We’ve all heard this quote and we all know it’s true. But I have to admit that until being in another country and for that matter, the country with the largest Muslim population, did I realize just how true this sentiment is. After listening to the lectures from Wednesday and yesterday, I’ve started to wonder what it is about the unknown that scares people. Why is it so difficult for us as people to open the lines of communication and engage in dialogue with one another? Why is it that we continue to surround ourselves with others like us, who share many of the same opinions and experiences when that actually hinders us as a functioning society?
Yesterday we heard from Professor Francois Bourget, the head of the French Institute of the Near East and an expert on Arab-Western relations. He gave a lecture on Democracy in the Middle East, touching on some of the political history along with the components that produced radical Islamic thought. It was really interesting to hear him speak about many of the same issues we’ve been exploring in the Indonesian context but in a completely different part of the world. Part of what was so fascinating for me was that with the fall of Indonesia’s authoritarian dictator, Soeharto in1998, there was a peaceful, non-violent transition. Yet, in many countries in the Middle East, this is not the case. We’ve seen in cases like Libya and Egypt, with the people’s demand for a new government, comes violence and death. Francois said that some people might want to attribute this to the fact that some populations are just more violent than others, but he does not agree with this explanation. Islamic understanding and involvement in politics can yield many different results, on one end of the spectrum there is what we’ve seen as radical-Taliban action and on the other, there is a type of democracy, yet this democracy is different from what the United States conception of democracy. It seems though that American news coverage never seems to headline these cases of a successful democratic society informed by Islamic understand, instead focusing on radical movements to instill fear and terror in the hearts of its citizens. This type of bias is not productive, and as Bourget pointedly said, “I’m tired of all the room Al-Qaeda is taking in our heads.” He said that when you think about the death and destruction caused by Al-Qaeda in comparison to all the death and destruction caused by the United States, the French, Pinochet and numerous other political actors, it’s 1-100,000. What does this say about our society then? We’re a society that thrives on fear, but this fear half of the time isn’t even legitimate. When we come back to the United States with the Indonesian students, it’s almost inevitable that Fikar, a Muslim man, will get taken aside by airport security and ruthlessly questioned. We’ve apologized to him in advance but why is this something that we even have to do in the first place. We’ve become obsessed with fear, with security, and with that, we’ve sacrificed a chance to learn about other cultures and to realize that Islam is not about violence, nor is it repressive to women. Just as Bourget is tired of all the room that Al-Qaeda is taking, I’m tired of the common perception that the hijab (or head scarf) is a symbol of women’s repression and inferiority. Wearing the hijab is a choice for Muslim women; it is not a forced action, especially here in Indonesia.
Bourget says that he cringes when he hears “Muslim values” and “Western values” because at the end of the day, they are the same values. Social justice is universal, we all share similar values but every culture has a different symbolic system. Therefore, we must learn to allow other cultures to use a different vocabulary and symbolic system to achieve democracy. I asked Bourget if he believed democracy truly is the answer for every society, and he answered that it absolutely is. The issue is that for democracy to work, it must fit the vocabulary, symbolic system and values of the people it is claiming to represent. Additionally, as we attempt to move toward a more democratic world, we must constantly ask ourselves the question of what is modernity and who defines it. For the United States, modernity is freedom of expression, a main reason why it’s so difficult for Americans to conceptualize the use of a hijab. Yet, from different values comes a different understanding of modernity and this is something that we must constantly remind ourselves of. No matter how we dress, what religion we believe, what color skin we have, in the end we have many of the same values. It is then the question of adapting democracy to properly fit each cultural variation. At first, it was hard for me to understand how a country that requires their citizens to have a religion can also be considered a democracy. However, after hearing Bourget speak and being in Indonesia, I realize that the while democracy here may be different it is no less valid. For instance, there is limited freedom in the press and other modes of communication because defamation of any religion is forbidden. While to many Americans this may seem repressive, it actually helps to ensure a more peaceful and harmonious society. When you approach the issue in this way, it begins to make more sense as you begin to realize just how big a role religion plays in the lives of Indonesians.
I really love how every day is making me think long and hard about some difficult issues that are facing the world today. On a different note, today Mas Abe told me that my name in Javanese means, “left behind,” which is quite fitting considering my luggage situation. Also, on Tuesday, the group almost left me at UGM, Mas Indra had to run after the van… Here’s hoping to better luck!