A couple of weeks ago, a small ceremony took place in a London square; a memorial was unveiled to a young Indian and Muslim princess, Noor Inayat Khan, who parachuted into Nazi-occupied France in World War II to act as a spy for the British. She was captured, tortured and then executed in a concentration camp – her last shouted word before the crash of the rifles, “Liberte”. Her memorial is a salutary reminder of the many individuals who have given their lives resisting the barbaric and fighting for freedom .
I was reminded again of this, when I stopped in the British Museum for a couple of hours between appointments in London. It is a place where I have often spent a fascinating hour or two, marvelling at the great works of past peoples and civilisations – Egypt, Assyria, Saxon England, the Ming dynasty China. This day, I went into the Ancient Greek galleries.
The total number of items on display isn’t actually that great, but it does include some remarkable pieces – statues that still carry a sense of reverence for the beauty and divinity of the human form as perceived in that time, more than 2,000 years ago. But the great majority of the displays come from one of the earliest and greatest single examples of ancient public art still to be seen in the world today; the Parthenon at Athens – only the temples and pyramids of Ancient Egypt, remain as visible in our modern times. These statues and relief carvings were created as part of a powerful and permanent reminder of the triumph of the free Greek states against the threat of conquest by the Empire of Persia, 2,400 years ago. And it was created by public agreement. What an exhilarating thing it must have been for the people of Athens to pass through the portals of a monument to their own beliefs and courage, built at their own hands.
But then, to bring everything completely up to date, as I left through the gates of the museum, a tall young man reached out to me in the evening gloom – he passed me a booklet entitled “Discover Islam”. Against a background of fear, suspicion and antagonism created by the last few years’ extremist behaviour, it described a faith that promotes peace, compassion and acquiescence to the will of a supreme creator.
From the time that the Parthenon was first conceived and no doubt before, individuals and nations have fought at different times for their freedom – often standing on opposing sides and frequently invoking the same ideas and the same gods as their authority against each other. Standing back and considering that history, I cannot help feeling that either, the human race is mad or, we need some fundamental new thinking about what freedom is and what it means. Freedom for whom? To do what? And at what cost? A freedom maintained by guns and fear, or a freedom used to self-satisfaction only – are these the ways of true freedom, or something lesser that masquerades as such, deceiving us as to our own higher nature?