Tag Archives: Freedom

Oh When We Were Free: An Ode to Freedom of Thought

Freedom, Ann Fogarty

Oh when we were free
to let our thoughts roam
– throw certainty to sea
and plant musings in the mind’s loam.

Oh when we had liberty,
when we had not knotted tongues
to declare the lies of authority
that beat the air from our tired lungs.
 
Oh when we shunned banality,
when our brains were more than cells,
holding the prisoner of rationality
in nine circles of Dante’s Hell.
 
Oh, when fetters of fire failed to bind
– the heretic’s truth, under boot and fist.
When the marching orders from the mind
blasphemed bravely: Resist.

Yet unto liberation, powerless we are not,
for ours are first the fetters
and ours are first the knots.
Ours is first the apathy
that our certainty begot.

So victorious must we emerge from this internal war,
before our minds are truly free to wander once more.
 

Raees Noorbhai

Rebellion is a fire, sparked by the friction between a freedom which dwells deep within us, and a world which abhors it. This poem is an ode to that internal freedom – and a recognition of our power to suffocate it for fear of burning our hands. It is a song of longing, superimposed upon the passage of time, expressed in the language of nostalgia. Nostalgia for a past that perhaps never did exist, but nostalgia nonetheless. It is that internal freedom’s cry of loss, against a world in which conformist society and zealous authorities, religious or otherwise, deem it criminal to think for yourself. In the final stanzas, the poem morphs into a plea to abandon dogma, and embrace the liberating uncertainties of our existence. It becomes an appeal to seize the future and fashion it in the likeness of this idealized past – a past in which we were free. Free to champion heresies. Free to flirt with blasphemy. Free to fearlessly tell our truth. 

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Suspension has Ended: Revolution is Returning

wits protest

The fierce urgency of now. This was the phrase, coined by Martin Luther King Jr., that I scribbled onto a piece of paper on Friday afternoon, while camped in solidarity inside an occupied Senate House. Surrounding me were scores of students – sisters, brothers, comrades, the dispossessed and their allies – sitting in the nucleus of a movement that was in its third day of a successful shut down of Wits University. A few meters before me was the student leadership, donning the shirts of parties accustomed to rivalry between themselves, negotiating with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib. Habib had suggested he leave Senate House to convene with council and was met with thunderous objection from the crowd gathered. Eventually, the people decreed that they would not wait – council would meet that day, in Senate House, in full view of the students whose lives were impacted by their decisions. No closed doors. No secrets. Direct accountability. Habib agreed. At that moment, Dr King’s declaration echoed in my mind: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”. We were indeed confronted with the fierce urgency of now – and it was glorious.

This departure from the lethargic politics of bureaucracy and delay was invigorating. Inside the dimly lit, vast chamber of Senate House, we were a revolutionary collective. Although student leaders (crucially, female leaders who were pushed out of the spotlight too often) spearheaded the movement, they were aware of their role as a proxy for the people. They stood on the shoulders of the students, and weren’t allowed to forget that without popular support, they could not stand up to the powers that be. Every decision, down to the organisation of food, was ratified by popular consensus. The spirit of democracy danced among us. A healthy suspicion of authority sat in our ranks. Hierarchy slowly dissolved in the acid of persistent mockery, directed towards power structures and their petty manifestations. Inside our contingent collective, the vice-chancellor wasn’t afforded his title. Civility remained, but decorum was discarded. We refused to engage in the fruitless spectacle of ceremonial flattery and political theatre. In contrast to the town hall meetings hosted by political representatives, where citizens queue for the opportunity to ask a question of an aggrandised figurehead, the engagement with Habib did not give him much leeway to engage in tactics of diversion and duplicity. Although he was not being held against his will, he was under pressure to engage with students possessed by an uncompromising political will. The ordinary, impotent mode of discourse had been turned on its head.

The Senate House I sat in was radically different from the one I’ve walked into countless times before. Of course, it was materially indiscernible – the same brown and blue university banners hanging from beams spanning the high ceilings, the same concrete pillars climbing to the skies, the same set of converging stairs rising like a peculiar altar from the polished floor and descending into a crypt below. However, the first time I walked into that foyer of the executive, the fumes that clung to the walls of my nostrils were those of polish from the gleaming floors. On Friday evening, it was the choking stench of pepper spray. The space had changed.

