Campus and intellectual freedom — Setiono Sugiharto
MAY 13 — Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) decision to ban a discussion on Islam featuring Canadian-born author Irshad Manji has undercut the intellectual freedom of voicing one’s stances that has been long preserved by the scholarly community in the academia.
The discussion, organised by the Centre for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), was cancelled following rumours of the banning of the event by the UGM rector. Despite the denial from the university’s staff of the intervention of the rector, the annulment of the intellectual gathering clearly sets a bad precedence for the freedom of expression in a country much acclaimed for being a champion for democracy.
What’s more, the image of a campus as a site of intellectual engagement and the exchange of knowledge has been tarnished, especially when the cancellation was a result of pressure from hard-line Muslim groups.
Campuses have been credited as sites of articulating one’s ideological positions through diverse channels without being constricted by political and other external pressures. Discussing sensitive and controversial issues certainly has a place on campuses, as it is through these intellectual exchanges that knowledge can be advanced and expanded.
The incident that recently took place at the UGM is not the first of its kind. A similar discussion held at the Salihara Cultural Center was cut short due to the outrage of Islam Defenders Front (FPI) members, who strongly rejected Manji’s controversial perspectives on the compatibility of homosexuality and lesbianism with Islamic values.
Irrespective of the controversies Manji brings and voices through her book, Allah, Liberty and Love, intellectual organisations such as universities should and must be able to exercise the authority as an independent site of learning — free from outside influences vested by those who disrupt efforts to pursue intellectual excellence.
More importantly, it must be able to stand at the forefront in promoting and disseminating knowledge for the sake of people’s welfare and the common good.
However, the dynamic of knowledge can only be best understood if knowledge is contested, contingent and socially constructed. The knowledge about Islamic teachings, as Manji’s message seems to convey, is no exception.
The hard-line Islamic organisations’ and probably the mainstream Islam’s rejection of Manji’s thesis on the compatibility of homosexuality and lesbianism with Islamic values should come as no surprise, as much of what she penned in her book seems to depict a feminist critique of mainstream Islamic beliefs.
As a scholar and feminist herself, Manji must be adept in performing a deconstruction skill (including on the issue of homosexuality and lesbianism) in disentangling and revolutionising what many in the mainstream Islam believe are sacrosanct Islamic values. Yet for many Muslims, Manji’s messages are forms of argumentum ad hominem, which discredit and insult not only Muslims but also Islam as the dominant religion in Indonesia. As such, her erudite work and thinking may never find any place in the hearts of conservative Muslims.
It is important, however, to note that a feminist critique is strongly aligned to the postmodern critique of what is often referred to as “traditional knowledge”.
Basing much of its allegiances to this postmodernism, the proponents of the feminist critique have radically revolutionised what has previously been deemed universal and transcendental truths. They repudiate the ideas that they consider deterministic, bounded and de-contextualised in favour of indeterminateness and contextualisation.
Clearly, the opposition against this revolutionary perspective of Islamic values is symptomatic of a wide gap in the knowledge about Islamic teachings between those clinging to conservative Islam and those holding a liberal view of Islam. While the former tend to maintain the status quo of the knowledge about Islam and to regard it as uncontestable, the latter contextualise and reconstruct it in the light of social dynamics.
This gap can only be narrowed in a forum of scholarly discussion conducted by educational institutions like universities. Thus, it would be a great remiss if the intellectual forum is halted simply because of the dissent voiced by the opposing group of people. As a highly respected intellectual centre, the UGM should show the public its strong commitment to disseminating knowledge via scholarly exchanges.
What such exchanges can offer is that it contributes to the contemporary knowledge about Islam. It also encourages a healthy dialogical thinking, strongly grounded in a modern social context.
No less important, scholarly discussions on Islam can offer rich interpretive options for understanding Islamic teachings and values. — The Jakarta Post
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.