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Amid the bad news of violence on several Indonesian campuses, as we nowadays frequently see on TV or read in the newspaper, there are surely best practices at many other educational institutions that have been more successful in both academic and socio-ethical achievements as well as in dispensing with the students’ outbursts.
We therefore have to take a better look at the schools or universities that we may have thus far overlooked. They might be next to our houses, in the remote provinces of Indonesia or they might even be our own campuses from the past.
In my first days at a state university in 1994, for instance, I had an amazing experience with initiation activities that was different from the bad stories from other campuses at that time. All new students certainly had fears that there would be both physical and verbal abuse, but those fears never materialized.
Physical activities were limited to early morning workouts. For the next five or six hours of each day that week, we had to attend seminars, conduct small group discussions, write papers and defend them in front of a plenary session. The seniors, many with long hair, skinny bodies and rumpled clothes, seemed to show off how “intellectual” they were and encouraged us to follow the same course.
For example, my friends and I once were stopped at a “checkpoint” in front of the office of the students’ association. Instead of asking us to do push-ups or crawl around, one of the seniors showed us a book with a blue cover, entitled Islam Ditinjau Dari Berbagai Aspeknya (Islam viewed from its diverse aspects), written by the late Prof. Harun Nasution, an Indonesian Muslim reformist.
The skinny senior asked, “Have you read this book?” He then questioned us about “heavyweight” problems for about 10 minutes before letting us go. Later, I knew, the book had been seen for many years taken as the “holy book” among the students and open-minded lecturers of the university. It encourages readers not to understand Islam monolithically but to use a number of possible perspectives.
My encounter with violence on campus started with my joining the student regiment (Menwa) the same year. The semi-military unit of the university introduced both verbal and physical violence. We learned how to abide by instructions and to make others act upon ours.
We were disciplined mentally and physically, and through this discipline we were controlled by the higher ranks of the military unit, even up to the level of state military forces. We were deployed to informing one another about what we heard and saw, and to channel the information to our seniors.
As new students, we were persuaded off campus, before, along and after initiation camp, to decide which voluntary organization we would join. As it was an Islamic state-owned campus, there were three main choices: the Muslim Students Association (HMI), the Muhammadiyah Students Association (IMM) or the Indonesian Muslim Students Movement (PMII).
If we really involved ourselves in one of these groups, as happened with many of my friends, there was relatively no time or energy left to even think of abusing others physically. Instead, due to the intellectual and political nature of the organizations, we seemed to be drilled with reading, analyzing and reasoning in making decisions individually or organizationally as well as how to implement them.
Our conflicts were then related to what we called “ideological” problems. Our contestations were about how to recruit as many new members as possible for our “ideological” organization and to win the majority of seats and chairmanships in any of the campus organizations. Besides the oratory abilities we honed in meetings and lobbying, having one’s writing capabilities proven with the publication of an article in a national newspapers was a highly appreciated thing.
Moreover, if we were really interested with the world of ideas and intellectual activism, there were small but influential discussion groups available at that time.
We could join the Ciputat Students Forum (Formaci), Flamboyant Shelter or Piramida Circle. In these “serious” groups we could enjoy the great ideas of the Greek thinkers, past and present notable Muslim scholars, the intellectual quandaries of Karl Marx or Foucault or the incomparable works of Leo Tolstoy.
We could say that we were busy activating our minds and looking at the world we live in from different perspectives. If there were thoughts to “attack” others, they were in intellectual corridors and with scientific drives and vehicles.
Physical brawls inside the campus were often strangely associated with the activities of the Student Regiment (Menwa). We labeled them “senseless” and “norak” (tasteless).
Also associated with the tastelessness was the tendency of the “student politicians” to deploy rhetoric and unintellectual political statements in their campaigns and academic discussions.
Nowadays, pragmatism seems to have taken over everywhere, and the students are technocratically prepared more to be “machine men” instead of “freely thinking humans”. This might be a deliberate choice by the state as “the old student activism” might be thought of as dangerous or useless.
However, this begs the question as to whether there are enough outlets and efforts to channel the potential dynamics of the university students to useful ends. What has been done so far by the Education and Culture Ministry, for instance, other than the de-politicization of students’ lives and privatization of state universities?
The writer is a researcher at Paramadina Foundation and Ciputat School for Democratic Islam.