One of my favourite film scenes comes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The film tells the story of Brian Cohen, a Jewish-Roman man who is born on the same day as – and next door to – Jesus, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah.

In this standout scene – which I love so much that I can quote it from memory – the crowds have thronged in front of the window of the house that Brian lives in with his mother, waiting to hear him speak. At his wits’ end, Brian decides to address the crowd, hoping for a win-win – they’ll get to hear from him and then perhaps leave him in peace. 

‘Please, please, listen to me! I’ve got one or two things I need to tell you…’ he starts, somewhat agitatedly.  

‘Tell us both of them!’ the crowd chants in unison, hanging onto his every word.  

‘Look, you’ve got it all wrong…. You don’t need to follow anybody! You don’t need anybody to tell you what to do!’

The crowd waits with bated breath. Brian continues, ‘You are all individuals!’

The crowd roars back, ‘Yes! We are all individuals!’

Brian tries again, ‘You are all different!’

The crowd replies, ‘Yes! We are all different!’

Then one sullen bloke interrupts and says, ‘I’m not.’ The crowd, irritated, shushes him. 

Before reflecting further on this gem of an ironic punchline, some context is necessary. When I first moved to London more than a decade ago, I quickly bonded with some English Anglican friends partly because of our shared love of this film. A small group of us even had a little home screening once on Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter. And these weren’t just nominal Christians – they were and still are regular and faithful church-goers. That they can share in the joys of Monty Python with their Muslim friend from Malaysia tells you everything you need to know about their spirituality. Because to them – and me – the film is a hilarious yet incisive critique not of religion per se, but of the dangers of knee-jerk, unreflective, and po-faced expressions of religion. 

It’s an interesting case to think about, however, because notwithstanding the film’s cute and zany legacy, there was actually a time when democratic states in the ‘enlightened’ West deemed it blasphemous enough to be banned. Promoted by adverts as ‘so funny it was banned in Norway’, the film was denounced by many Western countries, Christian churches, and even the Rabbinical Alliance of America for being ‘foul, disgusting, blasphemous’. For me, it is particularly symbolic that the film was released in 1979, a year that witnessed the siege of the Great Mosque of Makkah by Juhayman al-Otaybi and his followers in protest against the Saudi monarchy and, of course, the Iranian Islamic Revolution. This period of Muslim revolutionary upheaval shook not only Washington and other Western liberal democracies but the Saudi establishment, too. As a consequence, when I was growing up in the 1980s, the Islamic education I received in school was shaped by much more overt Saudi-Wahhabi influence than that of my older siblings. The officially Sunni sharia bureaucracy also constantly warned Malaysian Muslims against anything that even smelt remotely like Shiism. Things flipped temporarily in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie in response to the publication of The Satanic Verses. I remember a lot of baying for Rushdie’s blood in support of the fatwa from my schoolteachers, classmates, and the government-controlled media – albeit without any formal recognition of Shias as ‘proper’ Muslims. 

I was eleven when the Rushdie Affair kicked off. Reading the international coverage in the English language press, I was distressed by some of the naked anti-Muslim sentiments I could glean from the responses of ‘the West’. I was even more traumatised by several of my Islamic Studies teachers telling me and my classmates that it was our Islamic duty to murder Rushdie if any of us were to come across him. Quite a few of my classmates agreed – their parents were advising the same. 

We were just kids. The boys’ voices had scarcely broken and the girls had barely started menstruating. 

It is against this backdrop that I went on to witness a greater extent of anti-Western, specifically anti-American, polemics when the first Gulf War broke out in 1991 – not just in school and in the muzzled Malaysian media, but in everyday life. America was the Great Satan. This was a war engineered by the West – the inveterate enemies of Islam, controlled by the Jews. In addition to this war, ‘they’ were out to destroy ‘us’ by exporting their degenerate culture and lifestyles and ‘freedoms’. The West was out to subjugate Muslims with a potent cocktail of bombs, AIDS, homosexuality, and, as many of my Malay-speaking Muslim teachers would quip in English, ‘free sex’. 

