Ten Freethinkers to Think About

Freethinkers have three basic characteristics. First, they actually think – often outside or against the dominant modes of knowing, doing and being. They revel in ideas. They write; and often they write a lot. The thinking is free in the sense that it does not prescribe to the single, monolithic meaning that prevails: it does not accept one interpretation or submits to one truth or authority. There are more than one way to think; and, therefore, more than one way to be human. Second, they think towards a purpose. Free does not mean ‘free for all’, or ‘anything goes’, as postmodernists tends to suggest. If ‘anything goes’ then ‘everything stays’: the status quo is maintained. Freethinkers aim to transform the existing state of affairs to promote social justice, equity and pluralism. Third, a corollary of the first and second, they maintain a respectful distance from most forms of power. The thought, structures, authorities and individuals freethinkers tend to criticise naturally upsets those who wield cultural, intellectual, religious and political power. So freethinkers have a tendency to upset the powerful. Those that freethinkers criticise are sometimes keen to include them inside the tent, knowing that this is an effective way to blunt their influence and criticism. The mark of truly dangerous freethinkers is to refuse such offers. They know that the closer they come to power, the harder it becomes to speak the truth.

So if you subscribe to the Foreign Policy  list, and think that Malala Yousafzai and Aung San Suu Kyi (who is happy to turn a blind eye towards the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar) are ‘global thinkers’, then you are clearly not living on the freethinking planet. Lists too are designed to preserve the status quo, provide the route map to familiarity with the essential landmarks of political, cultural and intellectual orientation – and cast doubt on other people’s power of reasoning. On this list are thinkers who question the familiar, wish to travel in a different direction, and attempt to provide an alternative route to what is possible.

1. Noam Chomsky

The Godfather of freethinkers has been exposing unpleasant truths about the US, its free-booting liberal intelligentsia, military-industrial complex, corporations, intelligence services and the ‘unholy alliance’ between the state and the corporate media for decades. But he made his intellectual reputation in linguistic with Syntactic Structures (1957), which is regarded as a landmark work. He established the idea that every child has an innate capacity to master the structure and grammar of language; and all languages have the same basic structure of ‘depth grammar’. His outrage with the status quo and deep commitment to social justice is evident from every word of his countless books, articles, essays, interviews and films. In the hands of US imperialists, democracy has become an ideological tool, Chomsky has argued. For the US, a society is democratic only if its commerce and business are subordinate to American corporations and US interests. The ‘free press’ is an instrument of capitalism and works to support the hegemony of American finance. Get hold of Manufacturing Consent (1983), Necessary Illusions (1989), and his more recent work, How The World Works (2012) and discover what free thought is all about.

2. Ashis Nandy

The author of the concise classic, The Intimate Enemy (1983), and the ground breaking Traditions,Tyranny and Utopias (1987), is quite simply one of the great thinkers of our time. But he is not easy to understand. He operates on a non-dualistic logic where relationships of similarity and convergence are more important than cold rationality. He functions beyond (rather than outside) the established conventions of western thought. Both the man and his ideas span a different universe, a universe that includes ‘the West’ but only as a victim of its own thought and instrumental rationality. Nandy takes the side of the victims of history and the casualties of the present – fatalities and suffers of an array of grand western ideas such as Modernity, Science, Rationality, Development, Nation State. He seeks both to unite the victims and to increase the awareness of their victimhood. Even though he was trained as a psychologist, Nandy has no respect for disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, to accept the disciplinary structure of modern knowledge is to accept the worldview of the West. But Nandy’s scholarship is not interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary in the conventional sense; he is no ‘Renaissance Man’. He is a polymath is the traditional understanding of the word: he operates beyond the disciplinary structure of knowledge and regards all sources of knowledge as equally valid and all methods and modes of inquiry as equally useful.

3. Edward W. Said

Well known for Orientalism  (1978), Edward Said (1935–2003) was a dangerous freethinker in part because the book’s core message rattled an audience that was used to having it all its own way. Said’s thesis, that orientalist scholarship is tied to the discourse and project of imperialism, was aimed at those who provide it with academic and intellectual justification, and it had a major impact on its intended target. The thesis itself was not new; it had been outlined by the Syrian scholar of Islam, A L Tibawi (1910–1981), and Egyptian political scientist and Marxist, Anouar Abdel-Malik (1924–2012), and others before. But Said framed it within the discourse of literary criticism and the academy has never been the same. The great Orientalist-era scholars of his age, men such as Bernard Lewis, Albert Hourani and William Montgomery Watt, were far less troubled by the writers who had preceded Said, so much so that they rarely bothered to respond. Only after Orientalism were they woken up to produce an avalanche of books, essays, pamphlets, lectures, and countless media appearances attacking Said. Said effectively forced them into introspection, and the need to explain in public the discourse, methods, the donors, the wider politics and their own personal motivations for their work.

4. Jerry Ravetz

The mild-mannered and self-effacing author of the seminal Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems (1972) is not an obvious candidate for the ‘dangerous’ label. But Ravetz, who trained in mathematics before heading up history and philosophy of science at the University  of Leeds, is a giant among the philosophers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He was among the first to draw attention to the changing nature of science, especially the absence of certainty in the scientific method, and the dilemmas of making decisions based on incomplete information. His pioneering work on risks and post-normal science will stand the test of time. No wonder he is shunned by the science establishment.

5. Fatema Mernissi

Sociologist Fatema Mernissi began writing on patriarchy in Islam in the 1970s onwards, when the default position among many Islamic states, writers, thinkers and faith-based civil society activists was that women have more protections under Islam and theocratic environments than in secular ones. The outspoken Mernissi, a long-time professor at the King Muhammad V University, shattered these illusions. In Women in Islam (1991) she explored misogyny in the earliest Islamic societies, highlighting members  of  the  Prophet  Muhammad’s inner  circle  among the perpetrators. That’s getting too close to the edge; and would have attracted death sentences had she been based anywhere but Morocco. In The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1994) she uncovered the names of women who have held state power going back fifteen centuries. Through a string of such books as Beyond  the Veil (1975) and The Veil and the Male Elite (1987), Mernissi pioneered Islamic feminism and established the path for others to follow.

6. Sisters in Islam

The Malaysian based Sisters have not been too far behind Mernissi. The Sisters, a group of scholars, lawyers and journalists, came together in 1987 to advocate, and fight for, gender equality, human rights and social justice. That means taking on the Shari’a; and the Sisters have been anything bushy about telling the truth to Medina. The shaping of the future is not something that can be left to ‘religious scholars’, they have argued. Rather, it is the task of all to rethink the Shari’a and foster an enlightened and contemporary understanding of the Qur’an. The Sisters have helped countless women seek legal redress through the Shari’a courts. Led by the journalist Zainah Anwar, the Sisters have included the sociologist Norani Othman and American scholar and activist Amina Wadud, amongst its ranks; although, an occasional brother, such as the legal scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali, is allowed into the inner sanctum. The only group of genuine freethinkers to come out of Malaysia, the Sisters are constantly attacked and maligned by the conservative Muftis and religious scholars.

7. Hernando de Soto Polar

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto was tackling capitalism long before Thomas Piketty, the current flavour of the month. And unlike Piketty, de Soto does not suggest that simply taxing the rich will solve the problems. De Soto is known for his influential book, The Mystery of Capital:Why Capitalism Works in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (2000).What makes rich rich, he argues, is property rights – that is, they own property in all sense of the word. They could own land, housing, businesses, intellectual property. The poor are denied these rights – that’s why they remain poor. Or in other words, the free market should really be free – for the rich as well as the poor. Between 1988 and 1995, de Soto put his ideas to work by producing a string of legal reforms and designed the administrative reforms of Peru – allowing poor farmers and peasants to own land, and giving titles to families which allowed them to move from the black market to the formal economy. Peru’s economy was transformed. He helped introduce similar initiatives in El Salvador and Haiti. There is only one problem. The World Bank and the IMF like his ideas. As we said, the powers that be are keen to bring freethinkers inside their circumference.

8. Nurcholish Madjid

No Muslim country has produced as many freethinking activists as Indonesia, scholars and intellectuals as diverse as Haji Misbach (1876-1926), who argued that Islam and socialism were compatible; Dawam Rahardjo, who at the age of seventy-one continues to champion pluralism, religious freedom and defending minorities, such as the Shia, from the wrath of the conservative establishment at considerable risk to himself; and writer and academic Kuntowijoyo (1943–2005), who championed plurality and democratic accountability both in his fiction and non-fiction. Most Indonesian freethinkers are not known outside their own country as their works seldom get translated and never get the attention they deserve. The freethinker who we would like to champion is Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005), who was the student of another great freethinker, the late Pakistani American scholar Fazlur Rahman (1919–1988). Affectionately known in Indonesia as Cak Nur, Madjid worked for modernizing Islam from within. Islam, he argued, is all about ideas; and to fight the battle for ideas, it must embrace tolerance, pluralism and democracy. ‘The Islamic State Does Not Exist’, he declared in a famous correspondence with one of the leaders of the Indonesian war of independence; and coined the slogan: ‘Islam yes, Islamic parties no’.

9. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

The Brazilian anthropologist specialises in looking at Christianity and the West from the perspective of American Indians, as illustrated by the title of one of his books, From the Enemy’s Point ofView: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society (1992). He has transformed our understanding of the Amazonian society, culture, cosmology and rituals almost single-handedly. De Castro shows that the Amazonian peoples, such as the Arawete tribe, have a dynamic, complex and tragic vision of the world, and their societies were astonishingly open and transformative. Moreover, some even had the cultural integrity to face and overcome the vicious forces of European imperialism and modernity. In a discipline renowned more for being the hand-maiden of colonialism than  originality, he is a refreshing, freethinking voice.

10. Roger van Zwanenberg

And finally to someone who provided a platform for the voice of freethinkers. You have probably never heard of economic historian-turned publisher Roger van Zwanenberg. He is the founder of not one, but two independent publishing houses: Zed Books and Pluto Press. He is chairman of the latter. Between them, both publishers have provided a home for freethinkers around the world for nearly a century. Pluto is often the publisher of choice for authors from the Middle East and North Africa, where, until quite recently, independent publishing in English and Arabic was barely tolerated by state authorities. Pluto’s authors include Noam Chomsky, Nick Robins, author of The Corporation that Changed the World, one of the best histories of the East India Company, and our very own Ziauddin Sardar (now there is a dangerous freethinker to boot).