Islam, provides the space to test the duality of the concept of change in Arabic as content for freedom. The first thing to be understood from the phrase “religious conversion” is the turning towards another religion, or to change the religion itself. Islamic jurisprudence considers this apostasy that obliges killing. But isn’t this prohibition on the coming out of religion mean that religion is a prison? It is not even a house that the individual can return to and rest in, but it is precisely life imprisonment? In reality the perception of Salafi Islam is such. But also, this perception is hegemonic among the Muslim scholars. This raises a question about the possibility, and the obligation, to conjure the second meaning of the concept of change. Changing religion in the sense of changing its constitution. This is an urgent need that forces itself today as a condition for the freedom of Muslims and the measure of their feelings of freedom. Changing the constitution of religion must transform it into the property of the faithful, by seizing its ownership from private forces that want at once to recruit people as well as continue to own the religion. Practically it wants submissive followers. The common ownership of religion turns it into a home for all of them, to come out on and return to, and finally to choose other homes if they need to.
In reality, people do not convert to other religions so often, and if they did, they choose for themselves (compare with: finding their fathers on it, as the Koranic verse has it). But there is no justice in coercing people to change religion, for such a religion, like rule of force or a marriage by force, cannot be logical.
The obligation to kill as punishment for religious conversion destroys religion as a spiritual home for the faithful, just as forbidding someone to change her home turns her practically into a prisoner. This is a form of “house arrest” as bad as jail. As already mentioned, we form the concept of home not only through coming out and returning, but also by changing home itself, as well as the experience of becoming acquainted with other homes. We form the concept of religion through a comparable experience. Abandoning religion is one of the aspects of religious experience, and not something alien to it. We also do not form the concept of religion without becoming acquainted with other religions, or even converting. The religion we cannot come out of is not a religion, but a dawla, a hereditary sultanate ruled “eternally” by religious managers, and a lifetime house-arrest for the majority of people.
If you force an individual into house arrest, rebellion and revolt become the only paths available for liberation. Thus, if coming out of religion is not fundamentally personal, then coming out against religion becomes a public imperative.
Why do the contemporary managers of Islam reject this principle that contradicts human dignity and the very concept of faith, not to mention its contradiction of freedom? The Islam of Muslims (in contrast to the Islam of “people”) is an Islam from above, the inheritor of Imperial addiction to power. “He who changes his religion must be killed” (a supposed hadith of the prophet) is an article that defined “sovereignty” and “citizenship” in the “constitution” of the Empire, bolstered with the epitome of Imperial legitimacy, the Hadith, that continued to be “revealed” for two or three centuries after the Quran. This article especially defined ‘national treason’ in the framework of Imperial Islam.
These are not matters external to our discussion, for they define the necessary change in Islam for the prioritization of freedom and consistency in the worlds of Muslims: The separation of religion from the Empire, or the reformation of Islam outside the logic of control, coercion, and personal possession, is being retracted by military Islam, and in some respects by political Islam today. This follows centuries of the transformation of Islam to the religion of people, in a general absence of government, and in opposition to it in many cases.
So, what about the Islam of the faithful, is it possible for her to both be free and faithful? Yes, if she so wishes; if she turns her religion to a home to inhabit and aspire to, without forcing it on others. Just like sons suffocate if they are forced to live permanently within the boundaries of the father, and might end up killing him, we live today the signs of religious suffocation, and we might not be far from killing God, collectively and culturally. A Muslim cannot be free and still believe that God commands him to kill another because she converted.
In any case Muslims today need to come out on their first coming out to the world, for their own freedom in the world, and for the freedom of the world with them.
The triad home, prison, freedom is intimately tied to the self, to an extent that exceeds its effective relation to space/time and society.
Coming out of the self is a liberating act and a condition for freedom. The self is our habits, our routine, and our ways of doing things. It can also be a defined system of education and personal development. In the West, this system is recurrently made paramount to rationality, freedom and productivity. However, it seems that this restricted system is fluctuating towards growing conservative tendencies in the West itself, and in those stubbornly influenced by it, amongst us as well as others. The self for the Islamists in my opinion is a site for rules and technologies that discipline the body and its movement, its behavior and interaction. Those rules and technologies invalidate the self in the principle of the interiority of faith, as well as cancel out its difference and individuality.
Coming farther out of the self and breaking the usual rhythm, even if it is a rhythm of personal progress, can also be a transformative and liberating experience. When the self conforms to itself, whether in individualist (be yourself) or collective givens (covenant with traditions, and ordained roles) it becomes a suffocating prison. By contrast, even prison can be a transformative and liberating experience of coming out of the self as was mentioned above. More prevalent is the possibility of “the free” living their lives according to the same pattern, imprisoned in a personal routine or collective customs.