But authoritarianism can often turn underground activity and transgressions into normal facts of existence. Hence, while many TV shows and films were banned or censored by the Malaysian authorities, my late older brother had no trouble procuring pirated VHS copies of almost anything we wanted to watch. As a teenager, I had access to uncut versions of Goodfellas, The Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction, and countless other titles my bhaijaan could get his hands on. Though, because I’m squeamish, I stayed away from violence and gore. This is how I chose to watch Life of Brian as a teenager, and how it changed my life. And so many of its jokes landed. Sure, I laughed at the slapstick and rude bits, but I also laughed because of something deeper. I didn’t need to understand the specific references to Christian theology or the Bible – I laughed because I saw, in this film, a criticism of the political and religious attitudes I was witnessing in my own context. I could re-enact or rewrite my favourite scenes within the comfort of my own imagination, maybe with one of my teachers saying, ‘You are all offended by apostasy!’

‘Yes! We are all offended by apostasy!’ my classmates would roar back. 

‘You are all disgusted by homosexuality!’

‘Yes! We are all disgusted by homosexuality!’

And then there’d be cheeky me piping up, ‘I’m not’.

This revised scenario deviates somewhat from the original Monty Python scene, but that’s why I love the film so much – I could and still can make it work on so many levels. And the older I grew, the more entrenched this escapism in my adolescent imagination became. Because by this point, the ‘straight path’ as a Muslim did not just mean adhering to the five pillars of Islam. It meant risking the ire of the state-appointed, sharia-based moral police if a Muslim did not fast in Ramadan, or attend Friday prayers in the mosque, or was found drinking alcohol. It also meant being accused of ‘insulting Islam’ – an offence which carried serious punishment and public fury – if these rulings were questioned. Later, when I discovered the works of George Orwell, I sometimes wondered if I was living in a sharia-compliant version of 1984 or Animal Farm

If you are now wondering whether I was on my way to becoming a Richard Dawkins-like Islamophobe, you are not far off the mark. My discomfort with the toxic ways in which Islam was interpreted and administered in Malaysia would have made me ripe for any kind of anti-religious propaganda. But after secondary school, I was awarded a scholarship to go to Australia to study for my undergraduate degree. There, I experienced the other side of the coin – rampant xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia in a purported liberal democracy that respected ‘free speech’. Liberty, it seemed, was a double-edged sword. In Malaysia, it was denied to people who were not Muslim enough while in Australia, it was withheld from people who were perceived as too Muslim (and/or not white enough). 

The essays in this issue unpack these and other paradoxes relating to the ideals and realities of ‘liberty’. Our contributors explore the contradictions or in-built prejudices in dominant conceptions of liberty – amongst Muslims, Western liberal democracies, and the political left, and in other circumstances. But we are not merely interested in criticisms. What is interesting is the attempt to reclaim the ideals of liberty from a variety of perspectives, which many of our contributors do. They tackle these issues from different vantage points – there are overarching pieces that analyse the social construction of liberty as a political project, personal spiritual memoirs that engage with the nuances of liberty and freedom, pieces that introduce adjacent concepts such as justice and solidarity, and conceptual attempts to unpack the very meaning of ‘liberty’. 

For starters, I wish that Mustafa Akyol had written his eloquent piece when I was a teenager. Akyol challenges the dominant ‘Islamic’ responses to three contentious areas in contemporary Muslim societies – the policing of personal morality, apostasy, and blasphemy. True, I might have been discouraged to learn that the sharia-based moral police in Malaysia – ‘anti-vice officers’, as they are formally known – are indeed an institutional legacy of Islam. But it would have blown my mind to discover that the hisbah – the name given to the religious police in many Muslim countries – actually began as a way of monitoring trade and financial transactions in public markets. Whenever I heard my Islamic Studies teachers mouthing the Arabic phrase amar maruf nahi munkar – ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ – all they seemed to care about was non-marital sex, alcohol-drinking, and headscarves for women. Financial integrity was given short shrift – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the scale of corruption in Malaysia even back then. Akyol succinctly explores the transformation of the muhtasib – literally, one who does the hisbah – ‘from market inspector to religion police’ within a context of politicised and polemical interpretations of ‘commanding the right and forbidding the wrong’ in early Muslim societies. 

