In the works of philosophers and historians and in the minds of ordinary people, there have been, down the ages, many different conceptions of what freedom actually means. They have not agreed on whether it is a moral ideal or a romantic aspiration, a political posture (propaganda) or a set of rights and duties expressible in legal terms.
At the present time, and for the vast majority of people world-wide, freedom is associated with a particular personal life-style. And the life-style they think of as ‘free’ is imaged in the norms and manners that evolved over the last hundred years or so in Western societies and were vigorously exported by them to all other societies. During this period, almost all movements for freedom throughout the world have focused on economic and political rights, sometimes mixed up with nationalist aspirations, but always insisting upon a rejection of the norms and values of the past. Especially in Muslim countries, the ideologues of these movements have accused religion, and the traditional values associated with it, of preventing freedom of thought and impeding the march of ‘progress’.
There has been an exceptionally fierce hostility among those ideologues - after all, they were consciously importing foreign values - to their own cultural past. Because of that hostility, they were uncritical not only in approving the values they sought to import but also in their attitudes to their own history. They often falsified their own cultural past, denying its values and genuine achievements, in order to be able to condemn and reject it outright. Outright rejection is always easier than careful thought, than painstakingly and patiently conceived reform. The result has been that Muslim societies have gained very little from these freedom movements and lost a very great deal.
The ground of this failure, and it needs to be admitted as a failure, is the narrow kind of ‘progress’ which freedom from the authority of religion is alleged to secure. Progress is defined in crudely material terms as economic prosperity for whose sake (and not for other reasons) certain political freedoms are deemed desirable or necessary. Economic issues are given so much prominence in collective life that collective life is reduced to economic relationships alone. Man is seen and presented merely as homo economicus, a producing and consuming animal. Literature and, more powerfully, film and television images have been used to propagate that view, and to spread, rather than its virtues, the vices of modern civilisation. The reach of those images, given the sheer scale and power of modern communications, touches all societies and persons and all places - private bedrooms as well as the more shared family space of living-rooms and kitchens. It is hard for the mass of ordinary people to escape from this invasion. Its consequence is to distract people from who and what they are, to separate them from each other, to alienate them from themselves.
By means of this media invasion of private dwellings and public cultural space, and also by means of the educational systems and curricula imposed in Muslim countries, the minds of the people have been emptied of what they used to know and care about. Their minds have been preoccupied instead with what is trivial and irrelevant. We find them showing interest in, even concern for, private goings-on in the lives of far-off individuals made international celebrities by the media, while they are quite ignorant and unconcerned about the conditions of their local and national community, their neighbours, sometimes even other members of their own family. They have been turned into a sort of cultural orphans and therefore weakened. And in that weakness it is easier for them to copy blindly whatever is represented to them as ‘modern’ than to question it. It is easier for them to imitate a life-style represented as ‘progressive’ and ‘free’ than to ask if it is truly progressive, truly free. They have become so infatuated with it that it is hard to see how they can adopt a serious, reflective attitude as befits free human beings, in the true sense of the word ‘free’.
The fashions and crazes that nowadays infatuate the mass of people in almost all societies have undermined the values and traditions which both distinguished them as human societies and gave them their cohesion and identity. Whereas, in the past, perennial values taught or inspired by religion guided their behaviour, people now allow themselves to be guided by adolescent fantasies, transient desires, childish impulsiveness. Whereas, in the past, they confessed to religious belief and felt concerned about the meaning and purpose of their lives, they now confess to uncertainty or atheism, to cynicism or indifference, some even pretend to welcome aimlessness and lack of meaning.
Since man has been represented in modern civilization as merely a composition of flesh and bones certain to decompose and perish eternally, only the pleasures of flesh and bones are considered worthy of concern, and nothing much matters except to have the means to indulge those pleasures.
But this representation of man is false; spiritual needs and the longing for eternity are a reality, the reality that defines us as human. Denial of that reality leads to a sickness in the very being of man, which has consequences for the whole pattern of his living. If an individual came to believe that he had only one leg and used only that one, the muscles in his other leg would atrophy and its sickness would affect the strong leg until, tired of hopping, he would fall down helpless. In the same way, many people, deprived of nourishment for their spiritual needs and suffering the artificially stimulated stresses of modem civilization, fall helplessly into the self-disgust of intoxication, drug- abuse and other crimes. Some do so from their early youth, in the pathetic hope of escaping from meaninglessness into excitement. But such excitement is, alas, more poison feeding the disease, at best a temporary abatement of the pain and certainly not a cure.