The Western liberal tradition encourages the individual to be herself. She learns to conform to herself, follow her preferences, be different from others, and to not fit an already given collective example. What happens once one is disciplined in the regime of “be yourself”, and manages to conform to her assumed self? She “succeeds” in obtaining general acknowledgement, and transforms into a mature, middle class man or woman: rational, good at what she does, good income, content with herself, selfish—unfree. Perhaps she feels like coming out for some fresh air. She travels to other countries, walks confidently, a master following the path of explorers and colonizers, but without their weapons. Yet she changes nothing for herself or in herself, and she does not challenge the pre-established wisdom: be yourself. She settles for the collective liberal tradition of democracy that is the end of history, as was decreed by the successful rational liberalist, the American Francis Fukuyama.
But the self that is constituted on the dictum of “be yourself” is a prison in the same measure as the self that is constituted on likeness to a collective self in our environments: The serious Muslim man whose word is heard in his house, and the pious Muslim woman that wears the veil, or the unveiled but equally conservative Christian woman that never comes out of the predetermined collective ideal, the man that marries after college, and starts a family and struggles to secure a high income, and that preserves the customs of his people. In all these cases, these are eternal constitutions that never change.
But freedom is the transformation and coming out of the self, though one can differentiate between colonial freedom that expands the self at the expense of other selves, according to the laws of the closed homeliness, and a social freedom that hosts other selves in the self, the society of selves.
If I may venture a recommendation: change yourself! Do not spend your life trying to be like what your self is supposed to be, expelling the selves of others from you, and do not emulate the image given to the self, from society, religion or politics. Be other! Be a society yourself!
Even if she could, the individual cannot change herself every day and every year. If she were able to do it once, it is almost impossible to change herself again. Pondering this, the problem sounds difficult within the available human life. A self is constituted as the property of a person within the existing orders of social habilitation, around when she is twenty years of age, and she invests the energies of this self for another twenty or more years. For some this self eventually begins to feel like a yoke. You are now over forty years old. Coming out of the self becomes more challenging. This second twenty-year phase is about becoming socially rooted, obtaining recognition, getting married and improving income. The leftist acquires bourgeois tastes if not an income. Or she may cling to fixed principles, defending her possessive ownership of an almost unchanging truth the way a capitalist defends private property. The talented rebel accumulates money, and no longer prefers to halt the conditions of growth and improvement in income. She no longer has revolutionary personal standards or some peculiar modus. Little is left of her social and political radicalism. After the time of setting up and the formation of the rebellious self that wants to change herself, it becomes extremely difficult to undertake another rebellion, and the rebellion that aims at self-change is a “civil war” in the same way a social rebellion is. For two rebellions to happen the second must come as a consequence of extreme experiences such as being cured from a dangerous illness, or undergoing a major life crisis, or enduring a long period of duress. Tragedy is a must for self-change.
So, we end up prisoners, in the same self that we lived in for half a century or more (from twenty to seventy or eighty…) We never die free, or ever so rarely.
Unless we die young. We assume that Jesus, Rimbaud, Franz Fanon, Guevara, Malcolm X, Ghassan Kanafani, and Riyadh al-Saleh Hussein all died free. They did not have time to imprison themselves within themselves, as we ultimately do with our lives after moving beyond our youth.
Had they lived, and did not die before forty, would it have been possible for them to remain free or rise as symbols of freedom? Is it possible to think of alternative kinds of habilitation, that aim to change the individual self once or thrice in the remaining life?
Thought that sets forth a step; thinking differently, examining our thoughts and revealing their limitations, laboring to break those boundaries; this is freedom of thought. Our thought is not free when we use it to preach freedom, but to think freely. When we constantly contribute to the renewal of thought possibilities, we allow others to work on and develop our thought, to surpass it and show its limitations and ultimately to abandon it.
Going further in thought, and thinking in a different way is philosophy: eloquent, alert and radical thought. In Arabic, eloquence, fasaha, is a linguistic property that involves words and their structure, but is not a property of thought per se. We have fasiha sayings that are often cliché and fewer fasih thought. Philosophy trains the mind to think eloquently and radically—thought that does not stop before it has gone one step farther. There is no libertology, but philosophy is the “science” of freedom, the “science” that ontologically must go further, smash against limitations, challenge the established norms, and question the ideas, ideologies and beliefs that exist.
The notion of a science of freedom is contradictory. Science frees us from the myth of freedom, as the French Sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu observed, because it reveals our yokes and exposes how the driving motives behind our actions are socially constituted. Our actions may take the shape of strategic gambles to occupy better positions within pre-existing and controlling social fields that could have lucrative material and symbolic returns based on “free” actions. But philosophy is not a science that frees us. It does not breed freedom or even produce it; rather it is free “science”, the science of the rebel, and the rover to horizons and beyond.
Philosophy is the freedom of the mind to challenge customs, traditions and sciences, but also to challenge its personal history. Its topic is the human in the world, and the experience of the world. It always pushes back the borders of our worlds.
The World I
We come out of home and go further than we are accustomed, until we reach the “border”. In our contemporary world, we discover states. Borders separate more than they connect, and they forbid passage except after special entitlement, after proof of personal credentials, and the acquisition of special papers. Yet this might turn out useless at times. Instantly, countries that are managed by organizations called states appear to be prisons. Some prisons are worse than others, some are “absolute prisons”, but constitutional prisons are also prisons.
States are adjacent but are not open on one another. Borders do not erase nor foster cooperation. Rather they are governed with the logic of closed homeliness. They expand only at the expense of others, and whenever possible: they fight, colonize, imprison.
The problem of states is not only about place, not only borders. All nations work to freeze time, and eternalize themselves, on behalf of a dynasty, a system of governance, a lifestyle or a constitution. Eternalization, ta’bid, forbids coming out of the present, or sponsors only the repetitive comings-out that have already been explored and charted.
Our world experience today is framed by our experiences of states. These are arbitrarily allocated in place and in population acceptance. Today’s world is permeated with disparities that are unjustifiable, created by expansionist policies, war and imprisonment. The world resists change; states impose identities and identity logic, the conformity of the individual to her self: that she remains a good, rational and responsible citizen, visible and predictable, obedient to the laws. The individual cannot be stateless (perhaps the cruelest location in the world today is occupied by Palestinians and now equaled by the Syrians). Only rarely can one have two identities, and if it can be legally possible at times (having two nationalities), the individual should always be an effective institution of the state, act reasonably and responsibly, and in a way that facilitates governmental planning and control. Nations and cultures are designed to protect identities: the identities of individuals (be yourself, like others) as well as collective identities.
Coming out of the world is an act of freedom, just like coming out on the self, on society, on time and place. But whereas the spatial coming out—traveling from this world into another—is not possible, there remains only changing the world, and transforming its system into another. This is the condition of freedom today, the freedom of all, especially those who suffer restraints on their movements. Traditional nomadism has come to an end at the hands of states, so did the chances of expansion and discovery, though they are still locally possible here and there (only refugees violate state borders). The only open possibility is changing the world. If we fail, as the chances seem today, only coming out against the world will be the alternative of coming out on the world; the destruction of a world without exit. Is this not the horizon represented by al-Qaeda and the globalized Islamist nihilists, including Daesh?
The inability to change the world is not an “objective” matter connected to the idea that today’s world is a better variant than any other imagined alternative. Not that at all. In today’s world, there is misery, discrimination and violence, there is war, prison and exile, there is hunger, humiliation and bitterness that exceed any other past historical epoch. The situation looks closer to the despondent fate of twentieth century communism. It is also related to the fact that the driver of universalism in the past two and a half centuries, the West, is strongly opposed to any revolution in society and politics, welcoming only technological revolutions. Revolutions of discourses are at times welcome, changing the ways the world is represented and symbolized, and the building of alternatively worlds of words. But one is never sure on this level whether these are revolutions or counterrevolutions.
The World II
Culture is the “ilm” (science or knowledge) that transforms the uncharted “kawn” (universe) that we inhabit into “aalam” (cosmos, charted world). It is the sum of ways, methods and habits that eliminates the exteriority of the world and its strangeness, and turns it into a human home. Without this “science” of culture, there is an unknown and bare universe. It is the universe we experience when we find ourselves in a foreign country, without any prior acquaintance with the language or with anyone of the people. It is an experience that we somehow endure in exile, but we all experienced it in childhood. The universe is the condition of beginnings, when we have not planned a movement, a direction or a distinction. This experience is perhaps referenced to in such ancient mythologies of chaos. Chaos—bare universe—is the experience of the human child and the experience of childhood, the general experience of beginnings.
Culture may succeed in organizing the universe and begetting the world. It succeeds over wilderness, and things uncharted, unexplored, and exterior. It may succeed to the degree that it totally terminates the universe. In this tremendous success, the world transforms into a prison, into a house that we can never exit. This is the world of endings where knowledge of everything spares us from learning new things. The exhaustion of knowledge and the consummation of the world provide the group with a sense of security and safety. But this world does not cohere unless the group is completely isolated. If this was possible in some measure in earlier epochs, it no longer is so. The idea of “the end of history,” is a recent example of exhausted knowledge and a consummated world. This concept is notorious for its repetitive discourse about endings: the end of grand narratives, the end of geography, the death of man, the death of the author, the death of the intellectual, etc.
For millennia, we had multiple worlds. Until the twentieth century, some remained in almost total isolation. Today we have one “modern world,” penetrated by various contradictions and conflicts. In this fragmented modern world, there are tendencies toward cultural or religious isolation. This is another face of the declaration of the end of history in the contemporary West.
Since it is not possible to regress from the one world, which is in fact an important “invention,” not given to us by nature, then the freezing of history at the current intellectual and political conditions will internationally develop into violent isolationist tendencies, mainly embodied today in Salafist Islam, as well as an international lethargy that resembles Islamic declination in its double closure on the “door of ijtihad (rational thinking)” and the reinforcement of an orthodox Sunna through authoritarian power, but also with the Crusader and Mogul invasions.
The chance of the world is the change of the world, and the resistance of top down control as well as the separatism from below and from the sides. The chance of the world is a change in the system of the world.
If we are forbidden to come out of the house, the house stops being a house. It becomes a prison, and we become prisoners.
But what if we were “imprisoned” outside the house? And were forbidden to return to the house?
Imprisonment outside the house is dispossession. When this house is the political one, the nation, then imprisonment outside the house and the prohibition of return is exile. We lose freedom here too, even if we may move, because we lose the choice to return. Freedom is a coming out that we know we can return from. The house as a reference point, and so is the environment, the charted world, chartered and already known, two basic elements in the structure of the concept of freedom, that we lose (the house and its environment) in exile, we lose freedom as well. Freedom then does not only contradict prison, and the restriction of movement, but contracts alienation in a world without maps or reference points. We stray without end, and we lose the reference point from which we measure our new gains. Let us recall that freedom is not only coming out from one place to another, it is also taking the place itself into a new condition, as already noted. We lose this vertical dimension of freedom in exile. What remains of freedom in exile is the horizontal dimension, severed above all from home/homes/the country: the reference points that from which we come out and return.
Freedom has a latent charter: that we cooperate with partners and establish a society of friends—that we share home/s together. When we have no homes in exile, we lose partners and friends. Seen differently, perhaps exile, to be imprisoned outside our homes, is the only place that enables us to have partners and real friends, those who are strangers like us, the non-nationals.
Our temporal system breaks as well. As in prison, in exile we have two pasts that we stumble over as we move between them. Our past before exile and our past in exile. The longer we stay in exile the pre-exilic past becomes older and recedes. It becomes more difficult to connect our lives before and after. Also difficult to acknowledge, is the past of this new life, which like any new life starts with clumsy and lumbering movements. While in prison, the personal dimension of freedom of movement and of coming out magnifies. In exile freedom is represented in the return home. The Palestinians know this well, and they are the oldest exterior prisoners in the world today; today the Syrians also know this well. The imagined future is torn between the hoped-for return, and the feared perpetual dislocation. The temporality of exiles has its special regime. It is not a present that controls a past that is reconstructed every time, and an imagined future. The past suddenly seems to be the time of freedom and the present is confusion and anxiety, while the future is a hoped-for return or a sustained confusion and struggle.
Segregated from her society, the exiled has no tradition to resist and come out of. Her problem is rather represented in being stripped of tradition, without customs or habits, more in need of a reference point and a home than of a “freedom” that she does not know what to do with. We need the freedom to dedicate ourselves to a cause, or to renounce for the sake of someone else. Separated from commitment, our freedom in exile seems futile.
When exile is collective, as is the conditions of Syrians today, preceded by the Palestinians, it may transpire into living in groups that preserve old traditions that supply a known world, and can resist the erasure of character. The majority of exiles live close to one another in search of a security after the traumatizing experience of dislocation, and in order to construct an alternative homeland. Even in the protest activities that Syrians initiate in the diaspora, you find them occupying the smallest room in the available space, as if the fear of dispersal is inscribed in their bodies.
The exiled cannot move away from a new turbulent self that needs care. More likely she strictly maintains the old constitution of the self, considering this an act of resistance. But this is counterproductive. Separation is the only thing that liberates. Holding on to an old self out of national loyalty is the true treason. We need in exile, as in prison, to change ourselves, to become free.
This is precisely why exile can be a highly liberating experience: it offers us the beginning of a new learning, a chance to reform old imbalances, an engagement in a global society of strangers, and a participation in building alternative and open traditions. This is possible especially if we are young, and if we acknowledge and reconcile ourselves with the experience of exile. We cannot exile exile unless we affirm it and accept it. Exiling exile may take a negative form of isolation from the new social environment in expectation of going back home, which may never come. But it can also take an even more negative form of dissolution in the new society, and a complete erasure of the past. Some Syrian exiles among others do this. They quickly cultivate hostile, even racist, positions towards the newest refugees coming from their own country. This dissolution in a new society can never be a liberating experience. No one benefits from it, and it does not construct a general value. We do not become liberated if we consume a freedom that we did not labor for or risk. Rather this is an experience of dependency and servitude, not of freedom.
We exile exile positively by accepting its autonomy, and by attempting to widen the space of our movement and our partnership in its condition. It is always possible to engage with new partners and start new commitments for a different world.
Can the human change, as species and as all people? Get liberated and rise morally the way many people rise economically? Create new worlds that leave behind the times of discrimination and forceful civilizations, exceptionalist religions? Become more liberated, more just and respectful of others and of the living environment? Many reformers labored towards this and produced religions and philosophies and life styles. Those efforts triggered the largest waves of people that came out on the familiar, and changed the conditions of life for large human groupings. Not always towards more freedom, more equality and more respect, but definitely towards a temporal triumph of groups on themselves, which allows them to triumph over others. Their formative tradition may temporarily succeed in narrow arenas, but it fails in the long term. So far around the world, the reform movements that emerged carried latent cultural biases that worked on behalf of an ideology or people. Since reform (islah) today is not good form (salah) tomorrow, but can even be the source of tyranny and destruction in a way exemplified mostly by today’s Islamists, so are the groups that coalesce around calls of reform are rarely ever embodied in equal measure of good form. The more prevalent trend is that most of the members are weak dependents with limited good form and conform to the collective spirit decided by the ideology.
Most people accomplished their most significant work in confrontation with others. All national heroes are of that type: aggressors and criminals in the eyes of others. In modern times, some of the greatest scientific and technological works were produced through confrontations with nature and the living environment; what could be perceived today as grave crimes that threaten life itself, if not the very planet.
Across millennia, groups evolved disproportionally, oblivious of one another and with limited communication.
The major event is that we study the human in the diversity of cultures, societies, empires, worlds: that is, people living in groups preserving themselves and installing barriers to keep others away. This applies especially to rich and powerful groups. The richest and most powerful protect themselves from others, and control others. Often, both methods are practiced in concert. We control and isolate them, so as not to allow them to be like us or from us, we erect obstacles and shackle them so they do not become part of us. This is most obvious in the modern Capitalist West.
But today people know one another more than in earlier times, even if they are distributed in countries that are prisons in principle.
The natural good of the state and its first duty seems to be power, with its readiness for, and accumulation of, the tools of war. War begets the prison that isolates adversaries inside, and the exile that isolates them outside.
Are wars, prisons and exiles inevitably linked to man’s limitations or to her unequal evolution? No, they spring from her pursuit of distinction and sovereignty. The Spaniards did not need to go to war in the “New World” when they ”discovered” it some five hundred years ago. Nor did the British when they occupied India. Nor the Muslims when they expanded in the ancient world (and their jurists decreed that conversion to another religion is punishable by death.) Nor the Zionists when they came to Palestine. All these wars were for the sake of building Empires and states, with the logic of possession. Their purpose was neither to live with and know others, nor was it built on justice, freedom, equality or dignity.
Today the human world is at a crossroads. Either some of us work towards a flourishing present that is conservative and walled, while those outside disintegrate into barbarism; or we all engage in more international and humane solutions to human and international problems, from differences in scales of equality and freedom to environmental problems.
Modern man, particularly in the West, transformed forms of nature that surround her, changed her sociality and living patterns: set out for herself the task of changing the world. This remains an obligation, although it seems that it must pass through self-change, on images based on sovereignty and success, on expansionist freedom, that flourishes in the West, not on images such as cooperative freedom the likes of Marx and others dreamed of, nor, in our case, on distinctive images built on sharia, so that one becomes more just, and generous, becomes other, and numerous.
There is no fundamental obstacle against such development. Human actions are not programmed by a stable and unchanging “human nature.” The nature of man is in her actions. She produces habits, cultures, and religions, to give herself a nature. Cultures and religions are produced by our intelligence so that we can supply ourselves with a nature, and thereby to slightly curtail the development of the brain, and limit our fragmentation and anxieties of disorientation, as well as to reduce our freedom. Thus, we are not formally supplied with a nature that guides our behavior in the world according to a predetermined pattern. Behaving without a predetermined program can be uncertain and full of danger. Cultures are programs similar to computer software, and they supply us with a” nature” for we have none. We humans have history because we lack a nature that predetermines our actions. We need culture so that we can behave in specific ways, to become less free. We avert danger by averting freedom.