Akyol’s revisionist account of religious policing in Islam is complemented by Vinay Lal’s masterful overview and history of the contradictory aspects of ‘liberty’ as a concept that developed in Western political thought. Dominant understandings of liberty today, according to Lal, have as their basis an unexamined Orientalism – the West’s ideological construction of its opposite or ‘shadow’, the Orient, which then informs Western self-definitions. Different varieties of Orientalist dichotomies have found expression in different historical periods, but Lal argues that the Orientalist bias inherent in today’s notions of liberty echoes the anti-Persian prejudices within ancient Greek political thought. He writes, ‘As freedom is to the Greeks and slavery is to Persians in the ancient period, so Enlightenment and liberty are to Europe what despotism is to the Orient in the period of European colonization of the world’. In other words, ‘we’ the ancient Greeks/modern Europeans are free and enlightened, while ‘they’ the ancient Persians/modern Orientals are barbarians and despots. This explains why the modern genesis of the concept of liberty – born of the paradigmatic American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth centuries – could go hand-in-hand with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Western colonialism. How else can we make sense of the violence of the British Raj which happened alongside the liberal parliamentary reforms in England, or the brutal suppression of the Haitian Revolution by France, the birthplace of liberté, égalité, and fraternité

Anyone who thinks that former colonial powers have moved on needs only to read Jack Wager’s personal essay to understand the enduring impacts of the Rushdie Affair on a young person in contemporary Britain. In Wager’s own words: ‘I was born nearly a decade later than the Salman Rushdie affair of 1989, and too young to remember the events of 9/11. But I have known nothing other than the aftermath, the ensuing demonisation of Islam and Othering of Muslims, and polarisation and reactionary patriotism.’ It was the contradictory responses to the gruesome 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders that eventually drove Wager to engage deeply with Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies. 

What comes to be referred to in historical shorthand – the Rushdie Affair, in this case – can therefore have transnational, transcultural, and trans-generational repercussions. The pioneering work of Sardar and Davies, for example, continues to force individuals like Wager and I – who come from different generations and social contexts – to rethink the Rushdie Affair and the geopolitics of neo-colonialism and Islamophobia more broadly. It follows that people’s conceptions and experiences of liberty – or the lack of it – are also contextual. 

Consider the trajectory of second-wave feminism in post-war Europe and North America. Certainly, there was a need for vast numbers of women to object being treated as the ‘weaker sex’ and denied the same educational and employment opportunities as men. Sexual and reproductive rights were also justifiably fought for by this generation of Western feminists – at the time of writing, these hard-won rights appear once again to be under grave threat in the US. The point is that many of the household names from this generation of feminist activism were challenging a particular kind of sexism within a particular social stratum within the West. It was, rightfully, a feminism of white middle-class women seeking to undo the workings of patriarchal violence within white middle-class environments. This in itself is not a problem. The problem was when this white, middle-class, Western experience of feminism started to misunderstand and even distort the struggles and priorities of women in other contexts. Yet, as early as the mid-nineteenth century, the African American abolitionist and first-wave feminist Sojourner Truth (c.1797-1883) had already complicated the notion that sexism was monolithic or that there was a one-size-fits-all approach to feminism. It is worth quoting the most famous part of her speech to a women’s rights convention in Ohio at length: 

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman? . . . Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

The rhetorical force and analytical clarity of this speech is undeniable. One could well imagine a young hijab-wearing woman of colour in France repurposing it today, in contradistinction to what an elite, secular white French feminist might say: ‘Those folks over there say that women are free to wear what they want and enjoy whatever they want. Well, nobody tells me I’m free to wear my hijab and enjoy being a Muslim! And ain’t I a woman?’