Sexual excitement in particular has been given more prominence in the public domain in modern societies than at any time in history. There is so much of it in advertising that one would suppose that nothing could be sold without a reference to it. The incessant incitement to sexuality is such that even the most disciplined persons are at times troubled by it, and the less disciplined tempted into thoughts or actions that lead to misery and remorse. It was once claimed, according to a simple version of Freud’s theory of sexuality, that all the achievements of human culture are really the result of frustration or sublimation of the sexual instinct. But that particular nonsense is not the reason why advertisers devote so much of their material to sexual imagery or innuendo. They do so for another reason. During adolescence, awakening of sexuality is a part of the process by which an individual realizes his separateness from his parents and is biologically prepared to function as a potential parent. The social side of the same preparation is through the individual’s experience of family life as a dependent, followed by the disciplines and responsibilities of marriage. Civilized within the social bonds of wedlock, the sexual instinct is married to affection and mutual responsibility between husband and wife, and then to affection and mutual responsibility for their children. Outside of wedlock, sexuality is bound to selfhood and intensifies selfish competitiveness, a
brutal lust to gratify one’s own needs regardless of any consequences to others. In that state of intense selfish desire, the individual is weak and vulnerable: the seductive illusion propagated by the advertisers is that by purchasing such and such a product one will be nearer to gratifying that selfish desire. Thereafter, as we know, people who are seduced by advertising of this kind, buy again and again, always to no avail. Sales go up, and so does stress associated with frustration and repeated failure. The more ‘modern a society has become, the more exaggerated the condition of adolescence among its population - notably, there is more aggressive and more prolonged rejection of parents, more ‘youthful rebellion’ - also the highest increase in violent crimes against persons and property, alongside collapse of the institution of the family.
It is surely an outrage against reason to give to this life-style-one that urges irresponsibility and selfish indulgence of animal appetites - the name of freedom. How can an ethos which exaggerates and exploits human weakness be said to enhance and improve one’s life choices? A rich person continually struggling to satisfy expensive appetites is no more ‘free’ than a poor man struggling to satisfy his hunger - the poor one at least has the dignity of a good reason for his stress. It is ironic that in the societies most dedicated to consumerism, people are not attached to their goods for long; because they buy regardless of need, they do not keep what they buy but discard it and replace with a new purchase. In effect they enjoy no better security with their goods than the poorest nomads who own very little. Again, the nomads have the dignity of owning only what they need and can transport easily and what, like all of us (whatever our level of ‘civilization’) they must forsake when they die.
Pollution of the environment is human folly on a grand scale. Because of that scale its consequences take a long time to emerge and are then very grave. In the same way, freedom as it is currently being promoted is a huge folly whose long-term consequences are very grave. Many societies, as we noted, are already suffering from seemingly irreversible increases in violent crime. This is a consequence of educating people to indulge selfish impulses. The sense of community, of belonging to a family and a locale, has been eroded. Where people do not feel they belong, mutual responsibility and caring disappears from their relationships, emotional or social or political or economic. This puts a great burden on the task of regulating the way people live together. If families do not care for their young, the state must do so; if the people will not voluntarily comply with the laws of their community, the laws must be enforced at vastly greater expense. In those Western cities which can afford to use such devices, the urban centres are peppered with closed-circuit television cameras designed to deter would-be offenders and to assure non-offenders that they may do their shopping or other business without fear of molestation.
Is this the goal towards which the unthinking reformers and champions of Western-style freedom will lead the people of the Islamic world? Are Muslims too going to succumb to the degradation of widespread abuse of intoxicants and excessive levels of crime? And if they are, what are they going to get for paying so high a price? A freedom that means letting people do whatever they wish, moment by moment, to gratify their animal impulses? A freedom that brings with it the diseases that flow from emotional and psychological stress and over-indulgence? A freedom that brings with it the crippling disability of unbelief, the emptiness and dread of having no relation with ultimacy and meaning, no relation with God, and the utter disorientation of values so that people will ardently champion animal rights while despising devotion to God, self-discipline and moral virtue? If this concept of freedom should prevail, it means that ever more individuals will lapse into criminality and abuse of themselves and others, while social political instability within and between societies will become impossibly difficult to contain. It need not do so. The other way of freedom is always open; the way that recognizes and affirms human liability and responsibility before God.
True freedom means that the human spirit does not reject noble feelings and aspirations as the illusions of the past, that it does reject enslavement selfish appetites in favour of to those forms of service, most particularly service of others and of God, which enable the spirit to transcend self- hood. True freedom is disciplined freedom. It wears the diamond chain of religion and morals and the golden collar of sound thinking. True freedom is to declare to man that he is free to do whatever he wants, provided that he does no harm to himself, bodily or spiritual, and none to others. True freedom, the freedom of moral responsibility, is the distinguishing mark of being human; it motivates and enlivens the conscience, and moves aside impediments to the spirit. It acknowledges religious belief and feelings, and is the ground for virtue, wisdom and understanding.
Many an individual, actually imprisoned or in chains, is free in conscience and never feels captivity. Many another, despite the grand spaces of palaces and gardens, does not taste the true meaning of freedom. The freedom to be a powerfully capable animal is in fact to chain the human spirit. True freedom consists in putting chains on animal desires while letting the spirit and mind free to enable man to fly in the infinite space of the spirit on the wings of belief, morality and knowledge and spiritual contentment.