Sondang, a fiery young man with a mission

Sondang, a fiery young man with a mission

Iqra Anugrah, Columbus, Ohio | Sat, 12/17/2011 3:41 PM


*Picture created by Budi Winursito

The Arab Spring started when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, burned himself alive to protest his dissatisfaction with the Ben Ali regime.

Here in Indonesia, the nation was shocked by the self-immolation of Sondang Hutagalung, a 22-year-old university student and activist who set himself on fire during a protest in front of the State Palace in Jakarta on Dec. 7.

Using his body and his life as a medium to convey a message, he expressed his criticism and disappointment with the political elite.

His death and courage soon became a topic in the media and for discussion in the public sphere. Sondang was no mediocre activist. An admirer of Sukarno’s ideas, Sondang was actively involved in various human rights groups and civil society initiatives, such as Kontras, Sahabat Munir and many others. Throughout his life, he helped many victims of human rights abuses receive justice.

And yet, Sondang was also one of us. A bright law student at Bung Karno University who did well in his studies, he had a family, friends, and even a girlfriend.

As an ordinary Indonesian citizen, his concern about the nation trumped the lip service and rhetoric from the political class.

However, the big question is what was the message he was trying to communicate through his self-immolation?

Different interpretations and debates on the meaning and impact of his action have abounded. Was it a symbol of a pessimistic frustration? Was it a call for resistance? Some of us even criticized, labeled and judged his act as “useless” or “not in line with religious teachings”.

Nevertheless, I believe all of those interpretations are wrong. I understand Sondang’s deed differently.

His self-immolation captured the current desperation that we feel as a nation. Despite the fact that we live in a democratic age, formal political channels have been hijacked and dominated by vested political interests, overriding power of capital in our public sphere and ignorance of our own history.

Sondang’s message was not apocalyptic. Instead of pessimism, he shed light and gave us hope, as if he knew that his message would set us on fire to continue his struggle.

What makes his action more honorable is that rather than avoiding death, he embraced it. We may never know what was in his mind. But one thing is for sure: His message is even stronger than ever. As leftist independence fighter Tan Malaka once said, “My voice will be even louder from my grave.”

Linking Sondang’s death to a narrow interpretation of his fate in the afterlife or his attempt to change the political situation will cheapen the real meaning of his message and sacrifice for us.

Likewise, mourning his death excessively or, as many of our politicians are doing, hijacking the message of Bung Sondang while expressing condolences will also distort the spirit of his message.

The heroic case of Sondang is, essentially, a mandate for us to carry on with our lives. It is our duty, who are still alive, to continue his works for a more democratic and just Indonesia.

He who chose to set himself ablaze is a reminder of the importance of life, not the celebration of death, in civic engagement.

After this despair, what we need is a firm commitment and a practical manifestation of the legacy of Sondang.

In the context of our politics, critical attention must be given to human rights abuses, economic and welfare disparities, capital-driven politics and disrespect with lack of rule of law — issues that had been a focus for Sondang.

Moreover, this particular episode in our history reminds us to rethink the relevance of the student movement and its potential to transform our corrupt political landscape.

In the end, the brave attempt of Sondang sent us a signal of a possibility of revolutionary politics. Here, “revolutionary” should not be translated into a radical structural change or a drastic moment of rupture, but rather a gradual process to transform our democracy as deliberatively as possible.

Optimism, albeit cautious, is always better than despair. That, comrade Sondang, you have shown us.

The writer, a graduate of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan, is pursuing a master’s degree in political science at Ohio University, US.

Islam’s Place in Politics

Islam’s place in politics

Special to The Japan Times

BEPPU, Oita Prefecture — The dynamics of Islam and politics in Indonesia are always worth following. Conventional wisdom says that moderates rule the game. In reality, this is not always true.

Sadanand Dhume, an expert on Islam and Indonesia, recently wrote an article arguing that the moderate is not always the winner. The myth of the moderate Muslim nation has started to change in the post-Suharto reformation era.

Political and economic liberalization has taken place, but not for religious and cultural values. We have had a number of improvements in civil and political freedom, but not in religious freedom. Islamic conservatism and fundamentalism are still widespread, as the battle of values goes on.

Living according to a strict interpretation of Islam in its early days is considered the new utopia. The call for shariah (Islamic law) is proffered as a panacea for our problems. This is not news. Religious interpretation is only the pull factor; the push factor is the daily experience of struggling to maintain a livelihood.

In this situation, religion is hardly distinguishable from delusion. Moreover, corrupted political elites often see it as an opportunity to get more votes, which makes the situation worse. That’s why we see some people trying to justify the establishment of religious bylaws, terrorism and other intolerant actions in the name of religion. Bombings in Jakarta and Aceh legislation allowing punishment by stoning are two recent examples of this phenomenon.

Tensions between the desire to maintain secular, democratic government and the growing force of Islamism present an important question: Is there any place for Islam in politics? We should know that enemy conservatives might be the bad guys, but not all of them are dangerous. As commentator Fareed Zakaria has said, radical Islam is a fact of life.

Our task now is learning how to live with that. It is very important to differentiate and categorize “conservative” and “radical,” since one is different from the other. Some groups might be conservative in matters of religion and culture, while their means of voicing their agenda are nonviolent and nonradical.

Dealing with someone from the FPI (Islamic Defender Front) or Hizbut Tahrir, for instance, is not the same as dealing with someone from Jamaah Tabligh. The government should recognize these differences so as not to become trapped by illogical paranoia. With such a policy, we can hope that these groups will learn from their own mistakes by entering democratic politics and engaging in real political debate. In such a case, the moderate voice matters — to show conservatives that Islam and democracy are much alike.

The message of the late Nurcholish Madjid now sounds stronger than ever. As there are many paths to God, there are many places for Islam in politics. In Cak Nur’s view, there is no absolute interpretation of politics, since Islam is not a particular ideology or political view, but rather a set of values and ethics for humanity. Thus any attempt to politicize Islam will reduce the meaning of Islam itself.

The legacy of the golden age of Islam and the moderate spirit must be championed all the time. As the church in the Western world has failed to maintain its hegemony due to its political intervention, political Islam should learn how to promote its ideas and survive within the framework of electoral democratic politics.

Moderate and progressive voices of Islam need to build alliances and spread their message through all levels of Indonesian society. The Indonesian government should promote moderate and tolerant ideas by working together with progressive groups.

The government should also stem the widespread trend of fundamentalism and radicalism in society through various educational means and institutions. As history has taught us, Islam and Indonesia will exist and contribute to humanity only within the environment of openness and tolerance toward one other.

The future of Islam and Indonesia depends on their ability to interact with other cultures and civilizations in the secular world. That is the only solution to the problem of inward-looking behavior in the Islamic community. We have the answer; they don’t.

*Iqra Anugrah, an activist in various student and Islamic movements in Indonesia, is a third-year student at College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan.