“Hold on fast to your dreams, stay close to your ideals”
Speech on "student idealism" delivered at the annual gathering of the Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim students of North America and
By Dr. Azly Rahman.
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
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 cultivated in.
We were in
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, University of Chicago, 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.
We ought to learn from this: to celebrate the coming of a true "multicultural
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
Never take stability for granted, nor geographical boundaries as constant. What happened to
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
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 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 more interested in how you come up with more radical questions than the responses to the propositions I made.
Part II: Students, question authority!
Most respected Malaysian and Indonesian students of the Islamic faith, let us continue. I begin with two quotes:
"Everything is good in the hands of the author of Things, everything degenerates in the hands of Man," said Jean Jacques Rousseau, the spiritual force of the French Revolution.
"Know thyself know thy enemies, one hundred battles one hundred victories," said the legendary Chinese military leader Sun Tzi.
If there is a thesis statement or a guiding idea or an inquiry theme in my speech today, it is this: question authority, break new frontiers of thinking, but listen to the voice of the inner self in order to serve humanity.
We live in interesting times, as chairman Mao Zedong once said; interesting because the forces of globalisation is at perpetual war with humanity's inner sense of beingness.
We are a republic onto itself. We are a kingdom we govern ourselves. In each and every one of us lies an inner world bigger than the world outside - a world if known, if and only if we know ourselves – is a world in which freedom reigns and one in which the self refuses to be caged and shackled by structures of oppression built by others.
The essence of being human is that of having the insatiable urge to question and to search for answers, and next, not satisfied with the answers, to continue to question. Some revolutionary thinkers call this dialectics; the permanent revolution in our world of cognition. Becoming a human being is a process – we are as a French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would say, beings in the process of becoming and by doing so we define the world and able to "name" it. We have always lived a life in which our world is already pre-determined, our belief system prepackaged, and our knowledge of the political world prepared for us as propaganda produced and disseminated by those who owns the means of producing propaganda. We have live in what a British writer Eric Blair/George Orwell called a world of "doublespeak" wherein what it said has its form and appearance.
Ethos of questioning
As students living and breathing the world of knowledge, in a culture – the American progressive culture – of learning, we must embody the ethos of questioning. We must question everything and not allow answers to live inside of us for long. It is only through this process that we will feel and experience within ourselves – our Inner world – the process of constant or permanent revolution in how we acquire our understanding of the world.
To evolve into wiser individuals with enquiring minds, we must ask questions and reflect upon the answers suggested to us. If we are afraid to ask questions, our mind and consciousness will be owned and manipulated by those who think they have the right answers, or by those who wants to use force to tell us what the right answers shall be.
Question authority – that was what a
Every moment of our waking life must be a philosophical one. Every moment must generate enough questions to make us go to bed still questioning the phenomena we see around us and the experiences we are confronted with in that waking moment. Questions make us more human just as the food we eat gives us the strength to continue living as human beings and the self-affirmation mantras/doas/zikirs/prayers we say silently to ourselves give us the inner strength to feed our spirit so that we may know ourselves better and ultimately know the Creator.
The mind, the body, and the spirit become the tripartite of this beingness and becomingness of our existence. It creates, recreates, constructs and reconstructs this kingdom of the Self we inhabit. Not even the Sultans some choose to bow down to in this world of illusion, can ever see how powerful the inner kingdom we have built within us – only if we are aware of the power within. No even the Neon Gods on Times Square New York reigning on New Year's Eve, come close to understanding how beautiful and glorious the Inner World we inhabit - again, only if we know who we are.
We are evolving selves in a journey to understand, realize, and finally inhabit and embody the Ultimate Truth. The truth is universal. We are little truths that live in the moments of the particular. I shall not elaborate further this philosophical notion of Universalism versus the Particularism, Form versus Appearance, the evolving self versus the larger Self as to confuse you. You will need to experience this journey yourself – by first questioning authority and freeing yourselves from the mental and spiritual cages you let others with money and the skills to create architecture of power built.
Who are you as a self that questions your very existence? Let me offer some a clue of what being an "individual" means; of what being a ruler of one's own kingdom entails. But first, let us ponder upon these basic questions:
How are human beings controlled by those who own the means of intellectual and economic production?
How does power, in its raw and refined form, operate in our society?
How is it dispersed?
How is power sustained?
How is truth produced?
How is truth multiplied?
How is the self constructed?
How are we alienated?
What is inscribed onto the body and into the mind, in the process of schooling?
How is human imagination confined and how might it be released?
How is the mind enslaved by the politics of knowledge?
