This week I delivered the opening keynote at the annual conference of universities that are overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) in Indonesia.
Though not an expert in Islamic Studies or religion, I was asked to attend to speak about the role of universities in the contemporary world – with a specific focus on the universities in the MoRA network.
It was an amazing experience and one that I was humbled to be part of. Below is a copy of my keynote presentation…
I want to begin my short presentation with a simple statement: the contribution of Indonesian Islam to Western Civilisation has never been more important. In fact, my argument is that the world is at a crossroad – arriving here by hawks that see religion as a way of manufacturing – and I emphasise this word ‘manufacturing’ – a clash of civilisations for political gain.
As the world stands at this crossroad, Indonesian Islam has the opportunity to heal the rupture between the East and the West – to build bridges that others have attempted to break down.
Why do I make this statement?
Because as was discussed last night by the Minister and other guests, Indonesian Islam is open to diversity, the very core of Indonesia’s national strength. Indonesian Islam has shown itself to be tolerant, peaceful, is compatible with modernity and resists radicalisation.
This is not to say that there are not challenges, but that Indonesian Islam sits between different segments of the world traumatised by conflict and war, fuelled by distrust and confusion.
And it is here that universities – particularly the universities represented in this room – can play a key role by showing leadership, shaping society and promoting a sense of societal hope.
And it is this hope that is at the core of healing community breakdown.
Much of my research has focussed on understanding why communities fracture and how they can be rebuilt – and something I talk about in detail in my latest book – From Despair to Hope.
British sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that the modern world is built on the concept of trust. When talking about trust, Giddens he is drawing an important delineation between the pre-modern to the modern world.
When talking of trust, Giddens describes it vested in abstract capacities (or systems) rather than individuals. For example, when we use monetary tokens, we do so on the presumption that people will honour their value.
In the pre-modern world trust played a significantly was less of an issue because people relied on their own labour and expertise. People built their own houses, farmed and hunted for their own food. In the modern world, ‘expert systems’ (or the abstract capabilities describe above) emerged that we rely on and do not understand.
Let me give you an example. I am flying home to Sydney today – basically to get married on Saturday! I do not understand how the plane that I will fly in for seven hours works. I trust the engineers that build and service it. I trust the pilot to fly it. We trust the air traffic controllers and the other pilots. We even trust the strangers next to me will act like strangers and like me, want to return home to their families and friends peacefully.
This is the basis of our modern world: trust.
This trust is also characterises the food we eat, the buildings we live in and the roads we drive on as well as the cars we drive.
And as I said, we even trust the stranger to act like a stranger.
But what happens when something undermines the trust that we are at the core of our lives?
For this is the ultimate aim of radicalisation and terrorism: from the Christian radicals in Australia’s far right, to the rise of radical Islamic and Hindu organisations, their aim is to undermine the trust of our fellow humans.
We no longer trust the stranger: we become concerned about their religion and their culture.
The opposite of trust is not mistrust – it is something deeper. It is an ontological crisis and can best be understood, according to Giddens, as dread.
This is the core of community breakdown. When we stop trusting those around us a community cannot function – it breaks down. This is one of the drivers of conflict and war – and it is here that the world finds itself in.
Indonesia’s response to radicalisation and the undermining of trust
Indonesia, like many other nations, has been at the forefront of the potential community breakdown brought on by terrorism. But importantly, the response to radicalisation has been measured. We are all aware of the bombings in Bali in 2002, which killed 202 people and injured 208.
From my understanding one of the core responses was a grassroots campaign to identify radicalisation.
Combined with Indonesia’s stable democracy and little internal conflict, and this measure response have all been contributing factors to extremism not taking hold.
Key also is the nonviolent Islamist political activism that is part of Indonesia society – promoting discussion not forcing it underground.
Further, unlike many Western nations including Australia, the government resisted the urge to use the terror threat to significantly roll back civil liberties.
The attacks in January this year saw another measured response.
Despite this, radicalisation remains a threat – and so is the potential undermining of civil liberties that will act to undermine the trust that people have in government. Greg Barton wrote for the East Asia Forum earlier this year that ‘attempts to pass and apply new legislation that is seen to be overly draconian risk a backlash that compounds current problems’.
And it is in this environment that that universities represented in this room have never had a more important role.
Universities in the contemporary world
The founders of the American Republic, including John Adams, argued that the biggest threat to liberty, freedom and the Republic were the rise of demagogues: that is, individuals who manipulated the population and built their message on a cult of popularity and misinformation.
Surrounded as the Republic was by Monarchs, particularly from Britain, it is no wonder that this was a real concern. Monarchs argue that they are God’s representatives on Earth and are likely to promote blind followers.
The response to this was seen as education: an educated public is less likely to be manipulated. It is a public that can think critically, assess, reflect and look beyond their own interest to a broader social interest.
Universities play a key role here: not only in educating the public, but holding governments to account in ensuring that they meet their obligation of providing accessible education.
We as educators are on the frontline of responding to the challenges facing our world and we can do this through openness, collaboration, cross cultural understandings and a sense of cultural humility.
We work to produce not just scholars, but ‘citizen scholars’: that is, active and engaged citizens wanting to promote vibrant communities.
We need to respond to the needs of the communities we represent as well as be leaders.
This is the contribution that you can make – and this is one of the fundamental contributions that Indonesian Islam can make – not just to Western Civilisation but beyond.
It is the leadership that the world is looking for.
The role of universities but is more than just education. It is also about building trust – I reflect on this as ‘trust builders’. We do this not only through education but also in the way we engage with communities, the media and reach out across cultures.
It is what I am most proud of when it comes to my university – but it is also a strong characteristic of most of Australia’s universities. And in the short time I have spent, it is something that your universities do and continue to build.
We must continue to promote education and trust. In so doing, we build bridges across cultures and most important respond to the violence of terrorism and words of hatred with messages of peace.
‘How do you defeat terrorism?’ Salman Rushdie once asked. ‘Don’t be terrorised’ was his answer.
It is an answer we should embrace – and it is one of the key contributions of Indonesian Islam to Western Civilisation and beyond.