A cluster of our contributions therefore explore the idea of liberty through the lens of personal experience, specifically in relation to their encounters with different varieties of Islam. The first of these, by Sulaiman Haqpana, opens in a similar way to Wager’s personal reflection on the Rushdie Affair – with a summary of political history and personal biography. Born into a middle-class family in Afghanistan in 1986 during the Soviet occupation, Haqpana’s childhood years were scarred by the ensuing Afghan civil war of 1989 to 1992. His personal essay does not trivialise the horrors of later Taliban rule, but it does remind us that the dominant Western image of Afghanistan now – a rogue state ruined by Islamic fundamentalism (or simply by Islam, depending who is spouting this stereotype) – is an Orientalist construct. Afghanistan has been impoverished by decades, if not centuries, of interference from its neighbours and distant imperialist regimes, including Pakistan, the Soviet Union, Britain, and the US. It is this historical context that makes Haqpana’s personal memory of the Taliban takeover of Herat in 1995 particularly disturbing. In his own words: 

We were sitting outside our house when I first saw the Taliban, driving past us in their cars and tanks down the road. In front of our house, there was an old man who was repairing radios. He had his radio loudspeaker turned on, and instead of the everyday music programme we heard the songs of the Taliban with no music or instruments. The verses of the song that I still remember meant that ‘the Taliban came to the country, and the people are now free.’ As a curious child, I wondered where they had come from. Did they come to us from outside the country? And free from what? What were they liberating us from? 

What follows is a harrowing story of luck, survival, and humility which also profoundly albeit indirectly foreshadows the Taliban’s return to power in 2021. Now based in the UK, Haqpana is pursuing a PhD and combines his scholarship with music – he plays the tabla – so that he can ‘bring communities together’. To him, ‘freedom and liberty from extremism, ignorance and oppression, have to be gained by the individual rather than simply granted to them by others’. ‘In gaining these freedoms,’ he writes, ‘we develop dignity that acknowledges the value of others, regardless of their class, religion, race, gender or abilities.’

Haqpana’s personal journey is accompanied by two contributions from Europeans who embraced Islam – Ole Jørgen Anfindsen and Katharina Schmoll. Again, their sensitive essays remind us that personal context is crucial, lest we subsume their experiences within the stereotype of the ‘Western convert’ to Islam. After all, they come from different generations and political environments. Anfindsen was born in Oslo, Norway in 1958, and his formative years were shaped by the post-war Evangelical Christian revival of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, he confesses, ‘by the time I was seventeen years old, I was a full-fledged Bible fundamentalist’. But this eventually led to a crisis of faith in his early forties. For comfort and answers, Anfindsen started reading the works of the New Atheists – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. He even became an anti-Muslim immigration activist in Norway, setting up a blog, HonestThinking, and published a couple of books along these lines. What, then, led him towards and into Islam? No more spoilers, but his contribution is a must-read. 

Schmoll, on the other hand, was born in 1989 in West Germany, barely nine months before the Berlin Wall fell. She is therefore a child of, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, ‘the end of history’, of the supposed triumph of liberal democracy. Yet Schmoll also became disenchanted with her default Christian heritage and started exploring other spiritual pathways. Her beautiful essay examines the tension between, in her words, the ‘question of freedom and restraint’ – ‘something many Muslims grapple with at some point in their lives’. Schmoll juxtaposes the ‘restraints’ imposed by Islam, such as dressing modestly and fasting in Ramadan, with the restrictions of the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. 

After all, did many people not say that, as shocking and disruptive as the first lockdown of 2020 was, it gave them the freedom to slow down, to breathe, and to appreciate the simple pleasures in life? But the pandemic is far from over, especially in the Global South. The virus has mutated and many governments have had to implement repeated lockdowns over the past couple of years. The simplicity and bliss of that first lockdown soon unleashed impatience and even fury at the supposedly draconian measures taken by liberal democracies regarding social distancing, mask-wearing, and vaccination. In the West, these same voices were often silent about the neo-liberal, capitalist destruction of public healthcare that left the door open for this pandemic to become a global crisis in the first place, but that’s another story. 

The point is that this fluctuation of our experiences and temperaments during the course of this pandemic is not very different from the fluctuations related to our spiritual life. Schmoll addresses these fluctuations eloquently and honestly. Trying to make sense of our individual rhythms and tendencies, she writes that ‘navigating faith and freedom can be a daunting challenge’, especially for Muslims in the West. ‘We find freedom and comfort in restriction,’ she writes, ‘but often we also find ourselves confronted with having to justify our choices to the people around us.’ Especially when the dominant image of Islam in the West is not that of the bubbly Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain making a souffle or the smouldering Oscar-winner Riz Ahmed rapping about refugee rights. Muslims in the West are far more likely to have to justify their choices to people whose idea of Islam is a mash-up of the Iranian Revolution, the Rushdie Affair, 9/11, Charlie Hebdo, and the Taliban. In other words, the political and cultural mainstream. 

