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Those "Sacred Freedoms"!

This letter attempts to address a particular aspect of contemporary debates about the Crisis of democratic thinking and practice among the Libyan elite(s). Those who rule and those who oppose them. Specifically, the implications of these discussions for political action in general and coalition politics in particular. As I have pointed out on these pages before, the real question facing us all is: What does explain the total lack of understanding and appreciation of modern democratic values among the Libyan elite(s).

On these pages, thanks to Dr. Ighneiwa (our diligent facilitator of digital democracy), we are witnessing a veritable explosion of writings that explore "difference" and insist that there is no such Libya independent of its historical, ethnic, religious, and class realities. Politically, this type of discourse often meant that many exiled (forced or by choice) Libyans are engaged in a search for "infinite regress" for the particular group in which they could finally feel fully welcomed and "at home" (nationalist, arab, amazighi, islamic, regional, tribal…etc)

The desire to reclaim the positive dimensions of one's own personal heritage or preference is understandable. When common enemies of democracy are so powerful, however, it seems suicidal to engage in a politics that emphasizes particular identities and demands of distinct groups, which often (as can be seen clearly here) attack one another rather than allying to seek redress for grievances of common concern. In other words, I am really distressed that within the exiled Libyan community of the U.S., a politics of narrow identity appears to be superseding a politics of grand issues.

This unhealthy tendency seems to privilege certain narrow identities and belittle others and try to make them invisible. At the same time, such a trend makes it seem that any search for common ground is doomed to failure. The challenge to all of us, both inside and outside Libya, is how can we acknowledge differences among ourselves, and the fluid nature of our identities, while still making space not only for connections among our exiled community but for productive and powerful alliances between all Libyans who believe in striving for peaceful change in our society and culture? The answer my friends lies in the following two components of an alternative way of thinking about politics and collective action in this diverse world of provisional Libyan identities. One has to do with making room for Diversity; the Other has to do with the grounds on which we act together.

The fact that we can not necessarily agree on what is most basically at stake in the national crisis of democracy does not mean that we can not, and ought not, ignore the damaging effects of totalitarian oppression and the death of democracy in our society. The recognition of that precariousness is what will eventually lead all of us, who are sincere, to venture out and attempt to create coalitions with others for mutual support. Such coalition work must start by refusing the anarchist and unidimensional understanding of domination characteristic of Libyan politics since the military coup of 1969.

If one were to attempt to articulate the rationale behind our sorry state of national affairs, one would need to return to an examination of the first principles of democracy. In so doing, one would be able to understand the intertwining of free thought and free speech. Initially, one must recognize the symbiotic relationship between these "sacred" freedoms and a societal commitment to the concept of popular sovereignty. Establishment of a totalitarian government simultaneously evinces a fundamental disrespect for the judgement of its citizens and devaluing of the need for the personal growth that inherently flows from the exercise of power to control one's life.

A commitment to free thought and belief, on the other hand, represents the exact opposite. Such a commitment necessarily presumes that individuals may decide for themselves, without any coercion whatsoever, what to say, what to hear, and what to believe. A totalitarian government, by definition, intends to stay in power regardless of the wishes or choices of its citizens. A societal commitment to collective self-determination logically implies that the citizens may choose a course of action which either the government or a select elite considers to be wrong. Although, democracy scholars have differed dramatically over the underlying rationale for the protection of the freedom of thought, I believe the overwhelming majority of these scholars would nevertheless concur as to the centrality of this freedom in a democratic society. As far as I am concerned, this is the only freedom that is ABSOLUTE!

To be effective citizens in a democratic society, individuals must be able to exercise free will--an impossibility if governmental thought control is permitted. In short, we must develop the commitment to free thought and belief and reject completely the notion that those in power can regulate these "sacred" freedoms on the basis of their assessment of right and wrong. Our rights must be articulated clearly in a Constitution that protects freedom of thought, belief, expression, press and peaceful assembly. While text will rarely be free of ambiguity, it is rather absurd to suggest that in all cases the words of the Constitution are capable of infinite, equally acceptable meanings. Of course, any such constitutional arrangement requires a democratic institutional framework to protect it and to build it on the principle of separation of powers (legislative, executive, and judicial) and a totally independent legal system.

I should state at this point what I am not saying! Although, I would hope that such a disclaimer is unnecessary in defense of the "sacred" freedom of thought, I do not intend to suggest personal approval of the expression of bigotry premised on racial, religious, ethnic, linguistic, or sexual preference hatred. If I may be allowed one moment of personal moral reflection, I find such attitudes and opinions to be offensive and reprehensible, whether they are expressed publicly or merely held personally. I have attempted here to convey the intensity of my feelings on the subject. For as dangerous and offensive as I find any expression of bigotry, I fear even much more any attempt by government (or those in power) to control the mind of any single Libyan citizen.

Finally, and more specifically, on the issues of identities and alliances: since group identities are not something we develop independently of politics and then bring fully formed into the political arena but, rather, are constructed precisely in and through politics. It is not only reasonable but also necessary to look to politics as the ground on which our minor or major differences might finally be constructively addressed. I will argue, if we can begin to understand coalition-building as a process through which we not only act together with others but develop and change our own identities and selfish demands at the same time, we may open up new possibilities for both identity and politics. The trick however, remains: On what principle should these interactions be theoretically and practically based? Ah, those "sacred" freedoms again!

Abdelrahim Saleh


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