Sat, 29 Apr 2000

Arkoun: Allowing reason to be slave to religious texts

JAKARTA (JP): As long as Indonesia remains open to multiculturalism and political pluralism, there will be more to celebrate in the future, says Mohammad Arkoun, Sorbonne University's professor emeritus of the history of Islamic thought.

The 70-year-old silver-haired Arkoun traveled from Paris recently to join with others who share the hopes recent developments in Indonesia have brought about.

The world is bewildered by the raucous claim of the world's Muslim population of the superiority of its religion, he noted. However, when it comes to practice there is many a slip between the Muslim cup and the lip as Islamic societies around the world reflect nothing near utopia.

Instead they seem a frightening mass of utter confusion, chaos and above all intolerance and violence.

Muslims societies are in a sort of mess because there is an attempt to practice democracy among people who are not familiar with the demands of a democratic culture, he said.

"We have the responsibility to educate ourselves first in the joys of thinking philosophically and not just theologically," he said.

Since the professor's work and interests concentrate on classical and contemporary Islam, faced today with the multiple challenges posed by modernity, he feels somewhat excited at the prospect that at last a governance of Islamic democracy may be taking root in Indonesia some 700 years since the decline of Muslim societies first began.

"Personally my heart is full of hope that this society may be on its way toward a kind of humanism in the tradition of classical Islam as it existed more than a millennium ago, and before we Muslims lost it all in the 13th century after the culture of munazara, or face-to-face dialogue, was no longer practiced," the Algerian professor said.

He has been forced to live in France in self-exile as his thoughts have angered the politicians in power in Algeria.

In an interview with The Jakarta Post, the professor admitted that intellectually he was enriched at the thought that the world was his home, but emotionally it was heartbreaking to find he was unwelcome in his own country.

As a member of the large Berber minority community in Algeria that has suffered terrible assaults on its language and culture, the professor is appreciative of all tolerant societies where every individual is respected and treated in a humane manner.

"After all that has happened here under reformasi there is a great opportunity for Indonesia to add a new page to its history of hope that will be a lesson for all Muslims in the world.

"I see people here building together, cooperating, living and letting those others who are different from them also live," he said.

Arkoun was a keynote speaker at a recent seminar on Islam and the West: Islamic and Modern Concepts of Governance and Democracy. Other speakers included noted Indonesian scholar Nurcholish Madjid.

Arkoun insists it is important for all Muslims in the world to embrace modernity and not to resist the process of globalization. He does not believe that modernity as a concept is the private property of the Europeans.

Modernity is not imported from the West, he says. It means nothing more than the struggle of human reason around the world to become independent, to think autonomously as to how individuals want to conduct their life.

This struggle of reason began in classical Greece and inspired Islamic societies between the seventh century and the 13th century.

Then Muslims stopped thinking philosophically and reacted only theologically to all of life's joys and sorrows, letting their lives lose their luster in the process.

How to regain the spirit of that golden period of Islam that seemed so close to Plato's utopian republic is the question faced by Muslim societies everywhere.

"If we start to educate our children today about history, about what Islam had and how it lost it when Muslims stopped thinking, then maybe sometime in the future hope will appear once again for us on the horizon," the professor said.

He feels there are no shortcuts to solving the many problems faced by Muslim societies.

The following is an excerpt from the interview:

What makes you so optimistic about Indonesia's potential to flower into a modern Islamic democracy?

There is a struggle here to live and let live. There are more than a 100 languages and the same amount of cultural references.

When officially asked to behave as Muslims, people are faced with a contradiction and the majority continue to resort to their cultural roots. This struggle is important.

How is President Abdurrahman Wahid contributing to this struggle?

At the moment he is the only hope. He stands for an Islam that is open to dialogue, that is interested in other religions and other people.

He is one Muslim leader I know who realizes the importance of Islam as a spiritual experience and also uses his religion for a kind of thinking that is modern.

Is it healthy to depend so much on one individual to shape an entire future?

No one man can achieve anything on his own. There must be others like him. I hope that there are many, many more people like him in Indonesia. At the moment it is he who is seen as a symbol of humanism within Islam.

What is your message to those Indonesians who want to engage in a holy war to settle their differences with others?