Our nature is added to us, it is not an innate program, but an acquired culture. Culture is historical. It is formed and changed in history, which enables us to say that history is the nature of man. We can posit that man is a historical project, discovering abilities and pathways in history, depending on what is available of tools and ideas, experiences and methods of habilitation.
It seems that the cultural trait (the plastic one) of our nature does not accept change. Yet culture is the domain of change. We cannot change the reality of having a nature that is independent of culture and history. But this is exactly what makes the transformation of the self always possible, and what makes culture, as a collection of what man produces to organize her life a labor of great vitality, and too important to be delegated solely to prophets and philosophers, to “intellectuals” and some “civilized” nations.
Cultures resist change in the name of an unchanging human nature that they have produced, and that they may have termed “innate”, as is the case in Islam. Humans get fixated on particular habits: Abdallah, Servus Dei, citizen of the state, the communist, liberal democrat, the American way of life…these are habits that resist alternative images of man, and work to conform with themselves.
Perhaps the idea that man lacks a fixed nature is one of the many fictions of man. Perhaps from the point of view of the goat, or the donkey, or the mulberry tree, man has a very fixed nature: she tends naturally to ride on the backs of others, on milking others, on slaughtering others, on eating others and enslaving others. Perhaps she is the only being that rides on and enslaves individuals from her own species. We call it culture, but perhaps it is nothing other than our nature from the perspective of the sheep. So-called” culture” is nothing but a collection of techniques and legitimations to do whatever we want.
But dear sheep, perhaps we need to legitimize that we have no nature. Nature does not justify itself, and does not search for legitimations.
The Act and Habit
If you smoke, you become a smoker, you write you become a writer, you lie you become a liar, you steal you become a thief, you kill you become a killer, you hate you become a hater, you practice racist you become a racist, sectarianism you become sectarian, etc.
You quit smoking, writing, killing, stealing, etc. you stop being a smoker, writer, killer, thief.
I do not steal because I am a thief, and I do not kill because I am a killer, and I don’t hate because I am a hater…had I been so, quitting would have been impossible.
In the beginning was the act as Goethe said. Man is formed by her acts. These acts are not pre-programmed. We can do, or not do. There are circumstances that weigh in on the endeavor to act, or not act, but circumstances can never force us into the same act in the same way every time and always. We may even come to our death and avoid it with a word or an act, indeed as if we are “programmed,” like all other beings, on self-preservation. One does not act on the same pattern in similar circumstances, if only because we learn from previous acts. Multiple individuals do not partake in the same act in the same circumstance. In the least man learns from her precedents and do not act in the same way in similar circumstances.
Man’s acts define who she is, which “program” she has. The program follows the act. Habits are action programs, acquired natures.
Man is free when the action breaks from habit, likewise freedom diminishes when habits are solidified into an unchanging nature. Non- habit becomes habit when repeated, so that no leftover freedom lingers, no added freedom.
We do what we can do. We steal because we can. But the Monalisa cannot smoke pot, nor can Socrates be shot dead, and Jamal Abdel Nasser’s emails cannot be hacked. These acts were historically possible even nonexistent at the time. Stealing can become historically extinct if a day comes when things are available to everyone, or if possessions that exclude others from participation become criminalized, instead of criminalizing the embezzlement from a hirz (safe and secure place) as Islamic jurisprudence defines stealing. Indeed, it never was prior to private property, which as socialist adage have it, is the first theft.
One becomes a hacker today, an act that was unavailable to Abu Sufyan, or a smoker which is not something Ibn Khaldun could do. I imagine that the conscience develops according to reflective acts such as self-critique of accountability, which requires a doubling up of the self, and the possibility of coming out on it and viewing it from outside. And the “mind” forms through acts of observation and comparison, learning and enculturation. Thus, we become through actions and we change through actions, and the primacy in comprehending individuals and societies is to examine the actions that are possible.
Freedom can thus be defined as the triumph of act over habit, widening the gamut of possible acts. Since possible acts are historically defined according to what is possible from the gamut of acts embodied in a technology and a culture, then there are acts that appear and others that become extinct. So, is there freedom in recollecting extinct acts? History shows that extinct-but-recollected acts transform into an art form or a sport, but not into a bulwark for innovation and the production of life in the present, that is a bulwark of freedom and vital enrichment.
