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Liberty? Equality? Fraternity?
It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere! - Voltaire (1694-1778)

14 July   |   2004   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

It is with a sense of fanfare and rejoicing that the whole of France celebrates today - 14 July 2004 - the 215th anniversary of the recapture of the much-dreaded Bastille prison in Paris. There will be an unmistakable outpouring of joy in many regions of France, as the older and younger generations join hands to recall the French revolutionary history that heralded a new era of emancipation, human rights and democracy. The proclamation of the first Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, followed by the second one in 1793, set out new rights and new demands. Shortly thereafter, the Manifesto of Equals during year IV of the revolution, constituted an appeal to the future. This privilege of the present and the future over the past, strongly affirmed in 1793, opens the way to all forms of renewal and allows us to believe in the truly international mission of human rights. 

Indeed, although quite modest in its own right, Bastille Day has provoked a powerful and lasting impact on the history of France. It inaugurated the French revolution, rid France of a corrupt monarchy, limited the influence of a nepotistic Church and led to the implementation of a republican sense of governance. The [painfully] ambitious motto of the revolution - Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité - reverberated as loudly in 1789 as it does again today when the French, British and other forces troop down the Champs Elysées together. But its impact transcends its own geographical boundaries and illustrates the concept of a home in a larger demographic world. After all, as he was leaving Vietnam for France, did Ho Chi Minh not say, I am finally going to get to know the land of freedom and equality?

But how valid are those three almost imperceptible words today as we witness the ravages meted by humankind against itself - in view of the ongoing wars, conflicts, genocide, ethnic cleansing, violence and oppression that have almost become normative and habitual realities. Did the liberation of the Bastille prison in 1789 and the ideals of the Enlightenment signify the transmutation of the values of our world from oppression and suppression into freedom and democracy?  Is it possible that this epic moment in our history - certainly alongside the English Bill of Rights of 1689 - altered the value system of human beings and weaned them away from perversion, cruelty and injustice?

Liberty in 2004?  So many vile crimes are still committed in its name across the world, and so much power is being usurped, exercised and abused by leaders and despots alike under the thin guise of liberty!  Equality in 2004? How can there be equality when the combined fortune of the four richest men in the world surpasses the gross national product of the 35 poorest nations of the world - or roughly 600 million inhabitants of this earth?  How can we talk about equality when the debt-relief campaign still being waged the world over today by so many organisations is falling on half-deaf ears? Fraternity in 2004? With instances of ethnic cleansing across all continents, from Darfur to the Balkans, it becomes rather difficult to take this concept quite so seriously! And with the suffering of countless men and women - from Iraq to Palestine and from Haïti to Ingushia - can we truly relate to fraternity with any reverence?  Can we speak of a philosophy - let alone philology - of natural rights today?

The Christian Bible teaches us that the finality of the world is not only to be found in eternal beatitude. It should also be discovered in equality, fraternity, tenderness and peace. It is only by struggling for equality and dignity for all humankind that we can hope to move toward a sense of fraternity. As we face the expectations and challenges of the year 2004 and beyond, it might be helpful to remember that Jesus’ message throughout his earthly ministry was based on achieving equality for all peoples born in the likeness and image of God - and thereby underscoring the earthly senses of worth, dignity and respect.  The Book of Genesis affirms this likeness of all human being when it says, God created human beings, making them to be like himself (Gn 1:27). Would it not be wonderful if we overstepped our ambitions and designs, our egos and pride, and helped transform the present world of AIDS and hunger, discrimination and human rights’ violations, into an ethical and welcoming global village for all peoples on all continents?

Over the years, those who have inflicted misery and heaped injustice upon their global neighbours have tarnished the collective three-word significance of the French revolution. Just look at the greedy wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Just consider the bloody suicide bombs and terrorist attacks. Just think of the mistreatment of peoples across the globe whose rights are constantly trodden over by those with power, might and money. The picture is not too cheerful in 2004 - not too different from what it was in 1789 but minus the technology. However, despite those shortcomings and lapses, it is a fact that the inherent ethos, universal ambitions and lofty principles of the French revolution remain constant today.

I believe so because Victor Hugo’s words, An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come, remain as desperately true in 2004 as they were when he wrote them in Histoire d’un Crime in 1852.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2004   |   14 July


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