An Academic Atmosphere Polluted by Threats

Zainal Abidin Bagir | CRCS

That Irshad Manji was denied permission to set foot for the second time on the grounds of Gadjah Mada University (May 9, 2012) must make us, especially those of us in academia, think again. There is no need to hide the fact that the cancellation of this event was precipitated by threats from some mass organizations, although it is not always clear exactly who they are.

Doesn’t this make us think about the future of the academic environment here at Gadjah Mada University? What if at some point there are similar objections from two, three or even thirty mass organizations about other issues that people don’t agree on? For example, what if the topic is the possibility of resolving the conflict in Papua? Or a seminar on the causes of the disastrous Lapindo mudslide in Sidoarjo? Or combating corruption and the role of the Anti-Corruption Committee? Or other such issues?

“Oh, that’s different … Irshad Manji is a lesbian who wants to corrode the morality of our people.” This may be the opinion of some, but there are a number of problems with this response.

First, the issues of Papua, Sidoarjo or corruption are not less sensitive than the issue of homosexuality. Some time ago, a seminar was held at UGM’s graduate school related to issues in Papua and attended by important regional figures. The event was stopped by a group of protesters as soon as the director of the graduate school gave his opening remarks. A group with business interests that is concerned with the scientific issues of whether the disaster in Sidoarjo was a natural disaster or caused by human negligence may as well hire vigilante to use violence to prevent a discussion that might be contrary to their interests.

The issue is the same: the possibility of exchanging opinions is shut down before it can even begin. Does this mean that an academic institution with the standing of UGM will now have to ask permission (or in police language, “coordinate”) from public organizations, thugs, and the like?

It’s saddening, really, the impression that is emerging: the authority of academic institutions has been defeated by threats. It’s always the same logic that is used to explain these decisions: they are made in the name of “order”, to protect the common good. Shouldn’t we rethink the meaning of “order”, when it is used to mean avoiding the risk of having divergent opinions.

Not all of the blame can be leveled at the groups that do the threatening. Some will blame UGM – but UGM can’t be held entirely responsible either. What makes these threats effective, what makes UGM sacrifice its academic authority in the name of “order”, is an atmosphere of increasing violence, that is, repeated violence with no consequence.

We are learning gradually that threats and violence are effective problem-solving tools. When victims of violence become the accused and the judged; when the media routinely portrays the allowance of acts of violence that are not addressed legally; when the threats are powerful enough to cause law enforcers to punish those who are being threatened – then don’t be surprised when resorting to violence becomes an increasingly popular choice.

To draw from a source close to us: The Annual Report on Religious Life in Indonesia that we have published since 2009 was filled with such cases. In our last two reports, we have analyzed this trend of increasing violence. If these kinds of situations are allowed to continue, we will find ourselves at the point where violence and threats become ordinary, and we’ll be forced to tolerate it.

“But what about lesbianism?” This was never part of the agenda for Irshad Manji’s talk here, but even clever people have been caught up in the grips of a new and potent technology: the text message. It’s a technology that can spread fear and transform a theme like “itijihad” into “lesbian propaganda and legalization of homosexuality”!

“But, again … what about lesbianism?” Are we just going to continue to allow this? What about “organized heresy”? Is that going to be allowed too? There is a number of choices here, actually. It’s surely clear that people don’t have to accept all views. Yet the arrogant stance of “either you’re with us or you are against us” is not the only option available. There are those who say that homosexuality is a grave sin; there are those who defend homosexuality with well thought out arguments based on religious texts; and there are those who staunchly reject homosexuality but defend the basic rights of homosexual people with equal force. And there are probably a dozen of other positions on this issue.

What kind of fault (read: sin, or difference of opinion) implies that a person should lose all of their rights? We can speak of various rights here: the right to speak and express oneself, the right to livelihood, or even the right to live. How can we have a deliberation of the complexity of the issue if the possibility of even talking about it is closed?

This might be a long discussion, and it has to be a long discussion, because there already are a number of diverse perspectives. This is not the issue at hand, however.

Our concern is that academic institutions will tolerate the thug mentality of using threats and violence to solve problems or suppress discussion. What will happen if from time to time we are required to “coordinate” with the source of these threats and acts of violence? What can we do if this mentality enters the esteemed halls of academia? What happens to our aspiration to be a “World Class Research University?”

Such a university is not just a container for efficiently stored documents necessary for accreditation or certification, but a venerable institution that provides space to develop knowledge. Knowledge is developed through a willingness to seek, listen, make mistakes, and correct ourselves through civil discussion. If there is no space for this process, the possibility for knowledge is exterminated by threats before it can come to fruition.

Bowing to these threats means that we live in and foster the atmosphere of violence. Are we at UGM already living and breathing the air of this atmosphere?

Zainal Abidin Bagir Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) Graduate School, Gadjah Mada University

Translated by K.A. Swazey

This statement (in Bahasa Indonesia) was issued on the day the book discussion with Irshad Manji at CRCS, Graduate School, Gadjah Mada University failed to take place because the Rector and the Director of the Graduate School forbid it to be held on the premise of the University.

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