Muslim Students, Challenge Yourselves!
by Azly Rahman
An introduction to a speech on "student idealism" delivered at the annual gathering of the Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim students in Washington D.C., USA., December 2007. (PART 1)
Assalamualikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.
Peace and Blessings to all of you. May Allah Bless our gathering and grant us wisdom and serenity amidst this increasingly chaotic world in which the powerful amongst us continue to trample over the powerless. May we see this trend reversed, in our lifetime.
I thank you for inviting me to me speak on something which makes me feel twenty years younger – on "student idealism", on what is it, and what to do with it. I love the word "idealism". It brings us right to what the Greek philosopher Plato said about the difference between "forms" and "appearance". Of what the Hindus say about "Maya" and the troubled "yuga" in which Prince Rama would come back to bring salvation. A world in which the "rapper" and the "hip hopper" would say "for real…my dude?"
Twenty year ago, when I was very young, when I was president of the Malaysian Student Association and then of the Southeast Asian Student Association in an American university in the Midwest, friends and I used to explore issues of what to do when we have ideals. Countless hours of dialogues amongst friends of all races and nationalities, coupled with our obsession with the topic of the impeding collapse of the dreaded apartheid system in South Africa and the subsequent release of Nelson Mandela – hundred of hours of these -- yielded in us some sense of idealism. We studied the secret mission, logic, and innerworkings of the American multinational corporations in propping up dictators around the world.
We studied what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex". We were passionate about all these, blending what we learned in the classroom – knowledge gained from professors of the anti-Vietnam war era – with what we can possible do as "citizens of the world" imbued with the idea of universal human rights. The Internet and the World Wide Web was beginning to take shape. As you know, both were developed out of womb of the US Military – under a project called DARPA-NET. The Internet began with 5 computers talking to each others, sharing military intelligence. That was the consequence of the evolution of Cybernetics Theory.
We read philosophy, politics, race theory, and radical sociology – to get a better grasp of what we mean by being a committed student of idealism. With two good friends of mine – one Chinese and one Indian, one a student of Engineering and the other of Philosophy and Psychology -- we would have our summer midnight strolls along the man-made river across our campus – talking about issues and possible resolutions. Never had we thought that Malaysian politics would have gotten worse.
We spoke up against racial discrimination, corruption, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. We spoke for equal opportunity and the respect for all cultures. We questioned almost everything, true to the meaning of academic freedom we were trained in.
We were in America. We had the freedom to do that – speak at forums where Malaysian officials visit to speak of this or that program the government is doing. I remember on one occasion when Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was visiting the campus as Education Minister, we had to announce our name and our Identity Card (IC) number in public if we wanted to ask questions. That was way before Malaysian students all over the world had to sign the Surat Akujanji and be in an oath-taking ceremony to pledge loyalty to whoever the leader is and however he/she conducts himself or herself as a leader. Signing it, like many of us are beginning to experience, will take away your rights to seek outside help in case your fundamental rights as a citizen, under Article 10 is violated, as in the case of the student in UPM whose laptop was taken away. He was not allowed to seek the help of a lawyer.
Have things changed these days? Especially in our public universities back home? Your guess is as good as mine. Your analyses too might be better than mine, since you are in contact with friends back home.
How privileged you are to be able to sit in classrooms in your Liberal Arts and Social Science classes at Rutgers, Syracuse, Stevens, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, etc. wherein your professor will never call in the Special Branch or the FBI or the SWAT team or the Ninja Turtles everytime he/she hears someone badmouthing President George Bush or any of the members of his family, including his dogs.
America has its major flaws but democracy is constantly reinterpreted. We might even have the first woman president or even better, the first African American president from an Opposition party. This is something we can also look forward to in Malaysia – the radical changing of paradigms without much damage done to our national psyche. People here do not panic when there is a possible or imminent change in government. They just continue living and they cheer when a politician gets jailed for corruption and abuse of power. As long as the economy's fine, as long as the streets are safe, and they have a job, things move on.
This is the essence of American pragmatism one can learn from. As a nation being colonized by the British and as one which is founded upon the principles of a republic, Americans speak up for universal human rights as well. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, as many Americans now believe. Democracy here is a "lived experience" permeating even in the lives of young children in the classroom in which children are encouraged to speak up, ask questions, or even disagree with the teachers.
As students we must understand not only how fragile the world has always been but how changes happen across time and space. We are seeing exciting changes happening in Malaysia. No longer are people keeping silent -- after 22 years of being silenced. The old regime is slowly crumbling, being deconstructed, making way for a newer world order in an age wherein change and complexity is the norm. Wealth and power are merely ephemeral constructs and very fragile these days. What happened to Marcos, Thaksin, the Shah of Iran, Suharto, or even John Howard of Australia can happen anywhere in the Asian state. Money and Machiavelli can't but happiness or political stability. Ethics and spirituality can do a better job.
Never take stability for granted, nor geographical boundaries as constant. What happened to Singapore in 1965 can happen to Kelantan, Kedah, Penang, Sabah, Sarawak, or even to the tiny kingdom of Perlis in 2025. We must be ready to manage change and perhaps direct its energy to our heart's desire, with Fate conspiring.
In this postmodern world, anything is possible – boundaries shifting, the wealthy and the powerful hunted down for corruption and finally jailed for life, campuses and classrooms becoming an arena for free-flowing exchange of ideas however radical and ridiculous these ideas may be. We might even see all forms of university programs that teach racism through indoctrination and singing outdated propaganda songs about a child playing with fire, banned.
We might even see politically-appointed educational leaders removed and replaced by those interested in freeing our universities. We might even see students of all races sit together during lunch breaks and at dinner tables, talking about how to feed to poor of all races and how best to build a future postmodern republic that is founded upon peace, anti-elitism, virtue, social justice, and deeply meaningful inter-cultural understanding.
I am a dreamer -- after seeing many nightmares in broad daylight.
It seems that we are living in two worlds – one that allows us to speak out our mind in this forum and not get hunted down, and one that makes us afraid to even think of how to express our idealism. This is the world of America on the one hand, and Malaya on the other. I call it Malaya because we are still a colony – colonized by ourselves and the structures we have allowed to be installed and become institutions and ultimately institutionalized and alienate us. Malaysia declared its Independence fifty years ago – but it remains a state that merely declared its Independence. Some say that we are evolving into a 'police state". It is up to you to characterize what this state means.
In relation to all these then, what is an ideal Muslim student and the nature of idealism he/she embodies? How must he/she function in a world that demands not only racial and religious tolerance but a synthesis of ideas foundationed upon idealism whose flame that will not be allowed die? How do we train ourselves to become what I call radical, world wise thinkers who must think like a social futurist?
We shall explore this further. At the end of this talk I am interested in how you come up with more radical questions than the responses to the propositions I made.