This is a speech I gave in April at a university event to mark Bangladesh's Independence anniversary, which I'm posting in light of today marking two years since the spark that triggered a series of movements to freedom. (I didn't win the speech contest, but I hope it interests you!)
It was 10:30 am, the 17th of December 2010.
Just another Friday in the world of Mohammad Bouazizi- a 26 year old vegetable seller in his small, unnoticed town in Southern Tunisia. Mohammad was doing what he had been doing for the past seven years, walking around town with his vegetable cart, when he was stopped and his cart confiscated by a policewoman. Trying to save his (and his 8 member family)'s only source of income, he asked if he could pay a fine instead, and was replied with an insult and a slap on his face. An hour later, at 11:30 am, Mohammad was standing in front of the municipality headquarters, dousing himself in flammable liquid to set himself on fire.
That Friday morning, Mohammad had no idea that ten days later, his decision would lead to the revolution that brought down his country's dictator of 23 years. He would never have imagined in a million years that his decision –a vegetable seller in an unnoticed town- would create a chain of revolutions across the Middle East, forcing dictators out of power who had been oppressing their people for decades, and moving a people who had been silent since almost forever.
Mohammad sure didn't have any of this in mind when he set himself on flames. And of course he didn't live to see the outcomes, so we cannot question his motives, but we can speculate.
And I like to think that Mohammad's move was not an impulsive act made in blind anger, but a calculated one, irrespective of its morality. He knew it would mean the end of his own life, and the suffering of his loved ones. But for the mere inkling of a possibility that it would somehow not go unnoticed, he considered his own life worthy. For the sake of the concept of 'freedom' living on, even if it meant his not being able to taste any of it, he was willing to sacrifice everything.
Mohammad isn't alone in his sacrifice. Since that Friday, 35,000 lives have been given up in the name of freedom. But people have been dying for freedom since the beginning of time. In the Bengalis' long struggle for the Independence that we are celebrating today, three million were killed.
These are numbers of lives ended, not the number of broken hearts that followed. But that is irrelevant to most of us. The blood that has been spilled hasn't stopped this chain of revolutions being dubbed the "Arab Spring." We hold high the pictures of our martyrs, and we speak of those whose lives were given for freedom with pride. When Mel Gibson in Braveheart screamed 'Freedom' just before his execution, all our hearts jolted with pride. To us, freedom is worth any sacrifice. An essential ingredient in our lives which life is bland and not worth living without.
We worship freedom, yet every person in this room, and each of the seven billion people walking on earth at the moment, has a different idea of what freedom really is. Imagine now, that while I am standing before you talking about what freedom means to me, I am suddenly transformed into Adolf Hitler, sprouting a moustache and stern expression, here to tell you what my idea of freedom is. I would probably be telling you that freedom to me is the right to choose which race may continue to exist. The freedom to exercise my power in my country and beyond, the freedom to do whatever I want to, without being labeled the ultimate example of the "bad guy" for eternity. I doubt any of you would empathize, although I assume all of you value your own freedom as much as he did.
So if we want the concept of freedom to be workable, I can't say it is the lack of restrictions. Nor can I say that freedom to me is the right to being myself, or following my dreams. What if being myself doesn't allow you to be you, and what if following my dreams makes it impossible for you to follow yours? Who has the greater right to freedom then? Wasn't Hitler, after all, just being himself?
A sweeping epidemic is gripping all of us these times- the elimination of responsibility. This plague is not so apparent; it comes dancing to us sugar-coated. What could be sweeter than a world encouraging you to just be yourself? The right to do whatever you want to do. The world is your playground, they say. The word 'freedom' has become a word to mean 'getting away with anything'. It's become a word that releases us from any sort of accountability.
Yet the word freedom originated as exactly the opposite- it comes from the German word "Friede" that signifies the period of peace after the end of a battle between two German clans, during which the clan that had committed the most wrong was to own up to its wrong by giving up its supply of meat. Freedom is recognizing that our actions are ours alone, that it is we who choose to implement them and with that arrives a duty to implement them with caution, bearing the consequences, keeping in mind that we are all linked to each other with infinite invisible and unbreakable threads.
I find it ironic that the human race has been fighting for freedom since the beginning of time when all they have to do is take a single deep look inside themselves. Maybe they are looking for the brand new freedom that doesn't really exist where you can pretend you're not responsible for anything…the weird kind of freedom that two extremes like Hitler and Mother Teresa could both claim to have rightfully exercised.
Because the kind of freedom I know was stamped onto my soul as soon as I came into existence. It isn't something I must ever fight to achieve because it can't be taken away from me. It isn't something that needs to be taught, because it is instinctive.
To love without expecting to be loved back,
to give without expecting to take back,
to speak the truth even if it makes my voice shake,
to consider my body parts too noble for profanity,
to be in control of my senses and my emotions instead of enslaved by them.
The freedom I talk of that comes free of charge to everyone with the package of being human, and it is up to you and I the extent we would like to use it.
It is our humaneness.