Liberty, human rights and the grassroots
Dave e-mailed me a few days ago to ask that I contribute a blog post on the theme of 'socialism and modern liberty' to the Carnival of Socialism.
A lot of the discussion on both of these subjects is quite downbeat and depressing, so I'm going to tell a cheerful story. A couple of weeks ago, I was helping a community group organise a workshop discussion and training in human rights to be held in a community centre in an estate in West London. Somewhat optimistically, the organisers planned for between 20 and 25 people to turn up.
In fact, over 120 people attended, mostly younger people, and a roughly equal gender balance.
A few weeks earlier, I spoke at a conference alongside a whole host of speakers including Shaykh Kabbani, an internationally renowned Sufi scholar, and, um, Chico from the x-factor. Shaykh Kabbani and two other scholars who spoke were speaking about how extremists misrepresent Islam.
He spoke about how people feel angry when they see injustice, whether in their own communities or when seeing and hearing the news from Gaza and other parts of the world. But for people living in Britain, where the laws allow human rights and free expression, this is not a reason to turn to violence. Instead, he taught that people should do three things - ensure that they themselves make every effort to help those weaker than themselves and look after others when they need it; to pray; and to engage in peaceful protest against injustice. (Incidentally, this is a good example of how many of these anti-terrorism laws which undermine the right of peaceful protest play rights into the hands of violent extremists).
Over 300 people turned up on a Saturday evening for this conference, again, mostly younger people and with roughly equal numbers of men and women.
I think that all of this is particularly interesting, whatever you think of human rights or Islamic scholarship, because it shows that discussions about liberty aren't, contrary to the myths, ones which are only of interest to 'chattering classes', but that there is a lot of interest in working-class communities to discuss and debate these issues, whether as part of more secular discussions about human rights and equalities, or in a more religious context.
I think this enthusiasm for discussing modern liberty is one that socialists should be part of and encourage. One of the things that I find difficult about the 'mainstream' debate about civil liberties at the moment is that I don't agree with the vast majority of the government's laws restricting liberties, but at the same time I don't think that Britain is a police state, I think most people have greater freedoms than a decade ago (let alone at the time of Magna Carta or whatever).
I think a debate about modern liberty which is shaped by discussions and debates and led by the grassroots in local communities up and down the country is likely to be infinitely richer, more thoughtful and more rooted in people's experiences and needs than the theoretical and often very polemical debate that seems to dominate at the moment.