It was a milestone in the history of this nation, when the alumni of a historic movement again assembled and commemorated the one-year-old event. My wildest guess says that many will likely remember this day as a witness to a certain type of populism that successfully brought down an unwanted ruler, an abomination that made some people cross and nervous. And because they’ve called themselves ‘alumni’, I suppose that they must be a product or a certain type of school that they gladly choose to sit in and cherish.
Choosing this school might have not been the result of a conscious decision or well-thought response on the part of its attendees. However, I suppose there was psychological satisfaction to attend this school of thought. There must be an ecstatic feeling of being in the midst of such an enormous crowd, holding those emblematic banners and experiencing rare unifying solidarity. Whether you were fully aware of the ideological underpinning of that gathering was simply beside the point. You didn’t have to go through that meticulous self-reflection when mass hysteria simply overtook sanity and moderation.
And, going all the way back to the basics of thing, does it make sense to address such a crowd as alumni? Is it defensible to employ such a lofty concept to this temporary assembly?
To be honest, I was initially bewildered by this seemingly pompous use of word ‘alumni’ to designate the crowd of such occasion. I was inclined to think that ‘alumni’ is exclusively associated with the formality of having graduated from a conventional school, where regular attendance is obligatory while its learning process guided by certain curriculum or methodology. While this particular crowd didn’t fulfill any of those criteria, I choose to take another angle and see the scene from a different perspective.
To start with, careful etymological research might help provide alternative interpretation. ‘Alumni’, the plural form of ‘alumnus’, literally means ‘foster sons’. To be precise, ‘alumni’ refers to the ‘nourished or fostered ones’, those who are literally fed or nourished by certain food or sustenance. In the context of the said event, the crowd was truly alumni in the sense that their mobilization was partly fed or sustained with the common ‘food’. And speaking of food, you know, you can be picky sometimes. That’s plausible since you’re free to eat whatever you want. However, whatever your choice is, this clichéd saying still seems to be true: ‘you are what you eat – so don’t be fast, cheap, easy or fake.’ And, that’s what I’m afraid of. This alumni chose to have insalubrious, unbalanced diet. Much have been said about this ‘diet’ and no reiteration is needed here. But, getting to the core of it, this alumni infamously fed on thought of avenging a blasphemer. Blasphemy or not, I basically tremble at the idea that people could rally around the discontent and fear of having their belief questioned, challenged, interpreted and brought into open discussion. Easily getting offended when a certain article of faith is questioned or criticized simply means that that faith has been fed on fast, cheap, easy and fake food. The outcome? That faith looks solid and well-groomed, but in principle, it’s hollow, flaccid and wobbly. The proof? It couldn’t even withstand the edited clip of an official speech that, among others, addressed the need to do self-reflection and conversion.
Leaving the complexity of interplay between multiple factors aside, I think these alumni pinpoint the prevailing school of thought in the country: religious absolutism. My religion is absolute so it’s unacceptable to question its propositions. My religion is absolute so it’s acceptable to call others infidels and reject plurality.
I hate to state the obvious: plurality is factual, not imaginary. You have to live with it. It’s like having different types of food on your table. You might detest the idea of taking a scoop of vegetables, but you cannot ban veggies or hate anyone who gladly swallow greens and continue to do that until eternity. Surely, nobody pushes you to choose veggies or healthy diet. Nonetheless, criteria of diet, determining what is good and bad, is objective and verifiable. It’s the result of painstaking empirical researches and studies, supplemented by a lot of experiments for centuries. Well, you might choose to go against the tide and discard any diet recommendation as fake news. However, it’s not the reason to bring down those who want to disseminate information on healthy diet. This latter information might be repulsive to you, but it might benefit those who are less informed and want to lead a healthier lifestyle; this also might disillusion those who have dwelled too long in a deeply entrenched misunderstanding about the nature of diet; or, this might simply prompt others to switch their diets to healthier choices.
Putting this insight into political context, I believe, any democratic society, in order to keep faithful to its quintessence, must stick to certain principles or constants. That society might evolve over time, but in order to maintain its democratic legacy those constants need to remain in place. They cannot be compromised, unless you want to have the simulacrum of democracy or completely forsake the idea and embrace another alternative.
When we speak of this country, I believe this choice of democracy happens for a simple noble reason: plurality. If democracy is compared to diet, I concur that this diet is not arbitrarily chosen as it guarantees the wholesomeness of our coexistence. Religious absolutism, on the other hand, threatens this historical fabric as it eclipses the importance of rational discourse on religious doctrine or interpretation that may overlap with democratic principles and practices. When we annihilate this discourse, we let certain power colonize our public sphere and suffocate the very democratic right to speak, give opinion and dissent. No matter how noble or dignified this power may understand itself, this self-undertanding has been already corrupt from the very beginning. Obviously, that clichéd saying still rings true: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Therefore, alumni or not, I am afraid that compromising our democratic legacy makes any school of thought that promulgates absolutism can easily gain ground and attract crowds. Well, I’m not afraid of the dissemination of any ideas, this last idea included. But, what worries me is the absolutization of certain idea followed by the forced censure and closure of open debate on the validity of this idea by means of violence or intimidation.
In the age of uncertainties and insecurities, when people tend to look for any person or institution that offers immediate sense of certitude, we have the indispensable duty to keep thinking and questioning. Another discussion with a friend this afternoon makes me remember a saying popularly associated with a rigorous thinker from Königsberg: “Sapere Aude!” Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own understanding! With regard to the use of understanding or reason, this was a thinker who already long long time ago made a special mention of religion: “I have emphasized the main point of the enlightenment – man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage – primarily in religious matters… Above all, nonage in religion is not only the most harmful but the most dishonorable.” This man didn’t really explain the reason of this last assertion. But, inferring from his writing, I could say with certainty that when religion stops any human from exercising his or her sacred rights of using reason, that religion simply stops emancipating humanity. Instead, it becomes the powerful tool in the hands of self-serving rulers or business people who want to fish in troubled waters. These two kinds of people cunningly manipulate those firebrand agitators into becoming “guardians [who] make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them.”
Needless to say, all this brouhaha ends nowhere. We end up quarrelling and fighting among ourselves, and think that we have won this sacred war. What a ridiculous thought! What we might be oblivious of is the fact that while we lifted all those problematic banners and uttered those redundant insults, those people who benefit from this temporary uproar burst into incessant laughters, deriding our stupidity and innocence.
And now, well, to prevent such gathering of alumni from happening again, it’s our ever pressing duty to advance another type of school, the one that promotes courageous use of reason that counters the blind trust and subservience to any authorities that demand submission to any unexamined beliefs. I believe, this courageous use of reason won’t make them fool us again. I believe, this courageous use of reason won’t make the manipulators of the aforementioned guardians sneer at us again. Instead, we, ordinary citizens of different religions, will heartily laugh at our naiveté, laugh back at both of those people and then walk hand in hand to build a common future, solidly based upon our one and common humanity.