“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.”
(Bob Marley, 1945–1981).
It came as no surprise to hear plain comments from partakers attending a discussion that followed a movie screening recently, despite their status as university students or alumni.
Looking at them with critical spectacles, they might have been a part of the tamed youth through one or more ways, deliberately or accidentally, 14 years after the 1997–1998 reformation period.
The discussion was held after we watched Kevin Macdonald’s Marley (2012), the latest documentary movie about Jamaican music star Bob Marley at the Forum Muda Paramadina last Friday. Grasping him more as the most influential figure of reggae music and his impact on the dissemination of Rastafarianism, it was forgotten that he had a critical role in uniting Jamaica with his non-partisan political choices.
On that rainy afternoon, we learned again that being better educated does not mean we are already free in the way we think and make decisions. We still need Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy to liberate ourselves from socially fabricated knowledge and mentalities, or what Marley’s said was to “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery”.
This week, we again remember the decisive historical juncture of massive political reforms that took place between 1997–1998. As a part of the recollection, in order not to make it totally “in memoriam”, we deserve to ask: “What’s going down with students’ activism?”
Have campuses been silenced with Parsonian functionalism, that for the sake of order conflicts — however trivial they might be — must be thrown out or managed trickily? Are universities once more just models of stable equilibriums where criticisms or quests for change are taken as perverted thoughts?
First of all, it might be useful to recall what happened at a campus in 1997–1998.
One night, on the artless yard of Syarif Hidayatullah State Institute for Islamic Studies in Jakarta, we could discuss several things related to the heating political atmosphere with several progressive lecturers.
They were very open-minded and critical, but at the same time we could sense their attempt to envelope their protectiveness with joking advice.
As far as I remember, most of them obtained their masters or doctorates abroad or had been the products of the students’ activism in 1980s. With them, such as Azyumardi Azra and Komaruddin Hidayat, we really did not feel any structural or bureaucratic distance or uneven academic language as usually happens between students and high officials or academics.
They were different from other lecturers that had status-quo minds. They didn’t teach us on the dry textbooks or religious doctrines alone. They taught us to analyze and make a decision based on what we see and think, and at the same time to practice using available social theories.
What they did was not without risks. The status-quo minded lecturers — who were inclined to the trap of structural functionalism, on the side of the political rulers, or being the religious opportunists — kept challenging them with their naïve propositions.
How about now? Do the students still have such intellectual links with their predecessors? Can they understand why a movement should emerge through a critical reasoning that actually must originate somewhere?
Given the lack of sociopsychological causes and intellectual links, the other thing that makes student activism gloomy is the unavailability of significant informal learning forums where students can intellectually question whatever they see and set up relevant activities to realize those beliefs. In the 1990s, for example, we could find many of such forums in major campuses in Greater Jakarta, which at the time we informally named Rawamangun, Depok, or Ciputat alignments.
Presently, instead of seeing quality discussions at the Muslim Students Association (HMI), for instance, we are accustomed to hearing what we can cynically and comically call politik abang-abang (political brothers), in which the cadres of the association tend to occupy themselves in approaching their politically or economically successful seniors instead of making themselves busy with learning or social activism.
It is a contrast, therefore, to what more radical Muslim students, such as the Indonesian Muslim Students Action Front (KAMMI), can enjoy. Using mosques and Islamic learning centers as their base, they keep their activism alive. And in the open democratic contestation of inside and outside campus lives, such as in the state-owned universities, they tend to win and edge out the other groups.
We can also see that hard-line evangelical Christian students look more active compared to their democratic counterparts. In fact, what they learn and do, especially proselytization among poor Muslims, such as has been done by the Indonesian Student Service Institute (LPMI), only sparks conflict and unrest.
We are expecting that the mainstream Christian students’ associations, such as the Indonesian Christian Students Movement (GMKI), will play more pivotal roles in maintaining Indonesian democracy in diversity.
In the end, we surely must not say “Rest in peace, student activism”. This country, however, needs their activism, as we have seen in at least three historical political junctures: 1928–1945, 1965–1966 and 1997–1998. Yet, we must do something for them, whatever it might be.
The writer is a researcher at the Paramadina Foundation, Jakarta.