How is historical knowledge packaged?
How do we define our existence in this Age of Information?
Who decides what is important in history?
What is an ideal multi-cultural society?
How has our idea of multi-culturalism influence the way we live our lives?
What historical knowledge is of importance?
What tools do we need to create our own history?
How is the individual more powerful than the state?
How is a philosopher-king created?
How is justice possible?
Who should rule and why?
How are we to teach about justice?
And finally, how might we realise a democratic-republic of virtue - one that is based on a form of democracy that is meaningful and personal?
Thank you for not falling asleep during this lecture. I suppose you have the right to do so if this is a dead boring lecture. I will have to tell the conference organizers to provide you with pillows then – yellow pillows with pictures of the Malaysian flag and the
Part III: Limits of democracy and individualism
I begin with two familiar quotes:
"A life unexamined is not worth living," said Socrates.
"Work hard as if you are to live forever, devote your beingness to the Creator as if you are to die tomorrow," goes a saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
In this third part of our discussion, we will talk about the world within and how this relates to the limits of democracy and individualism. I use the word "personacracy" or "deeply personal democracy" to describe what is it that we need to know about ourselves in order to navigate through the politics of representation of the modern world and signs and symbols of the postmodern environment we inhabit. We need, as an American social critic Frederic Jameson called a "cartography of the self" or a GPS system of our inner and outer world to function in this environment.
But first, what does being and "individual" mean? Let me offer a perspective that you can build upon. I need you to listen carefully to the concepts. They might make sense.
How limiting can the term "individualist" mean if it hovers merely within the realm of one's beingness in relation to this world wherein information is mistaken for knowledge and propaganda for truth within the assumption that what we know can merely be grasped by the senses five?
If one's entire beingness and becomingness is shackled by it being shaped by the apparatuses of the modern state, as the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci once said, and if one's understanding of the world is merely a mimic of what politics, culture and scientism has dictated, then the word "individualism" is but a term coined so that the personhood in each and every one of us becomes an object to be studied through the process of Othering. Within this delimiting and shackling context then, I must name myself less as an individual and more as a "personacrat."
My personacratic self primarily aims at understanding first and foremost my inner world with its attendant beauty and self-government, evolving personhood, destroying of paradigms and perpetual awareness of the supraconsciousness of what lies within. I am a personacrat derived from a conceptual meadow I coin as "personacracy"; a government (kratos) of the self, by the self, for the self.
I reject all forms of democracy; the illusionary system of government which has lost its meaning since it was first conceptualised. Personacracy allows me to be in this world of illusion, of Maya, but not be and become part of it. I am thus in this world but not of this world.
The government I have created in my wakefulness entails me to mediate between the I and the Thou-ness of the scheme of things. I conjure Existence as the highest ideal, going beyond merely thinking therefore I exist, rather believing that I exist within a universe of Existence. I persist to exist within this encapsulated notion called mind and body and persist to believe that when this body rots, death becomes the beginning of perpetual existence. I am eternal within this form and shape of beingness, until eternity calls upon me to be me with Nature and to be a witness to the Truth I have longed to meet.
I am truth within a Truth of greater magnitude. I am one and indivisible within a greater design of Oneness and Indivisibility. I utilize my senses five with guidance from my Inner Self in turn guided by a counter-balancing self within. And within these faculties and the political organs within, my entire personhood is a government in itself to be ethnically mastered and maneuvered through the oceans of mercy I call the world outside.
I am thus as such, closer to my Self than my jugular vein! In what ways then, am I not individualistic? Here are a few: I once wept when I had no shoes, until I saw a man with no feet; I once believed that man can rise to become Superman, until I sank deeper within myself to become a vicegerent of the Supreme Spirit; I once believed that life is to be lived until I heard one say the life unexamined is not worth living; I once believed that we live once and then die, until I discovered that death to me comes by every nightfall and I live a new life by every break of day; I once heard of a distant heaven and hell, until I name them so as I can be in them; I once let time pass, until I became it and gave what it asked for; I once thought loneliness is bliss until I began to desire of its unspeakable beauty; I once asked who should govern and why must I be governed until I found the ways to govern those within me who longed to be governed; I once marveled at creation, destruction and sustenance until I found that I am all in one Creator, Destroyer and Sustainer.
I am this world within and the world without but not with it. Because if I am part of it, I will be apart from the Thou I longed to be part of! I am a traveler passing through time. In my journey I have met mice and men, savages and savants, politicians and philosophers, economists and eco-feminists.
