Few months ago our school screened Jihad Selfie, a documentary about Akbar Maulana, a teenager who almost voluntarily joined ISIS. Bedazzled by all-powerful ISIS propaganda, he thought that it was his call to join the Muslim radical insurgents. While figuring his way to Syria, he accidentally met a complete stranger who engaged him in a dialogue on his choice. Previously resolute and unwavering, young Akbar now found another source of interpretation that challenged the conceptual edifice he had been adhered to. The dialogue enabled Akbar to view the problem from broad perspective and question the shallowness of his burning desire to fight infidels and liberate his fellow Muslims by arms. Fast forward, Akbar changed his mind and the stranger came up with the idea of making a movie documenting Akbar’s story of redemption. That stranger was Noor Huda Ismail, the then director of Jihad Selfie.
I think, Akbar’s story could be used as an overarching example that possibly shows our Indonesian society, lately endangered by theological bigotry and hatred, its way to redemption. Akbar’s story inspires us to the need for genuine dialogue.
Apart from several misfortunes, the latest debates over Al-Ma’idah 51 have also brought us a blessing in disguise when the larger public got involved into an open-ended discussion and dialogue on orthodoxy. Instead of blindly trusting one dimensional interpretation on the allegation of religious blasphemy and concurrently debatable interpretation on Al-Ma’idah 51 as promulgated by hardline clerics and their proponents, the public now has the opportunity to challenge the so-called orthodoxy.
This orthodoxy is problematized when it has the tendency to absolutize certain bigoted interpretation on the verse. Against this backdrop of absolutism, public discourse unleashes its potential to uncover unquestioned assumptions behind such orthodoxy and pointing out that that kind of orthodoxy is never rid of socio-political agenda and therefore always susceptible to politicking. So, the point is not that ‘we want to avoid the politicization of any sacred text’, but quite the contrary, the realization that ‘the politicization of any sacred text is ineluctable’ should task us with the duty of scrutinizing and revealing any instance of this politicization in the social realm.
On faith discourse, Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher, writes that it is always expressed in language (Ricoeur, “Philosophy and Religious Language”). This discourse is intricately related to polysemy. “Polysemy designates that phenomenon of language by which words have more than one signification or meaning… Polysemy, in this sense, is a fact of synchrony: it represents the play of internal differences within a semantic field, which is itself situated, by another play of differences, within the entire system of the lexicon… [It] is in discourse that polysemy has a function. To speak is to select out of the available semantic richness the dimension of meaning that is in accord with the theme, with the purpose…” (Ricoeur, “The Power of Speech”). When applied to sacred text, we should say that despite being God’s divine revelation, the text is always communicated through human words which are inexhaustible. When used in discourse, the text is destined to be used within ‘a semantic field, which is situated by another play of differences’, in accord with ‘the theme’ and ‘the purpose’ of the given discourse. So, when a sacred text is used in political discourse, its use is unavoidably modified by the political semantics it is situated in.
Furthering his explanation on polysemy, Ricoeur writes: “[The] polysemy of words carries with it the risk of ambiguity of discourse. Polysemy is a normal phenomenon, ambiguity is a pathological phenomenon. The task of discourse is to fashion univocity out of polysemy.” Ricoeur’s argues that this drive for univocity has been obvious in scientific language: in order to eliminate ambiguity, science has formalized the language, created rigid abstraction, mathematical symbolism and axioms. But, is it possible to eliminate this ambiguity altogether from other kinds of discourse – ethical, religious, political, aesthetic – and from conversation itself?
Focusing on religious discourse, is the use of the language of any sacred text, holy book, the same as the use of the language of science that leaves no room for ambiguity, confusion and multiplicity of meaning? This cannot be the case as Akbar’s story, prima facie, shows us that any sacred text is open to interpretation and different interpretation can lead somebody to an entirely unique outcome. In Ricoeur’s words, ambiguity here is preserved and magnified “in order to have it express rare, unique and therefore – in the proper sense of the word – unpublished [non-public] experiences.”
What is just said has been since made manifest in the ubiquity of different interpretations on the meaning of Al-Ma’idah 51. This testifies to the irreducibility of the richness of the text. Advocating this irreducibility is important in shunning what Ricoeur calls “fanaticism of the manipulable”: text is manipulated to justify “a relationship of domination, exploitation and manipulation by man with regard to things, and by man with respect to man.” Unfortunately, human history is replete with stories of how certain religious belief is manipulated to legitimize hatred, segregation, discrimination, violence, war, terrorism and genocide.
Having said it all, the question now is: in the event of the plethora of interpretations, how should we determine the best available interpretation that we need for our common ground of our common living, our common context? I think, Akbar’s story has taught us that amid diverse interpretations and understandings, a genuine dialogue must be confronted against our common horizon: humanity, created by the same and one God. In this dialogue, all participants should evaluate whether or not their stances advance and advocate humanity; whether or not they promote truth, unity and peace among humans.
Putting against this backdrop of humanity horizon, it should be additionally argued that while reconciling differences through the necessary dialogue is onerous and tedious, the classic principle “in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” (in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, love/charity) should be always upheld. Despite our differences, we cannot compromise the essential: the national unity in diversity. Despite our obstinacy to stick to our fundamental but impersonal religious doctrine or text, we should not compromise our love for our different but actual brothers and sisters. Despite our burning desire to die or wage war for our institutional religion, we should not compromise our universal call – that transgresses boundaries of religion – to defending actual human life and promoting the culture of life. At last, despite our different political choices, we should not compromise our love for the raison d’être of the politics: the actual human life.