What message can I have for anyone in this context? It is all so political. This is not religion, for reason plays a very important role in Islam. This is a matter of internal politics. But generally speaking, I am always for dialogue, for as many interreligious dialogues as possible.

I believe in a culture of meeting, talking and discussing eye- to-eye, face-to-face in the spirit of our lost practices of adab and munazara.

What is the role of women in Islamic societies?

I am looking at the Iran experience and the Indonesian experience, and what has happened in both countries is very positive. And much of what is happening is due in large extent to women. They are playing a very positive but silent role in this struggle to remain rational, because it is in their interest to have their children grow up in an enlightened society.

For the first time in the history of humanity women are in the forefront of all kinds of positive changes taking place, not just in Muslim societies but all over the world.

French women voted for the first time in 1945, a good 200 years after the French Revolution and the Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom has come fairly recently to women but they are bringing a different voice than that of men, as it is they who know what it is to really suffer, to be oppressed in their own homes for centuries.

To me women everywhere are a horizon of hope.

Why are Muslim societies in such confusion today?

We are suffering from a mental disease. We have allowed our reason to become a slave to religious texts.

It was all right as long as we were involved in the common struggle against colonialism. After we defeated the colonial powers we did not discuss what kind of governance, societies we wanted for ourselves.

Then we fought among ourselves in our own homes for decades on behalf of the two super powers, who competed to impose upon our societies their respective ideologies of governance.

With the collapse of one super power in 1989 we got a second freedom to discuss the kind of future, governance and education we wanted to give our young ones to truly eradicate illiteracy among us.

On paper we may have eradicated illiteracy, but in practice this is not true. But instead of discussing these issue we are killing each other.

The governments in charge of Muslim societies are neither knowledgeable about Islam or democracy. They have taken some information from here and some from there and want to make a revolution and an Islamic state.

What they have instead is a patchwork government, only a collage where Islam is used as a tool by the power-hungry to enrich themselves politically. Our leaders are mostly ideology- minded and not intellectual or cultural-minded.

This, I think, is the cause of all confusion. It is very important for all Muslims to know this.

What kind of education would truly eradicate illiteracy?

When we teach the history, philosophy and culture of Islam so that we can understand and deepen our practice of Islam as a spiritual experience and also as a religion compared to other religions, open to other religions and open to a system of thinking, to a system of governance which is called modernity in Europe. This is not taught enough to our youngsters.

What is the problem that Muslims have with modernity?

We need to study the historicity of life to know what modernity is.

Muslims feel that modernity is alien to us. We have to understand how natural it is for Islamic thought to relate to modernity.

It was modernity in Islam that inspired Europeans to force the church to reform. But Europe flowered as a society in the 16th century during the Renaissance, while the psyche of Muslims became more and more pulverized as reason was given less and less responsibility.

While the individual in Europe was elevated through culture and art to a humane status, Muslims were discouraged from thinking for themselves.

The philosophy of Islam was given a backseat and the theology of Islam was pushed to the fore. The freedom of individuals to interpret the Koran the way they saw fit was halted.

Human beings became unimportant before ideology.

What is the role of humanism in modern governance?

Humanism is central to modernity, which will involve us creatively in globalization. Humanism is also central to Islamic thought.

Only by paying attention to each human intellect can a society flower. Muslims practiced humanism before the 13th century when individuals were respected, and then we stopped thinking.

We stopped speaking, we could only parrot. Europe on the other hand defied authority and encouraged debate and discourse, and the result was the age of enlightenment for its people when they were freed from the unreasonable impositions of the church.

That is the main difference between modern Europe and Muslim societies.

How is Islam perceived by the contemporary world?

The present definition of Islam is a journalist's perspective, too immediate minus its historicity. It is a perception of what is happening in Muslim societies right now.

To change this false perception of Islam, Muslims themselves will have to convert back to the ideas that they have neglected for hundreds of years that still exist within their own history of religion.

We have to build together once again, to cooperate and to live together in a democracy that is not limited to any one nation- state but that which transcends all geographical boundaries and touches all humanity.

Are you pessimistic that Muslim societies may not achieve this in the near future?

If I were pessimistic I would not go through this uncomfortable journey all the way from Paris, at my age, to come here and talk endlessly to you. (Mehru Jaffer)