It was not just the halls of Senate House that had transformed. During the three day peaceful occupation of the university, it was all too apparent that business as usual had ceased. Some areas of campus were left almost eerily deserted; others were filled with the vibrant energy of rhythmic protest. Seeing the university in this radically different light is, if I may be so bold, a variation of Camus’s Absurd, spawning a peculiarly pleasant kind of Sartrean Nausea. The buildings on campus ordinarily wear the garment of the Institution. The occupation disrobed it. It divorced the space from the veneer of authority and the presumptions of power which usually pervade it. It illuminated our agency to radically redefine it. The realisation of radical freedom may be existentially unsettling, but it is politically liberating. Looking upon an institution that has departed starkly from its usual character, an aura of anarchism meets the eye: the university is not inherently imbued with any indomitable hierarchy, nor is the society which surrounds it structured in a manner that is unchangeable. Its people have no concrete, pre-ordained telos. We are the agents who define the essence that existence precedes. This movement is the product of a generation’s realisation of its own power. And, when we stand together, worker and student hand-in-hand, powerful we are indeed.

Later on Friday evening, while the pepper spray dissipated in the packed halls of Senate House, key members of the council convened. Feverish negotiation followed, stretching deep into the night.  As the sun was only just beginning to peer out from beyond the horizon the next morning, an interim agreement was signed: the decision to raise fees will be suspended, no students or workers who participated in the protests will face punitive measures and crucially, the university will not be at liberty to revert to its original position if negotiations break down. In a vindication of protest tactics, the students had emerged with a clear path towards victory. Those perched atop their privilege, who spent much of last week trying to justify their inaction or opposition by cynically criticising the occupation, were forced to face the concrete results those tactics had produced. In our hands, we held a declaration of our own power – a testament to the strength of our political will.

The Student Awakening is spreading. As sparks from the fire raging at Wits find kindling at UCT, Rhodes University, and the others that will most certainly follow, it’s clear that our generation is shedding its image as the one born outside of Apartheid and inside of Apathy. As we move forward today to hear from council, we are mindful of the fact that our struggle will not end here. The decision to raise fees was not taken in a vacuum, but rather in a climate of marginalisation, commercialisation and dispossession that has excluded the poor for too long. It was the flashpoint, the prelude to a paradigm shift that must occur. Reasons to resist have not evaporated: from the exploitation of outsourced workers, to wealth inequality that is staggeringly high; from dwindling government subsidies, to the fact that even without increases, fees remain too high for too many. Struggle, therefore, should not cease. No longer can we allow our universities to perpetuate a status quo they ought to challenge. If we conserve this momentum, we can become the custodians of a force Victor Hugo deemed indomitable: an idea whose time has come. South Africa’s students have awoken, and we’re ending the suspension of its revolution.

Release Raif: Letter to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

Je Suis Raif: a variation of the popular Je Suis Charlie hashtag which emerged in solidarity following the tragic shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, underlining the importance of protecting free speech, wherever it is under attack.

In 2012, Raif Badawi was arrested in Saudi Arabia on charges of “insulting Islam over electronic channels”, after he created the Free Saudi Liberals blog – an online forum for political and social debate. He was subsequently tried for apostasy and for criticizing the ultraconservative religious establishment. Eventually, Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison, as well as 1000 lashes, which the Saudi authorities began ruthlessly administering last week Friday. Yesterday, Raif’s flogging was postponed after doctors determined he hadn’t healed from last week’s brutal 50-lash public beating. Badawi’s wife also reports that King Abdullah has now referred Raif’s case to the Saudi Supreme Court, prompting some cautious optimism that the Kingdom may respond to international outrage over the mockery of justice this case has come to represent.

To all who exercise the right to free speech, who believe in freedom of conscience and who recognize the internet as a platform from which citizens can speak truth to power: We are Raif Badawi. If he is a criminal, then we all are. Yet, it is not we who have been beaten while standing shackled before a mob of onlookers under the midday Jeddah sun. Raif endures torture, incarceration and humiliation for a right we all too often take for granted. It is our moral imperative, as writers, as bloggers, as activists and above all else, as fellow human beings, to raise our voices and demand his freedom.

I therefore joined scores of people worldwide, many prompted by Amnesty International, who wrote to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia demanding Raif Badawi’s immediate and unconditional release. My letter, which was also faxed (yes, they do still exist) to a contact number provided by Amnesty, is now creeping up the spine of Africa, trudging along from Johannesburg to Riyadh at the speed of the postal service. It is reproduced below:

 

His Majesty King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques

Office of His Majesty the King

Royal Court

Riyadh

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

 

Your Majesty

Raif Badawi is no criminal. By creating a website to enable debate, he is guilty only of exercising his inalienable right to free speech. Yet he has been arrested, detained and threatened with execution by arms of the state over which you rule as Absolute Monarch. This past Friday, mere days after condemning the attack against the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, your state began flogging Mr Badawi in public – a punishment which is tantamount to torture and is deeply incongruent with international human rights law. Is it not hypocrisy to condemn those who attack free speech abroad while brutally suppressing free expression at home?

