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Free and Liberal

OurIndonesia – In Indonesia, most of people easily yell the word “freedom!” (merdeka!) but are easily suspicious about the word “liberal”. To them, “freedom” raises positive image such as “free from colonialism” and “free from foreign domination”. In other word, it is independence.

On the contrary, the word liberal and liberalism have foreign-dominated connotation. This is imported idea, which is incompatible with our culture and pollution for our identity. Therefore, Liberal Islam Network (JIL) has often been scorned and ridiculed for carrying “liberal” label. As if with the “L” adjective, this network will weaken the “I” and fulfill the Western agenda. Is such presumption fair?

In fact, this prejudice toward liberalism and JIL should not happen if only they look at the history of western political thought, which delivers liberalism.

In the classical western political thought, the term “liberal” correlates with the dichotomy between “liber” and “servus”. The former refers to free “citizen”, while the later means dependent “servant” who always be under his or her master’s domination. In the classical definition, “liber”, the citizen is free in the term that he or she is not under somebody’s domination. This is the definition of freedom in republican tradition.

What is republican freedom? Philip Pettit, professor of political theory from Princeton University asserted that the principle of freedom within republicanism is “non-domination”. I am free as long as I am not under other’s domination, both internal domination (like tyrannical authority) and external domination (colonialism). Freedom means that being a citizen is upholding independence. He or she is nobody’s servant, not servant of the state, individual or society.

Please note that what we are yelling now as “freedom!” (merdeka!) indeed means freedom in republican classic definition. Freedom means realization of “liber”, the free citizen. Please note that on this point the term freedom and liberal are interchanging.

Besides, the word liberal in the modern definition is not apart from the resistance toward injustice. Liberalism, which was born in Europe at 17th century, correlated with resistance against monarchic authority’s injustice. Liberalism was born as an attempt to protect the civil rights of citizen from the king’s absolute power. There was such an affirmation that civil rights, mainly private ownership, cannot be claimed by the king, or becomes possession of the aristocrats.

No wonder the spirit of liberalism is to limit any tyrannical and absolute authority therefore every citizen have the freedom to enjoy his or her civil rights and able to develop him or herself. Authority must be controlled and supervised in order not to eradicate individual freedom.

Although liberalism was born and developed in West, but the essence of liberalism, it is “against tyrannical authority for preserving the citizen’s rights” is relevant with the non-western society’s virtue, including Muslim society.

On this point, I remember Rifa’ah Tahtawi, a Muslim reformer from Egypt in the 18th century who was predecessor of Afghani and Abduh. Tahtawi once lived in Paris for five years and observed directly French political-cultural system and daily life of French people who were enthusiast in applying renaissance.

As recorded in his book Takhlis al-Ibriz ila talkhis al-Bariz (recently translated into English as An Imam in Paris), Tahtawi was interested in the concept of freedom in Europe which gave place for individual rights and was antipathy toward power absolutism which Tahtawi said has not recognized within the tradition of Islamic politic.

The more he learnt about European freedom, he concluded that what the European called as freedom was more or less in a line with the concept of justice in Islam. Isn’t Islam calling the authority to be just?

Hence, there is no reason in refusing the spirit of liberalism, if we seriously celebrate independence and resist injustice. Freedom? Yes! Liberal? Why not?