The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


The Happy Theologian 


Studying other religions hasn’t led to a dilution of Zainal Abidin Bagir’s faith.

“My experiences and reading of concepts from Buddhism and Christianity have enriched my understanding of Islam,” said the Director of the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies [CRCS] at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University [UGM].

“Many religious leaders fear that people will change their beliefs if they learn about other faiths. They are suspicious and fear competition.  They make everything political.

“It’s probably a cliché, but dialogue dispels concerns. It’s unfortunate that our education system puts children in boxes based on faith.  When we group students on the basis of their interests and not their religion they are motivated to understand more.

“We don’t need to preach pluralism.  When there’s open space it becomes natural.”

This year Dr Bagir has been a visiting lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington.  It’s the second time he’s been in New Zealand, having been involved in an inter-faith conference several years ago.

He’s been running two undergraduate units – Islam in the Contemporary World and Political Islam. An earlier unit on Democracy and Pluralism raised questions like: ‘When religion is said to be compatible with democracy, does it refer only to the liberal kind? Can democracy live with a conservative religion? If diversity is a mark of today’s democracy, what kind of pluralism is required by a pluralist democratic polity?’

Back at UGM he teaches postgraduates in the academic study of religion, and the philosophy of science and religion and contemporary issues.  He said there were no restrictions on class discussions because his students knew what to expect and were attracted by inquiry.

However In 2012 the university banned Canadian liberal Muslim author Irshad Manji from speaking at the CRCS after threats of violence from extremists.

The prohibition angered Dr Bagir and others who condemned the decision. “Better some shattered glass than our broken integrity,” he said.  “We should not give leeway to people who claim to represent certain religious views.  If it’s a crime, it’s a crime. [Since then a new rector has been elected.]

“If I could give a message to president elect Joko Widodo then it’s to re-establish the rule of law and give equality to all citizens, to support their human rights regardless of religion.  By not acting against intolerance we privilege intolerance.”

Dr Bagir’s early interest was mathematics, a subject he studied for his first degree before switching to religious studies.  “I thought I needed to learn about other things,” he said. “I was more interested in intellectual issues. Moving from maths to philosophy was not so big a jump as people imagine.”

He was born in Solo, Central Java, to “well-off, though not rich” parents with a batik factory. It was a liberal family where his father, a writer on faith issues who later opened a free school, encouraged broad discussion of religion among his eight children. 

This upbringing nurtured an inquiring mind, which led the young man away from calculus and into philosophy.  As a teenager he started to wrestle with the troubling ‘what’s it all about?’ and ‘why am I here?’ questions of life.

He moved to the West Java capital so he could study at the prestigious Institut Teknologi Bandung [ITB] – a tertiary educator with “a better intellectual atmosphere and the opportunity to be critical.” 

That was in 1984 when he was 18 and General Soeharto’s Orde Baru [New Order] government exercised total control.  In that year the military opened fire on anti-government protestors at Tanjung Priok in Jakarta, officially killing 24, though this figure is disputed. 

There were allegations that a Christian soldier entering a mosque while wearing boots had triggered rioting. At the time the media was strictly controlled but the ITB students were getting information about the incident through underground publications.  It was a disturbing discovery about the reality of religion and politics.

At ITB Dr Bagir came across the work of British philosopher and Nobel prizewinner Bertrand Russell.  He also started out as a mathematician, publishing the classic Principles of Mathematics when he was 31.  Later he became a famous leader of anti-war protests.

Like Russell Dr Bagir was drawn to logic.  He won a scholarship to study for a master’s degree at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in Kuala Lumpur, and then went to the US, taking a doctorate at Indiana University.

In 2005 his book Science and Religion in the Post Colonial World: Interfaith Perspectives was published in English, though most of his writings are in Indonesian.  Four years later he was appointed Indonesian associate for an UNESCO Chair in Inter-religious and Intercultural Relations.

One of the major differences between Indonesia and the West is the separation of faith and state. Dr Bagir said he recognized the difficulty in changing government policy on matters like the inclusion of religion on citizens’ identification cards but said the option to put ‘other’ on the cards was already available. 

However he acknowledged this was not always easy in small communities where officials made Islam the default religion for the non-religious. The assumption that a person who didn’t follow a religion was a communist, or had no morality, still persisted.

“This is the result of more than 30 years of government propaganda and the indoctrination of generations of schoolchildren,” he said.

“I’m a pluralist, though not in the MUI [Indonesian Ulema Council] sense.”  In 2005 the MUI issued a fatwa, or prohibition, against pluralism defined as seeing all religions as equal.

“Not all religions are the same, but we need to respect diversity.  It contributes to the richness of life.  All the major religions accept submission to the will of God.

“My father once asked me to do ‘what makes you happy’.  Religion should be about doing good to others, how you deal with other people.  That’s more important than faith as a personal issue.”  

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 November 2014)

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