Risk, Tragedy and Revolution
Freedom, as is apparent from the above, is not a situation or a system, it is an active position that tends to come out of any situation or system, or to come through in different ways, coming out on coming out. Freedom is contrary to settling into pattern, into stable conditions or “natures”; it is a rebelling on the familiar. It is not acquired by the lazy, nor by those who found their fathers “upon a creed” (Q 43:23) and so followed them.
All acts of freedom: coming out of home, coming out on the present, coming out on tradition, coming out of the self, coming out of religion… and coming out on coming out, all these are rebellious acts, always arduous, sometimes tragic. Man demands freedom and loses life.
Regimes of the self and society, along with regimes of movement in place and time, tend to harden in ways that are difficult to change, “predestined” ways bestowed with eternality and sanctity, or with rationality and effectiveness, with our human nature. Coming out of them is heresy for some, or an irrational act of rebellion. The homeys (the nationalists) may retaliate with deadly violence in defense of their settled ways.
Even when change is not violent, it would be tragic anyway, and culminates in the violation of the intimate and the warm, the severance of ties and a state of loss, and the death of many.
Is the matter worth it? Is freedom worth all this, even the destruction of life? This matter is a viewpoint. We have capacities to come out and to change that do not seem special to only some people, even if it took different social and historical forms. Is sovereignty the only form of freedom? Are the relations between freedom and destruction necessary, or is it a historical contingency? Can we work for freedom and for universal and environmental formations without destruction? I discussed in the first section that it is possible to imagine open homes, connected through a relation of hospitality, expanse, and cooperation. It is possible to imagine a coming out of the home where we meet strangers that we do not treat as adversaries. Rather, we do the opposite by dealing respectfully and with the aim of building partnerships. This is something we can invest in and work on. It is an international labor, not the work of a particular movement, or society, or culture. It is a choice without full guarantees of success, but it has potential to develop into powerful provisions. As long as it is possible for some people today it could be possible for more than some. Besides it is always desirable and wished for. Consequently, it deserves the effort every time.
In the world today, there is great variation in freedom. Some of it comes from expansion, war, prison and exile and the assumption that war, prison, expansion and exile are in the nature of politics, society, the human self. These originate with the prioritization of distinction and domination over equality and partnership. This “culture” of distinction and sovereignty perceives others exclusively as competitors and adversaries, not chiefly as complementary partners. In many cases the problem is that some discern the condition of their freedom in the radical deprivation of others of freedom. This is the case of the Palestinians facing the Israelis, and the case of Syrians facing the Assadis, as well as the case of many Syrians facing Islamists of divine authority (their own authority). This is the origins of tragedies, afflicting especially those that the Israelis, Assadis and Islamists have conceded against.
There is no alternative to risk, on coming out of those multiplied shackles. Multiplied because contrary to what has been discussed so far, these are shackles enforced by compulsion, not only by force of habit, the weight of tradition and the gravity of home and warmth. It’s not our human weaknesses or limitations that curtail our freedom, it is rather human malice, which is intimately tied to domination and racism. The price is terrible as Syrians know well.
Should we pay it? What is the alternative?
Freedom does not contrast death, what contrasts death is life. Freedom that equates itself with life and confronts death is not priceless as might seem at first sight. Rather it is the freedom that is presented as an easy offering to big gods: land, nation, and religion, party. These are false gods that do not deserve sacrifice. A life worth sacrificing is only to save another person, and for the life of another person. Freedom, as well, is the sacrifice for another person.
Specifically, the sacrifice for another person. I give my freedom, and my life, to a person, or to a living being, an earthly animal or plant, to a living environment, but not to those predatory monsters that are called land, religion, party, nation, sect, or God.
Sacrificing ourselves for a human or a living organism is a definition of freedom and a radical coming out of self-preservation. We possess freedom not so that we can monopolize it, but because we choose how to dispose of what is ours. The choice is another person’s freedom. I want my freedom for another’s freedom.
Freedom and Dignity
She who comes out and comes out on coming out, takes risks and is placed in the way of danger, expands her internal space and the radius of her movement, gets liberated, and develops an estimation of herself that could turn into selfishness and arrogance. Towards racism when it touches other societies. In societies with a widely developed sense of freedom, such as in the contemporary West, active racism has grown. However, one should say immediately that in more liberated societies, more active resistance to racism and new ways of thinking have also developed.
Perhaps this discriminatory type of freedom is embodied in the concept of sovereignty, referring to the state as a secular divinity (Carl Schmidt), or to the free Western, white male that was brought up by the Enlightenment of Kant and Hegel, or even earlier, this idea refers to the person as owner and master of nature, as Descartes formulated. This sovereignty was coupled with expansion and colonialism, with arrogance and lack of empathy.
