by Claire Chambers
Nine days after 9/11, on 20 September 2001, President George W. Bush responded to the World Trade Centre attacks by addressing a joint session of Congress. He lamented that in the space of a 'single day' the country had been changed irrevocably, its people 'awakened to danger and called to defend freedom'. Out of the painful deaths of almost 3000 people germinates anger and a drive for retribution. The attackers, whom Bush terms 'enemies of freedom', are apparently motivated by envy as well as hatred:
They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
In this passage alone, there are four instances of 'freedom', and in the approximately 3,000-word-long speech from which it is taken, 'freedom' is invoked 13 times.
Given that the speech was a major statement of Bush's intent following the wound of 9/11 and that the US government uses the name 'Operation Enduring Freedom' to describe its War on Terrorism, it is clear that freedom is a crucial concept to the US and its allies. This is unsurprising, since the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island off the coast of New York City has long served as a symbol of freedom and the vaunted American myth of social mobility. But what does freedom consist of and is it a universal value? In other words, does everyone – men and women, and people from different classes, races, or religious backgrounds – experience it in the same way?
In 2014, Bangladeshi-origin writer Zia Haider Rahman published his fascinating and very male debut novel In the Light of What We Know. The book deals in part with 9/11 and its aftermath. One of Rahman's two main protagonists, Zafar, works in Afghanistan soon after the outbreak of war in 2001. He avers that the American occupiers 'justify their invasion of Afghanistan with platitudes about freedom and liberating the Afghani people'. Having studied law and worked for a US bank, Zafar is in some ways part of the American 'relief effort'. And yet he is simultaneously not part of it, due to his Bangladeshi background and brown skin. Because of this, coupled with his working-class origins, he sees through the rhetoric of freedom as platitudinous.
Later, Rahman's Zafar describes a raucous, sexually charged UN bar in Kabul, concluding, 'It was a scene of horror. This is the freedom for which war is waged'. Here he unpicks what the Americans mean by freedom. It bathetically involves a person being free to drink alcohol and explore his or her sexuality – whether within or outside marriage is not usually seen as important. To the occupiers, freedom is about individual choice in the free market. This means little to the majority of Afghans. As Zafar points out, the efflorescence of new drinking establishments under the occupation is popular with the local elite class, but 'the poor are disgusted'.
Out of freedom's sister word liberty comes the verb 'liberate', another word for saving. This idea of liberation and saving brings us to Lila Abu-Lughod's book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (2013). The anthropologist moves ideas about freedom into the realms of race, class, and gender. Herself a feminist with heritage partly in the global south, Abu-Lughod suggest that Western feminists see themselves as 'saving' their benighted Muslim sisters.
Abu-Lughod also scrutinizes the repercussions from one notion of freedom being extolled above all other values. She questions whether women's clothing can symbolize freedom or unfreedom, and whether forces that put limits on every individual's free will mean that, as Wendy Brown puts it, 'choice … is an impoverished account of freedom'. Abu-Lughod seems to suggest that the binary opposition of free and unfree is at the heart of twenty-first-century versions of Orientalism. She argues that American feminism is deceived by the 'powerful national ideology' of freedom and fails to recognize the unequal power relations that underpin this ideology.
Rather than accepting the premise that Western freedom contrasts with imprisonment by Islam, Abu- Lughod shows that believing Muslims have their own ideas about and goals for liberation. The Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad, also known by his birth name of Tim Winter, similarly writes that Islam represents 'radical freedom, a freedom from the encroachments of the State, the claws of the ego, narrow fanaticism and sectarian bigotry and an intrusive state or priesthood'.
Abu-Lughod's delineation of a dominant narrative of freedom reminds me of an assertion Salman Rushdie made in an essay on the World Trade Centre attacks in October 2001:
The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. … To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.
This somewhat tongue-in-cheek list intermixes trivial things, ideals, and rights. It also neatly illustrates that many apparent freedoms are culturally specific shibboleths that might alienate not just 'fundamentalists', but a good number of non-Western, non-Christian, non-male people (and many Western vegetarians including me would be put off by the bacon sandwiches!). Ideas of freedom are culturally located. Notwithstanding Rushdie's claims, liberty does not equate to wearing miniskirts rather than burqas.
I move now to Muslim women writers' ideas about freedom in Britain. Attia Hosain, who died in 1998, is known for the short story collection Phoenix Fled and novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, both set in India. However, she also wrote a promising putative novel about diasporic Britain, 'No New Lands, No New Seas'. Hosain worked on this between the 1950s and 1970s, but eventually abandoned the novel, perhaps because the virulent racism of the late 1960s onwards (typified by Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech and the subsequent rise of the National Front) made her migrant topics too painful to complete.
Her central migrant character Murad is having a minor breakdown in the paradoxically crowded, isolating capital of London. He frequently expresses the idea that he has been unmoored, thinking that his thoughts should be 'pegged down, hammered to solidity or he would fly into space, dissolving all matter into formlessness'. He remembers that when he first arrived in London 'he floated away with a wild incredulous sense of freedom'. Perhaps the most interesting instance of Hosain's portrayal of freedom as what David Bowie memorably described as 'floating in a most peculiar way' is this passage:
his happiest moments were in the in-between world where he was free yet not free of intrusive presences, as when at a concert his submerged thoughts would float above the music and cover it with a drifting film until he pushed it away, and under the sounds to which he forcibly attached his mind until the music emerged clearly as if he, with every nerve-end vibrating, were himself one of the instruments.