Mr Badawi has been prosecuted and persecuted on the basis of his beliefs alone and hence is a prisoner of conscience. Liberalism is no crime, regardless of one’s political standing – and is regarded as such only by those so obsessed with control that they seek to dictate the thoughts of the populace. The concept of the thoughtcrime belongs to the domain of totalitarianism. Dissent and debate, as encouraged by Raif Badawi, are necessary components of a free, thinking society and the inability to tolerate it is the hallmark of weak leadership.

Your marginal reforms have been coupled with a vicious crackdown on civil liberties, free speech and fundamental human rights. Mr Badawi’s case exemplifies your state’s wanton disregard for due process and a fair trial, as well as its willingness to use draconian punishments and public execution as instruments of intimidation and control. Seeking the death penalty for apostasy is among the most egregious assaults on freedom of conscience in a world which knows them all too well.

Mr Badawi has denied allegations of apostasy. Notwithstanding his innocence, does not the Quran state that there shall be no compulsion in religion? A theocracy designating apostasy as a crime is akin to a secular dictatorship criminalizing conversion to Islam. One cannot condemn the latter without condemning the former. As a member of the UN’s human rights council, Saudi Arabia is obliged to uphold the fundamental liberties, like freedom of speech and conscience, it so often tramples upon.

I therefore add mine to the cacophony of voices across the globe demanding Raif Badawi’s immediate and unconditional release, as well as the dropping of all charges against him, including those for apostasy. I also urge the Saudi Arabian government to end its use of corporal punishment and cease lashing Mr Badawi in contravention of human rights law.

We will continue to raise our voices until Raif Badawi and other prisoners of conscience like him are free, until beheadings and public executions are filed away into the dark corners of history’s library and until the citizens of all countries have the right to speak truth to power. Jailing Raif Badawi did not weaken his cause – it strengthened it. By persecuting him, your government vindicated criticism of its corruption and brutal authoritarianism.

Amidst the storm of condemnation following last week’s flogging, the message being sent to the Saudi Arabian government, which I shall echo, is clear: the world is watching – and will not stand by in silence while a blogger is tortured and jailed for his beliefs. In order to definitively distance itself from extremism, Saudi Arabia must abandon its bloody, authoritarian version of political Islam which has done nothing but suppress its people and legitimize the extremist brutality of terrorism. It must show a commitment to the values and liberties which the extremists abhor. It must release Raif Badawi.

As the Absolute Monarch, you have the authority to overturn this injustice and return freedom to a man who never deserved to have it taken away. I can only hope that you do.

Yours sincerely

Raees Noorbhai

A Treason Of Reason: A Poem on Freedom of Thought

Giordano_Bruno_Infinity

Famed martyr of free thought Giordano Bruno

A Treason of Reason

Starved is intellect in society

where none thinks but all know-

a mindless mantra of archaic ideas

in these great chambers of echo

 

Rampant runs a hapless

homogeneity of thought,

as freedom morphs into a conception

by few grasped; by all sought

 

They wear no chains,

but still are weighed down

For theirs are the shackles they bear

by which they are confined and bound

 

To ponder, to wonder,

to question, to reason-

Deemed by the state of

the auto-oppressed mind

as unspeakable treason

 

Now echoes the clatter of shattering  shackles

An end to this cycle of slave-like reliance

as sustained sedition

confronts this witless compliance

 

Embrace the Insurrection.

 

Raees Noorbhai

Freedom Fighter, Founding Father: A Poem in Honour of Nelson Mandela

Image

Into An African Eternity

Sorrow

Ingrained within human hearts,

It seems only the mourning of dead

has secured the guarantee of perpetual life.

 

Yet, there is a difference in greatness

for an idea is but invincible:

No shackles too heavy,

No bars can contain its boundless hope

Mortality is but an illusion

For the body which houses

the immortal ideal.

 

He is not gone

but rather lingers on

In the rebellious mind,

in the revolutionary spirit, 

in the forgiving heart.

Burning down barriers,

then building bridges.

Raising clenched fists,

then embracing with open arms.

 

He now watches over a nation proud

liberated

united and empowered

forever grateful-

to our troublemaker,

our freedom fighter,

our founding father:

Nelson Mandela

Mayibuye!