Arrogance—whether of the individual, state or civilization—imprisons in what has already been achieved, her past; she is not free.
Individual arrogance remains limited in effect as long as individuals do not control the fates of others. The problem is in the arrogance of the possessor of power, be it individuals or groups, because they will see to keeping others in weaker positions in order to protect their arrogance. Hafiz al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar al-Qaddafi are examples of arrogant people imprisoned in their selves, and so have turned their countries into prisons. The problem is more prevalent in the arrogance that underlies collective cultural manifestations such as to be found in monotheistic religions and in modernity of today. With time, these manifestations ultimately turn into prisons. I think that modernity and its political formations, its ideal of the individual, its capitalist economy, maybe even its sciences, is the prison of today’s world, and narrowing in. As of today, it has stimulated rebellions that seem capable of proliferation and multiplication.
The most significant aspect of modernity today is intolerable arrogance, cynicism and disrespect of other societies and cultures, the planet and living environments. Modernity is arrogant: it achieved freedom for many, but the owners of modernity are highly compensated, and they still expect a respect that they do not feel they need to reciprocate with others.
Modernity produced the tools for its own destruction (and for the destruction of the planet) with nuclear weapons. The longer it persists the nearer we come to their use. The arrogance of modernity makes this use probable, if those weapons are not destroyed soon. Weapons of mass destruction are destined to be used in the way they were produced: for mass destruction.
The freedom of this modernity deteriorates into arrogance and domination because it is disrespectful: it is deprived of dignity. It is known that this modernity produced wide measures of humiliation and violence, of deceit and falsifications, in competitive measure with its discourse on rights and humans.
It is possible to think of alternative modalities of sovereignty that separate it from power and domination, and that are built instead on respect and service: the respect of others, and the linking of self-respect to the respect of others, the respect of nature and planet. The master serves not served. With this idea freedom links to generosity and humility, not to selfishness, distinction and power.
Dignity surpasses arrogance and sovereignty. Linking dignity to freedom provides solid objections to humiliation and degradation, negligence and worthlessness, distinction and discrimination, as the Syrian revolution has shown. This experience is generalizable in thought, as this text is attempting to do. Thus, just as there are no free men if there are enslaved men, there is no dignity for anyone if someone is humiliated and degraded.
The idea of open homes may seem utopian. In the twentieth century, with the inversion of communist utopia into a dystopia, into a nightmarish world wrested of freedom, a critique of utopia developed that yokes it to totalitarianism. Is it a necessary twining, or was it a historical contingency? I lean towards the second answer. The necessary relation is the one that links fundamentalist critiques of utopia to political, social, and international conservatism. The possible slide towards totalitarianism lies in thinking of only one home, where everyone scrutinizes everyone else, and all suffocate, instead of many homes, with people moving freely around. That one home for all was really the ideal of the communism of 20th century, and the source of its hostility to freedom.
A dynamic utopia is the conception of alternative spaces and futures. It bolsters the breaking out prisons, of home, of the present, of the nation, of religion and culture. It breathes life into our ideas and actions. This utopia does not turn into a prison unless it was enforced as the final and unchanging reality. The problem is not in the activity of generating utopias, but in enforcing an imagined future as the eternal present.
If we return to freedom’s first intuition, to coming out a step further, then utopia is that step, the added distance that we have not yet explored. It is the act of generating other situations for the individual and the group, for society and the world, in ways that we have not yet conceived. It is invented images, an imagination that creates new languages and new horizons of expression—acts of service and generosity that create a more just social relation. In any case, utopia is not a non-reality always identical to itself, but a movement of coming out, a mutiny against an existing reality. It is generally relative and this is why it is the liberational or transgressive dynamic in any given situation. As such, it is inseparable from its dynamic context. If it gets so separated for individual and group preferences, it would require a terrible violence to persist. This is the lesson of communism in the twentieth century. Ultimately, it will be the lesson of contemporary Islamism, as well as each call to change the world that separates itself from the changing world, and so simultaneously prohibits the world from change.
We can thus distinguish between an immanent utopia that bolsters the transformative efficacy of humans, where the imagined weaves into the achieved, and a transcendental utopia where the imagined is separated from the conditions and possibilities of actual life, and can only be achieved through extreme violence. Immanent utopia is a utopia in the world. It is our transformative act here and now, its topos is a horizon that we bring into being, even if we have not gone there yet. In contrast the topos of a transcendental utopia is abstract and generates violence.
We must change the world in the world, because the world is a universal good—for everyone: societies, groups, and individuals.
With deep disrespect to all states.
*Translated by Rana Issa. This article first appeared in the online Syrian journal, al-Jumhuriyya on March 25, 2016.