In my journey I have met Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault, Al Ghazalli and Al Arabi, and philosophers beyond the type of individualism I have been told to mimic. I am taking to the road not taken, for it should make a difference and as I pass through, I kept looking at open windows lest I be oblivious of what this world may teach.
Life and death
And as I pass through I become more subdued in my anger of what has wrought this world and made men wretched of the earth as I know that this journey is an arduous one; one which begins with a web of guess but will end at a point of certainty.
And at the moment of death, the end of the road, I am meeting a self of whom I am familiar with, who I once met before this journey begins. I create the rock I choose to roll so that one should imagine me happy. I can soar among eagles and dwell among sparrows.
Life, to me is not an end game but a journey towards Light, which has neither a beginning nor an end. And hence, why am I not an individual and democrat?
Because the world is too much for me. If all the world's a stage, I insist not being a mere player but to create one for myself so that I can, in the end hold it like a crystal ball – the world and the stage and its players in all. Is there not beauty in personacracy, than in democracy?
I believe, therefore I am a personacrat!
I hope you have questions on this part of the lecture and I hope you will be able to understand a perspective of the self better.
In the last part I shall talk about your role as students, by way of learning from your environment, by naming it, and transforming it when the time for change requires you to do so.
PART IV: Reflect, re-analyse, reconstruct, revolt!
We now come to the last part of our speech. If there is a restatement of my thesis statement, it should sound like this:
"Students, you are a beacon of hope. Reflect, reanalyse and revolt. Reclaim your righteous minds, as the African-American actor Denzel Washington said to his students in the movie The Great Debaters. Transform the world inside and outside."
The hope for change lies in the middle class and in public education, and in you, students of social change. How do we teach ourselves to analyse propaganda, bias, half-truths, and recognise progressive forces, institutions and organisations of change and subsequently align with these forces?
How do we retreat inside of ourselves first, just like what Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did in preparation to go out into society and deconstruct it, with the help of fate conspiring to change the scheme of things entire? The Prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition – the messengers of Allah – such as Abraham, David, Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them), and the transcultural philosopher of all ages such as Socrates, Siddhartha Gautama, Kabir, Guru Nanak, KungFu Tze, Lao Tze, Mencius and many others send to all nations since the beginning of humanity – all of them have gone through moments of reflection and engineer revolutions of the mind, body, soul, and even social relations of production. We need to read what the philosopher Karl Jaspers and later historian of religion Karen Armstrong said in her book A History of God about the Axial Age wherein there is a flowering of religious ideas in the East and the West particularly with the emergence of great minds such Socrates in Greece, Siddhartha Gautama in India and KungFu Tze in China.
We are in a postmodern age of creativity, chaos, cynicism, chasm, complexity and change – brought about by the advancement of technology, the permeation of relativity on thinking, and the globalisation of ideas. We need deep moments of reflection in order to survive in this chaotic world. We need to philosophise religion and to ask deep questions on what we believe in. Universities need to train students to engage in these activities in order to achieve a balance between the developments of the rational-scientific-instrumental-reasoning mind with the intuitive-creative-spiritual-contemplating-soul-searching mind. Guided by the Inner Self the individual that has evolved to the highest stage of moral and spiritual reasoning will be able to revolt against the corrupt system and help others do the same.
How do we do this in the Malaysian and Indonesian context?
I see great potential in our students in public universities they need to equip themselves with the skills to affect changes. It is their rights - the right to think and act and to organise for intelligent actions that will be of benefit to Malaysians of all races.
At the brink of the 2008 Malaysian general election, we are in a mess, are we not?! What was
Crime rate, mass dissatisfaction, oil prices, religious intolerance, levels of state-sponsored indoctrination in our educational institutions, number of those involved in substance abuse, dispossessed and marginalised youth, crackdown on dissenting and progressive voices of change, national concern for a fair election, the rot in the judiciary, arrogant public servants, cases of corruption in high and highest places, - all these are rising and collectively has become an issue of National Security.
Let me give you one illustration:
Growing up in Johor Bahru as a teenager who thought that I have been groomed "street smart", I don't think the streets of Johor Bahru are now safe enough to give our present youth that kind of urban education of mastering the urban environment. In the mid 1970s, I used to walk home alone from Jalan Ah Fook to Majidee when I was 11 or 12. Now I'd be dead halfway.
There is also the loss of respect in the youth of today - respect for themselves, the elders, the teachers, the family, and essentially law and order. The medium is the message though - if youth groups such as the Mat Rempits are supposedly being used to create disrespect for others and to have disregard for law and order, and at the same time law enforcement agencies themselves are losing control over their environment, we have got a problem such as what we are reading in the news.
