A more nuanced understanding of what makes some of us thinkers and others believers can help us comprehend the shifty and contentious debate of freedom, and freedom of expression
Do you know what I know? Do I know what you know?
I don’t know what you know as you don’t know what I know
But if you know, what I know; then you know what I know!
(‘You Never Know’, Faith Under Siege, 1997)
Humans can be divided into three categories based on the way we tend to use our mind, or shy from such adventure: those who believe; those who think; and those who waver between the two.
All of us are not born believers or thinkers. So the question is what makes some of us thinkers and others believers? And how a more nuanced understanding of our ‘manufacturing process’ can help us comprehend the shifty and contentious debate of freedom, and freedom of expression.
Whether we believe in our origin from the divine exile of Adam and Eve from heavens, or see ourselves having evolved out of Darwin’s monkey business or assume we coolly sparked off from a post big bang cooling down of earth, one sure thing is we started walking this planet with little knowledge of us and around us.
The flipside of this coin of low or no knowledge was fear of the unknown. After accidental interfaces with fear, we learnt to overcome and avoid some of them through trial, error and grit. To deal with the rest, more formidable spheres and sources (like death), human mind evolved belief systems. As thinking minds confronted the huge unknown with little knowledge, they tried to fill the gaps with intuitive speculation. And as intuitive speculation met reductive articulation of the unknowable, it generated the illusion that the vast unknown was deftly captured, and religion was born.
Parallel to that relatively safe and arguably good-intentioned venture of tackling the unknown to lessen the collective fear, some adventurous fellows, wondering at the formidable unknown, invoked different and daring routes -- of asking questions and making inroads into the unknown. Consequently, the quest to know more by questioning and seeking squeezed the domain of belief and new spheres of the known started emerging, albeit very gradually.
Like a slow stroll from darkness to dense fog to low visibility.
Here, two points are pertinent. Both belief systems and scientific discoveries have resulted from the flutter of thinking minds. And, the difference between historical shaping of religion and science is the number of persons in respective realms allowed to raise and answer questions.
In belief systems, a few people raised questions, found answers via intuition, revelation or speculation, and millions followed finding the formers’ articulations convincing and convenient. In a-religious traditions of discovery, many raised questions, found interim answers, which were refuted or corrected by them or their peers, or were affirmed with ‘till it gets refuted’ stance, and a walk to more visibility continued.
That takes us to the main point, i.e., raising questions has been fundamental to human progress. But here comes the thorny question of who can question, and how did those who question get the ‘freedom’ to do that?
To remind, what is freedom and how it occurs. Freedom as a generic expression denotes the power or right to do as one wants. Freedom of expression is a small but more prominent part of the freedom complex.
In old times, a few had power to exercise freedom to ‘do as they want’. Their power sprung from brute force to fend off the consequence of exercising their will, in speech or action. In such times, none of those who did not have brute force had any normative claim to freedom. As we socially grew more organised, we invented instrument and institution of law, and right to (some) freedom ensued.
Historically, everywhere, the right of freedom has been nominal and aspirational; quite like the Chapter 2 of Pakistani constitution where delivery of a dozen rights (Articles 29-40) is subject to the availability of resources. Like millions of marginalised Pakistanis who do not get a whiff of these rights, very few of us have power to do or say what we want. There are billions of claimants of normative rights of freedom and freedom of expression; and all governments seem to be saying, subject to the availability of …!
In my view, freedom to question is more critical than the vague notion of freedom of expression. History tells us that whenever freedom was exercised, it was met with resistance, mostly ruthlessly. But, when it was negotiated between the thinking and believing binaries, it was not only gradually won but, in most cases, it was earnestly guarded by those who allowed it.
The apple of discord in the freedom to express is a sense of threat and loss by those who hold power from those who hold to its normative claim. There are some thinking fellows in the majority group of ‘believers’ who clearly see that free-for-all ‘freedom to question’ will eventually reduce their power and associated material benefits. So they find it convenient to bleed whoever incidentally or accidentally exercises the non-negotiated freedom.
This is not limited to religions alone. It happens when any powerful entity ‘wants’ the continuity of status quo, and wrong persons start raising the right questions.
So where do we go from here then?
On both sides of believers and thinkers, there are thinking minorities that matter. They need to invent and envisage affable ways to negotiate intergroup and intragroup spaces to exercise negotiated freedom without bleeding either those who ‘think’ or those who ‘believe’.
Among the believers, we have wide varieties in what they believe, and how fiercely or lightly they do so. Out of 7 billion people, the folks who "do not believe" outnumber both Christians and Muslims. Then, over half of the people ‘believe’ (read follow) in the occult: in one or another form. Many of these include the religious believers. But none of these ‘superstitious’ folks go out and bleed the ‘true believers’ who question the former’s ‘superstition’.
Freedom is like oxygen in the air. We inhale air and sift oxygen by using our lungs. The level of oxygen and the degree of its purity vary within a city. We find it more in a park, and less around a waste dump. During the cold war era with less tolerance for dissent, London’s Hyde Park was envied as a space where anyone could go banter about anything, and would not be arrested or silenced. We need such spaces both in Pakistan and in Islam where there is more oxygen and dissent can breathe.
The bantering in Hyde Park, much like this piece, is a humane way of staying in a certain state of belief but also poking the believers to get them to try thinking and breathing.
Those who think on behalf of the believers need to realise that freedom of expression is a metal which expands with beating. And questioning is like a micro form of life that gets multiplied with each attempt to kill it. The only way to ‘kill’ a question is to answer it. Human quest to learn, explore and expand the realm of the known is as palpable as the gravitational pull. It won’t change.
With increased channels to know and virtual spaces to question, the kingdom of believers, cemented with fear and held together by deterrence, is cracking. The thinking folks are also the angry folks, and of not much help in negotiating a common ground where believers and thinker can play. The game is on for banterers for a playful expansion of the Hyde Parks.