But is liberty purely about the individual or can it undergird struggles for structural and systemic change? Haqpana’s theory – that the struggle for our own freedoms will lead us to respect the freedoms of others – is insightfully tested by two essays that examine the notion of solidarity from different ideological vantage points. Naomi Foyle critiques the responses of parts of the political left towards Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine whilst Giles Goddard probes whether EM Forster truly believed in the universal ideals of liberty. From these different perspectives, Foyle and Goddard reflect on the ethical implications of taking the concept of liberty to its logical conclusion. 

Foyle’s main target is the whataboutism of parts of the left that dilutes or downright prevents their support of Ukraine’s resistance to Vladimir Putin’s military invasion. This is a very specific and focused critique – Foyle wastes no time in dismantling the Eurocentric, imperialist and frankly racist calls for solidarity with Ukraine from the Western political right. But she is even more vexed about how some leftist ideologues could ‘argue strenuously that NATO expansion was to blame for the war’ by somehow ‘forcing Putin’s hand’. Not that all ‘whataboutery’ is unjustifiable – Foyle reaffirms criticisms from Palestinian, Syrian, and other Global South activists about the hypocrisy of the West’s ‘solidarity’ with Ukraine. These criticisms remind us that ‘it is nevertheless surely the case that the West too has oceans of blood on its hands’. But Foyle’s argument ultimately boils down to the simple logic that two wrongs don’t make a right – the West’s double standards cannot and must not stand in the way of solidarity with Ukraine, alongside other countries suffering from foreign invasions. 

Foyle invokes the moral and spiritual authority of none other than Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who said that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. But what is the logical implication of this ideal, held by a peace activist and civil rights martyr who was in turn influenced by Gandhi’s non-violent activism? Would solidarity with Ukraine not entail military support for its resistance fighters? And, if this is the case, how could the defence of liberty for Ukrainians be congruent with peace activism? Foyle lays her cards on the table. ‘I support Western military aid to Ukraine,’ she writes. ‘I also support foreign fighters joining the Ukrainian army.’ Anticipating counter-criticisms of inconsistency, Foyle admits that these are not positions she has arrived at easily but she remains steadfast. She maintains that her position – indeed the very act of writing her essay – is a demonstration of solidarity with her Ukrainian colleagues, whom she also pays tribute to in this contribution. 

In his essay about E.M. Forster, Goddard also detects this streak of internationalist solidarity in the famous novelist’s body of work – albeit in a more muted manner. This is the same Forster whose novel A Passage to India (1924) – and its stage and film adaptations of 1960 and 1984 – have become paradigmatic examples of Orientalism, both the imperial British and Hollywood variety. The argument is that while Forster does criticise the hypocrisy and violence of the British Raj, he never really opposes the master-servant relationship between the British and the Indians. This leads to the charge of inconsistency in his ideas about liberty. But to dismiss Forster’s thought and actions purely on this basis is to do a disservice to his overall legacy. True, Forster was no political activist, writes Goddard, yet in the decade after A Passage to India was published, he became the first president of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), founded in 1934 – known today simply as Liberty. His opening speech to the first International Congress of Writers in Paris in 1935 – ‘Liberty in England’ – was muddled and nervous, but it was clearly an expression of his distress at the rise of fascism in Europe. He would also go on to campaign for the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain. 

This last point is worth reiterating. Gay activism in Forster’s time was not what it is today, where calls for equality and full inclusion of queer, trans, and non-binary people can build upon a string of recent political advancements. Forster lived in constant fear of being outed as a homosexual, despite his privileged upbringing. In the 1930s, homosexuality was not only criminalised by the British state, it was subjected to intense blackmail, public shaming, and violence, both from the state and from vigilantes. Forster, in fact, wrote a gay love story, Maurice, in 1914, but only allowed for it to be published after his death. He was convinced that he had to keep the manuscript hidden while he was alive, just because it had a happy ending.

