Liberty in society

March 18th, 2014 by admin Categories: Opinion, Other No Responses

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published as “Expounding values and principles” in The Star 18 March 2014

I arrived in Istanbul last Sunday to attend the annual conference organised by the Istanbul Network for Liberty. The Network consists of individuals from around the world who are interested in expounding the principles of a free society from within Muslim history and culture.

I am now Vice President of this global network. I still remember the early conversations about setting up this network with many others who are now the Network’s Board members. The Network certainly has progressed a lot since inception.

This is our third annual conference and this time we are exploring “Values and Institutions of a Free Society in Mainly Muslim Countries.”

Immediately before coming to Istanbul, I spent five days in the beautiful Mediterranean city of Antalya, in the sothwestern part of Turkey. It was my first time in Antalya so I took the opportunity to visit some of its tourist attractions.

The older part of the city is called Kaleici. If you visit Antalya, you must visit this area. The small and winding roads make for a good walk. You can take a short cruise around the coast from the marina. And the shops sell all sorts of souvenirs. But be careful when dealing with some of the shopkeepers. Their hardsell tactic put me off somewhat.

Another must-visit site is Mount Tahtali, which is about one hour drive from Antalya. The drive itself was very nice, crossing through several towns with beautiful views of the sea and surrounding mountains.

The highlight for me was the cable car ride to the top of Mount Tahtali. It took just 15 minutes to climb up the 2365 metres. But don’t be deceived by the short time on the cable car. At more than four kilometres long, this track is actually the second longest cable car track in the world.

At the top, the view is breathtaking. The steep change from sea to mountain range creates a scene that is difficult to describe with words. You need to view it to appreciate it.

I did not have that enough time to explore more of Antalya. The real reason for my trip was to attend a group discussion organised by Liberty Fund on “Liberty as an Islamic Value” with 13 other delegates from Palestine, Morocco, the USA, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Of the many events that I attend over the years, Liberty Fund colloquiums are among my favourite. The organiser sends a selection of texts to be read prior to the meeting, and the discussions at the meeting are guided by these texts. But you don’t have to just talk about the texts. They are there as a guide. You are free to raise points, challenge others, and ask questions on anything that come to mind surrounding the topic.

The conversations in a Liberty Fund colloquium would easily fall into what British philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls “unrehearsed intellectual adventure”. I have been to three Liberty Fund colloquiums so far, and, I learnt tremendously from every single one.

This time round the topic is certainly relevant to situation in Malaysia today. In the six sessions, we discussed about liberty and politics, religion and liberty, the free market, and the relationship between religion, toleration and society.

When reading and discussing Al-Ghazali’s essay entitled “On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam”, I realised that the debate between progressive and orthodox Muslims is not just something that we see today. It has been going on for hundreds of years. But the tactics are remarkably similar, in that when there is disagreement, the different sides would resort to labelling the “other” as unIslamic or deviant.

When discussing John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, I can see clearly that the holier-than-thou attidue is not exclusive to Muslims. The Letter was published in 1689 and Locke was commenting about the Christian community he was living in, calling for toleration in the quest for peaceful coexistence.

At this meeting, I also discovered authors whose writings I have not come across before.

Namik Kemal lived between 1840 and 1888 in Turkey, and he was known as a leading advocate of constitutionalism. His analysis on the types of reform needed if the the Muslim world were to catch up with modernity is just as applicable today as it was more than a century ago.

Similarly, Khayruddin Al-Tunisi is another interesting figure who lived between 1822 and 1890. His analysis too is just as relevant today as it was in the 1800s. He reminded Muslims that wisdom can come from any sources and should be picked up regardless of its origin.

In fact, he wrote in his book “The Surest Path” that the two pillars needed for a successful administrative reform are liberty and justice. When writing about liberty and justice, he said “both of which have sources in our Holy Law” and “It is well known that these two are the prerequisites for strength and soundness in all kingdoms”.

That section of Al-Tunisi’s book immediately reminded me of our own Proclamation of Independence that was read by Almarhum Tunku Abdul Rahman which says that our country will “forever be an independent and sovereign State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice”. These liberal leaders may be living in different times, but they clearly resonate each other.

With such tolerant liberal ideas being so widespread in our society at one time, I wonder what actually happened to our society that caused the change that we see today?

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)

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