Johor Bahru, again, is a good example. What has it become? Harlem and the Bronx in
But if we have politicians who think that politics is a process of enriching oneself, family, and friends, and not about public service we will continue to elect people who do not want to step down after 8, 16, 22, 24 or whatever years. Look at states that have Chief Ministers that refuse to step down after 10, 15 years. What is the consequence of being in power for too long? Look at what happened to
Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Apter once said.
In Malaya, our political system is so messed up now that even the universities don't know what their role is any longer -- is the role to use the system to create good, questioning, thinking, problem-solving, brave, transformative, life-long learning, citizens OR to create fear in students so that they cannot make good political decisions that will help them rejuvenate society. The 'respect' for students is not there, unlike in campuses in many advanced nations. The university has become a "particularity" that promotes parochial thinking. Communitarian thinking has taken over cosmopolitan thinking.
We need to move forward recreate society by demanding that we make radical - yes, radical - changes to all levels of leadership that is no longer making our nation safe and happy. Change must come from the grassroots, middle class, intelligentsia, and the policy/lawmakers. It must come from you students – beacons of hope.
We cannot even allow a new breed of racist young leaders to take foot. We must look for those who will abandon race-based politics and fight for the rights, respect, dignity, and economic well-being of the children of all races - because this country called Malaysia is founded upon the principles of Multiculturalism that should have evolved as how is should be. Race-based politics is a threat to national security. We will not survive another 50 years if we continue to allow those in power to play up those the masses that will easily translate economic frustration into anger.
Our children deserve a better nation that what is happening to it right now. We have evolved too much materialistically and have let politicians be consumed and intoxicated by money in the process of maintaining power. Politics has lost its noble value, in our case.
How do we improve thinking skills in our schools and in our universities then if we discourage even university students to ask radical questions and to think 'outside of the box'? Who benefits from all these? Is the level of thinking deteriorating? Who's at fault if this is so?
Is there a difference between the public and private schools/higher education institution in terms of how teaching is approached? How much of what is happening in our Malaysian and Indonesian classrooms help promote radical questioning? How do we reflect upon the "culture of learning" in our classrooms and how teachers/lecturers/professors encourage questions that improve cognition?
Would allowing radical speakers (from politics, arts, humanities, etc.) into our campuses help students develop alternative points of view? In
Senator Barack Obama, Democratic Presidential candidate, recently spoke in Jersey City New Jersey in St. Peter's College and many high school and college students are even volunteering in his campaign, -- what a beauty! He is an interesting "hybridized" individual – he has a Javanese stepfather and spent a few years growing up in
Can we do this in Malaysian campuses – allow any speaker to speak on campus? I think we should do this. I think we ought to. We will have nothing to lose except our mental chains. I think all of you here today – studying in
Vice Chancellors must allow students bodies to invite radical speakers during the campaign season in order to enrich our students with alternative viewpoints. This will help them decide their future of even make much needed changes. I think the Vice Chancellors will be more respected too for promoting such freedom -- true to their commitment to "World Class" thinking. It'll be the beginning of a good way to develop a culture of intellectual/academic freedom. It is time we mature politically.
We now come to our last few concluding statements.
Respectable leaders of the new age of Malaysian and Indonesian politics,
You are answerable to the Creator, not to creations. Reclaim your righteous mind. Reflect, reanalyze, reorganize, and revolt against the injustices that afflict fellow human beings. Destroy racism and race-based policies, so that you may be help society be at peace with itself. But you must first find peace within yourself, so that you may then govern yourself peacefully. Be guided not only by the scriptures close to your heart but also by the philosophies of other cultures you are yet to learn from. Destroy all form of artificial constructs that are helpful only to a certain extent; constructs such as race, creed, color, and national origin. We are essentially made of the very basic unit if life: the DNA. We are created from a clot of blood so that we may learn to evolve, to know, to transform, and to help others enjoy the Blessings the Creator has bestowed upon us. In Islam, is not Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) sent to Humanity as a Gift and a Blessing and a Mercy to Humankind?
I leave you with this quote/verses on universality and multiculturalism you are all familiar with:
"O Humankind! We have created you from a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you in the sight of Allah is he who has most taqwa among of you. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware." (Al-Hujurat/The Dwellings, verse 13)
Journey into yourself in Peace. Journey into society in Peace. Hold on fast to your ideals You have a world to clean up, to reconstruct, and to transform.
Peace, Justice, and Revolution to all. Wassalam.