In Goddard’s assessment, Forster’s larger body of work – his novels, his BBC broadcasts, and his work with Liberty – show us a man who cared deeply about the liberty of his fellow human beings, within Britain and beyond. Perhaps he did not go far enough for some of us today – or even by the standards of some of his contemporaries – but he tried more than most. In his writings and other passions, we see someone who did try to oppose Nazism, British colonial rule, homophobia, censorship, and the British class system. His own insecurities and fears might not have made him the boldest political thinker, but his worldview is perhaps best captured by his plea in Howards End – ‘only connect’. ‘Liberty, for Forster,’ Goddard writes, ‘meant freedom to connect.’ And true connection – with the Other, with the inner self, with the sacred – is perhaps what enables us to maintain, as Dr King did, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. For another relevant illustration of nexus between liberty, solidarity, and the imperative to connect, read Maha Sardar’s review of How I Survived a Chinese ‘Re-education’ Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story.

Yet solidarity, too, is a double-edged sword. After university, I returned to Malaysia and started getting involved in the arts and social justice scene. One of my proudest moments was becoming the first-ever male Associate Member of Sisters in Islam, alongside my other volunteering work with Amnesty International, the Malaysian AIDS Council and the Centre for Independent Journalism. It was in this capacity that I was invited to present a paper at a conference on Islam and democracy organised by the Australian National University. 

This was shortly after 9/11, and I was getting used to additional security checks at airports. So, it did not take me completely by surprise when I was stopped and searched – ‘randomly’, I was told – by the airport security staff in Canberra. I was wearing a plain t-shirt and jeans, but my rucksack was adorned with a collection of social justice badges, including one from Sisters in Islam. ‘Oh, what’s this?’ asked the blond, female border control officer. ‘It’s an Islamic feminist organisation in Malaysia,’ I answered, proudly. ‘Oh, really? Well, I’m a feminist, too. What’s your understanding of feminism?’ I wondered if this was a trick question, but decided to give the most succinct answer I could manage: ‘It’s the radical idea that men and women are equal.’ A tad binary, but the best I could come up with on the spot. She did not seem impressed, but decided to let me go. ‘Wait a minute,’ I wanted to say. ‘You think I’m just a Malaysian, a mixed-race man who doesn’t have the most sophisticated wardrobe, and that all these badges on my cheap rucksack are pretentious. But I have read amina wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Fatima Mernissi, and I have campaigned for the rights of Muslim women in the areas of domestic violence, polygamy, divorce, and child custody. And ain’t I a feminist?’

The irony is that some of the Indonesian conference delegates from fundamentalist Islamist parties sailed through security – perhaps because they were all wearing expensive tailored suits. When I got to the conference venue, the Indonesian progressives – in simple t-shirts and jeans like me – were all complaining about getting stopped and searched, too. ‘That’s it!’ one of them joked. ‘I’m turning fundamentalist.’

This experience came at a crucial point in my spiritual and activist journey. It made me ask, what is feminism? What is social justice? What is Islam? Sure, these were concepts and ideals that meant a lot to me, but could they or would they ever mean the same thing to other people? I’ve struggled to define them and I abhor the effort, but I still make the endeavour to this day. Because although defining such abstract notions comprehensively is difficult and near-impossible, the attempts to do so are still useful if we are to apply them or pursue them as political goals.  

This brings us to two contributions by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas and C Scott Jordan, that go to the heart of what ‘liberty’ and its concomitant concept of ‘freedom’ mean. As Henzell-Thomas points out, the two words are often used interchangeably but they have different repercussions depending on the context. To distinguish the two terms conceptually, he quotes the scholar of English literature, Bert Hornback’s conclusion: 

that the essential difference between them is that ‘freedom is a social word; liberty a selfish, anti-social word.  Freedom requires of us responsibility; liberty is the assertion of our refusal of responsibility.’ In other words, if freedom is a term rooted in relationship, liberty is tainted by egoism and solipsism.

