Freedom isn’t free

May 16,2018

A newly-married couple was driving down Mall Road in Murree. One of them was intermittently tossing skins of fruit out on the road. The other – knowing well the fallout of a direct...

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A newly-married couple was driving down Mall Road in Murree. One of them (the specifications regarding gender have intentionally been concealed) was intermittently tossing skins of fruit out on the road. The other – knowing well the fallout of a direct intervention on a nascent relationship on the one hand and feeling uneasy to ignore an anti-social activity on the other – jokingly asked the partner to chant ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ each time the skin was thrown out of the pane. It was apparently a kind of bizarre suggestion. But it was also, undoubtedly, a powerful reprimand.

Pakistan must be zindabad (live long) because it is the only country on earth that endures so much vandalism and barbarism in the name of social taboos; institutional prerogatives; and constitutional sanctity. Freedom in our country means a lifetime licence to use foul language, break the law, and abuse authority. Responsibility, which goes hand in hand with freedom in the civilised world, is conspicuous by its absence in all our individual and collective affairs.

This incongruence between freedom and responsibility is the product of a grand social narrative that people use to make sense of who they are, how they should behave, and how others should act in a given situation. This grand narrative reflects the beliefs, values and norms that people live by, and is unconsciously reinforced and transferred to the next generation.

In most Western countries, people learn to stand in queues at ticket booths and service centres through printed signs, authoritative messages, and informal admonitions. Over time, the rules, reminders and practices become socially and structurally embedded. People behave in a certain way even when formal authority is nowhere to be seen.

We have probably never bothered to develop our institutions and social structures. For instance, mosques, which have a key role in society, have been restricted to a narrower sense of the word ‘place of worship’. Barring a few exceptions, the Friday sermons rarely focus on the worldview of Islam; the role of Muslims in today’s globalised world; and the way forward for creating harmony between the text and the context.

The sermons typically begin and end with tough warnings of perdition for slight aberrations in matters of worship and highlight differences rather than similarities among various sects. The khateeb (speaker) rarely feels any obligation regarding what should and should not be said and how the sermon has to be delivered by keeping in view its broad-based and long-term impact.

There are some institutions that enjoy constitutional immunity against criticism and public scrutiny, with the presumption that they would have put in place their own robust systems for accountability. Good governance, inter alia, requires balancing competing interests and taking a holistic view of power distribution. In Pakistan, there is a tendency to use one’s autonomy to grab more power.

All this indicates that we are making a mockery of freedom at individual, societal and state levels. Everyone talks about protecting and promoting freedom as enshrined in the constitution. But no one bothers to give equal, if not more, importance to responsibility. There is no absolute freedom anywhere in the world.

Rights and obligations go together and are protected by an underlying social contract. The breach of this social contract manifests itself in rising crimes rates; dysfunctional institutions; and fragmented societies. Parents, teachers, the civil society and policymakers need to make a conscious effort at all levels to redefine freedom in the context of rule of law, accountability, and our obligation towards others.

The writer teaches at the Sarhad University and is the director of ORIC.

Email: zebkhan.basuit.


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