Although at certain moments, Hosain's text represents freedom as floating in an unnerving way, in this passage Murad's thoughts soar with the music. They are then brought back to earth by a 'drifting film', an image of feather lightness that nonetheless weighs down, of the film's transparency that still manages to ground the character again.
This idea of happiness coming from an in-between realm that at once represents freedom and bondage is illuminating. It's a notion that women especially can appreciate. The Cairo-born, London-resident writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif once said that she feels most free when she is writing on her own in a room but can hear her family busy with happy activities not far away. She finds contentment in being free and yet not free.
Although Hosain's ideal is a sublime freedom coexisting with unfreedom, breaking down the binary that Abu-Lughod so dislikes, the novelist recognizes that a banal version of freedom as individual choice is the one that prevails. Murad and his friend Isa together investigate 'the areas of liberty that London had given them'. The narrator notes that this is initially 'mostly in respect of women and wine, then through pubs and prostitutes to the poetry of freedom and friendship without the taboos of tradition, the constraint of custom and duress of duty'. It is a similar version of freedom to that which Rahman criticized: a prosaic lack of restraint in relation to 'women and wine'. Alliteration underscores the glibness of Murad's free indirect discourse on freedom here.
Formlessness, lack of solidity, freedom, and loneliness: these images echo again through the pages of Sudanese author Leila Aboulela's London novel, Minaret (2005). Hosain's notion of flying or floating up into space is inverted in the later text. Aboulela describes her Sudanese protagonist Najwa's metaphorical ‘fall' through space due to an encounter with the vertiginous liberties of the West.
What makes Minaret distinctive as a novel of Muslim experience is that it centres on a character's journey towards religion, rather than away. Many Anglophone novels about the British Muslim experience from the 1990s and early 2000s are about young Muslims discovering 'freedom', in the shape of a secular life, and independence from familial or kinship ties. In contrast, Aboulela's novel traces the Westernized protagonist, Najwa's, downwardly-mobile journey from her privileged position as a Sudanese minister's daughter, to exile in London when a coup dislodges her father from power, and eventually life as a domestic servant to a wealthy Arab family in the former imperial capital. During this descent, an unfurling religious identity sustains Najwa through her losses.
The supportive ties that Najwa discovers in her mosque are starkly contrasted with the supposed 'freedoms' of the non-religious world, which Aboulela portrays as being constrictive rather than liberatory. The notion of liberty in Western thought, since the time of Hobbes's Leviathan, has meant a freedom from external constraints and the right of individual self-determination. In Arab and South Asian thought, by contrast, freedom, hurriya in Arabic or azadi in Persian and Urdu, has typically had political, communitarian connotations. It would be wrong to suggest that Muslims have not hotly debated the concept of freedom over the centuries. In the Sufi tradition, freedom has been compared to ‘perfect slavery', which indicates not only that slavery in the Arab world was, in Amitav Ghosh's words, a relatively 'flexible set of hierarchies', but also that the institution was often used as a metaphor for understanding 'the relationship between Allah the “master” and his human “slaves”'.
Aboulela provocatively challenges Western perceptions of what freedom entails when her protagonist desires a position as her employer's family slave, or concubine:
I don't explain … my fantasies. My involvement in Tamer's wedding to a young suitable girl who knows him less than I do. She will mother children who spend more time with me… I would like to be his family's concubine, like something out of The Arabian Nights, with life-long security and a sense of belonging. But I must settle for freedom in this modern time.
The issue of clashing cultural understandings of liberty highlighted by this passage is particularly pertinent in the light of Abu-Lughod's analysis of the rhetoric of 'freedom' used to justify the War on Terror. With her evocation of Alf Laylah wa Laylah or The Arabian Nights, Najwa indicates that feminism has not usually considered non-Euro-American traditions when defining 'women's lib'. Yet Najwa's wish is itself problematic, especially since later chooses to perform Hajj rather than marry Tamer. This internal monologue smacks of lugubrious, even masochistic propensities.
Najwa has been brought up in a broadly Western tradition: she comes from an elite family that only pays lip service to Islam. Her early life, while affluent and sheltered, is nonetheless depicted as lacking some essential component. Within conventional limits, Najwa has considerable freedom in her dress, education and sexual relations. Yet she feels uneasy when strange men appraise her body in its revealing clothes, and her only sexual relationship with a Marxist exile in London is sordid and guilt-ridden. After a Leftist coup in Sudan leads to her father's imprisonment and eventual execution, her family is described as ‘falling' through space. This image of descent evokes the 'horror' inherent in too much liberty. Of course it also suggests the fall common to both Judeo-Christian and Qur'anic theology, whereby Adam and Eve/Hawwa were banished from the Garden of Paradise to live on earth. Najwa's fall is complete once her brother Omar is imprisoned for drugs and her mother dies. Freed from her caring duties, Najwa supposes that she should feel a sense of emancipation, but instead observes, 'this empty space was called freedom'.
To recapitulate the ideas explored in this article, the War in Afghanistan has led to the privileging of a Western dichotomy of freedom vs. unfreedom. Lila Abu-Lughod interrogates and genders this binary. Hosain anticipates these debates in her 1950s-70s fragment, while in a post-9/11 context Aboulela robustly challenges them. We should not forget, though, that ideas of political freedom are more crucial in the Muslim world now than ever. This is easily perceptible in the Arab Spring (now mournfully becoming known as the Arab Winter). I conclude with Soueif's quoting of a chant against the Egyptian regime: 'They said trouble ran in our blood and how'd we dare demand our rights | Oh dumb regime | understand | what I want: | Liberty! Liberty!'