Friday, December 24, 2010

Xmas and an epistemic Muslim community

Pamulang, Nov. 27, 2010. The gathering started from something fun but a little bizarre. The host, Neng Dara, a commissioner at the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan), initially invited us just for a “family” gathering through our mailing list.

There was no indication there would be a serious discussion related to her concerns about Indonesia’s current issues. Then, amid an opening full of laughter, she suddenly talked about Indonesia’s future, especially about the current issue of decreasing tolerance among Indonesians.

The forum, voluntarily founded at the outset as a study group in 1986 by some students of Jakarta State Islamic University, somehow could not be detached from what we can call “something serious”. That night, Saiful Mujani, a world-renowned Indonesian professor and a founder of the forum, talked about his nostalgia of the 1980s, when he and his colleagues brought the forum into being. But he mixed his stories with an apprehension of the contemporary threats of pro-violence religious radicalism. So, there was again happiness as well as concern at the gathering that night.

Perhaps this was a small-scale communicative community given the ideal opportunity to make a speech that German philosopher Jurgen Habermas gave years ago. In the vision he painted, freedom flows and every mind opens. Everyday talk, however trivial it may be, is free from errors such as repression or anything that might hamper honesty or alike. Such a community would enable us to talk with dignity so that everybody has a respected place, regardless of the job he or she does.

In our case, Saiful calls this an epistemic community. It is a forum in which members feel an attachment with such an intellectual spirit in mind. We are all Muslims but we are concerned about our non-Muslims’ sufferings caused by state or majority arbitrariness. The seniors (who are not students anymore) are now working for diverse institutions and companies but they have at least several things in common: Reading books and other reading material, they have political awareness and are actively involved to different extents in social affairs and human rights activities.

Our community is also like a “clandestine” voluntary association with a zest to fight tyranny or such and the status quo. There is a filmmaker among us, for example, and she makes movies sounding social injustice. There is a poet and he writes things without weird that shackle creativity. There is a religious cleric but he talks about Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche without arbitrarily blaming their thoughts.

Another story that night was about the pragmatic tendency of contemporary students’ academic lives. Their propensity toward how to be well-employed, well-paid or well-linked to political figures after their university years is assumed to have weakened their potential to be agents of social change. The evidence is clear: Study groups with strong social academic backgrounds and academically crafted social movements are hardly found nowadays. Instead, most student activities are measured mathematically: post-study financial return or future employment opportunities.

We also see that students’ associations hardly involve themselves in defending minority rights. They might have political protest agendas, for instance, but they don’t seem to have enough awareness of or concern for human rights or racism issues. Their concerns are for catchy political issues, which shows their consciences are developed more by mainstream vistas, not, for example, by fundamental knowledge found through in-depth reading and reasoning.

That night, at the gathering, we were also reminded again about how Indonesia is now traversing the transition to a democracy where everyone, or groups, has a better chance to voice a thought regardless of triviality or even artificiality. But, it is something we accept with gratitude as well as anxiety. This transition allows us to enjoy more freedom than before but at the same time we sadly see, for example, religious radicalism arising with violent inclination.

Now, welcoming 2010’s Christmas, the availability of epistemic Muslim communities in Indonesia seems to be very promising due to peacebuilding efforts. Imagine if members of these communities were everywhere at all institutions. They would influence their surroundings with the notion of a “free market of ideas” as well as the necessity to respect one’s choice. They will better guarantee amity instead of hostility. We will see a Christmas day without cops with cocked-rifles; a Christmas day as it should be.

That’s why, that night, two agendas were agreed. First, our epistemic forum must run as usual at any cost. The very small segment of university students who join our forum will keep learning things that have likely been abandoned in the university curricula: progressive social sciences, enlightening philosophy, logical and rational religious studies, or the way students’ protests must be intelligently conducted.

Secondly, an active participation in the democratization process is a must for everybody. But it could be manifested in various ways. NGO activists will do what they can to endorse the process while university lecturers might be acting as the motivators among their academic fellows. The journalists will ensure that the news voices an atmosphere of freedom, while political observers will keep enunciating people’s welfare as the utmost aim of each polity.

Hopefully, with this and other epistemic Muslim communities, however small they are, we might see a Christmas day as peaceful as an Idul Fitri day. Having a ritual in a church is likely to be as safe as performing an Islamic ritual in a mosque.
Khairil Azhar researcher at Paramadina Foundation, Jakarta. Jakarta

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