Jordan, on the other hand, speculates differently, suggesting that ‘based on its use in English, I would offer that freedom is the broader term for “uninhibited” while liberty is the legal ability or authority to exercise said freedoms’. ‘In that case,’ he continues, ‘rights and liberties are essentially synonymous.’ 

There is no need to adjudicate on the semantic and philosophical merits of either writer’s position. The more interesting point is that, despite their different approaches, Henzell-Thomas and Jordan highlight a recurring motif in our other essays – the importance of relationship and relationality in shaping our conceptions of liberty. Both of them therefore invite us to unthink and rethink entrenched understandings of liberty. And this rethinking must, in many ways, entail looking afresh at what it means to be an individual person. As they both suggest, ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are often seen as the properties of a self-sufficient, self-contained, rights-bearing individual. It is my liberty (or freedom, if you prefer) to wear what I want. To have sexual relations with whomever I want. To bear arms to protect myself

Yet we learnt very early on in the coronavirus pandemic that the most effective ways to protect our wellbeing and the people we loved were counter-intuitive. In order to ensure we were all safe, we had to not be around each other physically – we were not even allowed to touch each other. We had to wear masks not to protect ourselves, but to protect the people around us who were more vulnerable or immunocompromised. In many liberal democracies, however, the fact that we were compelled to do these things as rights-bearing individuals became anathema to many a libertarian who insisted on exercising their own freedoms and liberties. But such libertarian ideas of individual liberty and freedom can only make sense amid a shallow appreciation of our interconnectedness. I am reminded of the African philosophy of ubuntu, which literally means ‘humanity’ but can be translated as ‘I am because you are’ or ‘I am because we are’. In other words, one’s individuality is only possible because of the vast web of relationships and connections that one’s existence is embedded in. So, of course we are all special and deserve to enjoy freedom and liberty but, as the saying goes, ‘until all of us are free, none of us are free’. 

This certainly changes the Monty Python sketch I opened with beyond recognition. What would the punchline be? ‘You are all individuals!’ ‘Yes, we are all individuals! I am because we are!’ 

The critical insight these turns of phrase can provoke are made poignant by several injustices that have sprung out of one global crisis after another. Some of these – such as the crises of climate change and the rising cost of living – were not completely unexpected. But, as Petro Sukhorolskyi observes, ‘in numerous forecasts for 2022, both Russia and Ukraine were conspicuous by their absence’. This, Sukhorolskyi argues, is but one of the many aspects that justify a postnormal analysis of the current crisis in Ukraine. His summary and analysis of Ukrainian history and politics introduces yet another conceptual companion to this issue’s exploration of liberty – ‘independence’. 

Sukhorolskyi juxtaposes this idea alongside a postnormal analysis of Ukraine not just in relation to its present crisis, but from its history as one of the Soviet socialist republics and its independence in 1991. Ukraine provides a captivating case study in the fluctuations of the building and rebuilding of state and nation. Through this analytical prism, Sukhorolskyi suggests that ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are not only works in progress – their evolution as concepts and ideals is embedded within postnormal conditions that we can no longer afford to ignore. Yet, even Sukhorolskyi holds fast to this issue’s recurring theme of relationality and connection as a bedrock:

Freedom in postnormal times is clearly not just freedom from outside interference or freedom of empty existence in an automated world. It has to be based on values, the real core ones, critically considered and developed in the changing context of our world. How do we see others; how do we live and let live. 

Amid the many upheavals and unrest scarring the planet, Sukhorolskyi argues, the struggle in Ukraine shows us that ‘self-organised resistance, based on common values, trust, and equality’ can be a force for positive social change. 

It might seem depressing to end an introduction on reclaiming liberty by meditating on a country that is being pulverised by war. But perhaps this is the best way to remind ourselves of what is truly at stake when we consider liberty and its paradoxes. Sukhorolskyi’s essay makes me think of the legacy of Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), the African-American slave-turned-abolitionist who, after securing her freedom, risked her life to save others as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. A famous account of Tubman’s leadership has always sent chills down my spine, and is a fitting conclusion here. Apparently, Tubman always carried a loaded pistol which she would point at the slaves she was helping who got disheartened and considered running back to the familiarity of slavery. ‘You’ll be free,’ she would tell them, ‘Or you will die.’

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: