Thursday, January 05, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, August 3, 2005


Alpha Amirrachman, Jakarta

A friend who is currently attending an international conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the U.S. sent an email. He wrote about his experience walking along a corridor, the Infinity Corridor, which not only functions to connect MIT's buildings but also to elucidate a metaphor about the long journey of prominent intellectuals to academic immortality.

One of the buildings connected by the corridor is the Mike Myer Building, named after a Jewish-American entrepreneur who built the center for the study of theoretical and applied physics. The front building is filled with pictures of outstanding scientists -- like Faraday, Maxwell, Rutherford and others. Under these pictures one can read earnest acknowledgments about these scientists' contributions to civilization.

However, what astounded the friend and made him deeply proud was the inclusion of the pictures of Al-Hazen and Al-Jabir with their distinct Arabic visages -- long beards and white robes -- alongside the other scientists. This, the friend wrote, manifested the recognition of the West that Islamic civilization has had considerable role in mankind's development and that its contribution has also been a major foundation of the advancement of science in Western countries.

He said we should feel indebted that much of the invaluable knowledge inherited from the golden age of Islam had been "saved" and nurtured in the West for the betterment of modern civilization. The West did this when leaders in the Islamic world were preoccupied with amassing power, money or collecting harems, pampering their egos and instituting repressive styles of governance that virtually banned free thinking and effectively halted human civilization.

If the West had been narrow-minded, it would never have publicly admitted the contribution of Muslim scholars, nor would it have gracefully displayed their pictures in this most-respected research institution, my friend wrote.

Jurgen Habermas in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity writes when reviewing Theunissen's position on Hegel's proposition: "In such a relation one partner is not the limit of the other's freedom, but the very condition of other's successful selfhood. And the communicative freedom of one individual cannot be complete without the realized freedom of all others."

This statement also explains the essence of "pluralism", which is still integrally part of all functioning diverse societies, and was also a vivid fact of life during the era of Prophet Muhammad in Medina, where people from many different faiths coexisted peacefully, respecting each other's roles at the individual and the collective level.

Therefore, when we discard "pluralism" on the simplistic grounds that this idea comes from the West, we don't only reject the very essence of our societies, we also begin to deny the existence of others; we start erecting a perilously divisive wall between "us" and "them".

This kind of thinking steadily builds an awareness that we will only complete our existence, or self-actualize, through the subordination or even the "disappearance" of other groups.

What would happen if this standpoint was pedagogically nurtured in our educational institutions, particularly in religious-affiliated ones? What would emerge would be an authoritarian society that would in due course rob other groups of their rights and freedoms and then rob its followers of theirs. It would start with the persecution of "deviant" groups -- like Ahmadiyah.

At a time when the nation needs people to pull together to confront the multifaceted problems it faces, such narrow-minded intolerance is extremely regrettable.

Therefore, when a colleague asked for my comments on the controversial fatwa issued by the conservative state-sanctioned Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which ruled that religious pluralism was against Islam because of its alleged campaign for "relative truth", I could only sadly reply: "My deepest condolences for pluralism which has received the 'death penalty' in our country. It is perhaps time to throw the bhinneka tunggal ika slogan (unity in diversity) into the rubbish bin."

It should be noted that when a claim that one religious teaching is the "most-truthful" and others are "less-truthful" is seen to be exclusively endorsed by the state, an undue tension among believers is inevitable. Already some conscientious citizens with clear minds have rejected this bigotry, but this will still potentially hinder the spirit of interfaith dialog and multi-religious education.

In short, societies need enough room to act upon what they perceive as their religious or spiritual duties, and it is the prime obligation of the state to ensure that all religions are equally free to exist without fear of persecution.

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