It was a bright sunny day when we arrived at that Islamic boarding school: welcomed and given a warm yet formal ceremonial introduction. I remember ever so clearly. He had dark skin, barely any hair, and beautiful wide eyes filled with deep curiosity. What was his name? I can’t seem to recall. Let’s just call him Hassan for the time being.
Oh wait… I’m way ahead of myself. Let’s start from the very beginning: My visit to the Pesantren described above was part of a 30-day study on cultural and pluralistic issues. Together with a group of American students and 3 other Indonesian delegates, I gained hands-on experience on the theme: how complex it is, and how rich the world is of differences. Cool right?
So then, who is Hassan and what about him? Well I was just getting to that. During a sharing session with students and teachers of this school, Hassan bravely stood up, turned on the microphone, faced the unfamiliar visitors and asked:
“why do Americans hate us (Indonesians)? Why do Americans hate Islam?”
A bold question indeed! I could hear the Americans starting to whisper, they were shocked. As for us confused Indonesians, we did nothing but share secretive looks at each other. We knew the question was coming. In fact it was only a matter of time before our own curiosity dawned on us. After what seemed like forever, an American delegate took the initiative to answer the crowd, it sounded something like this (and I rephrase):
“Americans do not hate Indonesians, nor do they hate Islam. As a matter of fact, little of them know where Indonesia is or what it is about. It is quite shocking for us to hear a question about something that never came across our minds. We understand that after the 9/11 attack, misperceptions about Islam and Muslim Majority countries keep coming up. But that is the very reason we are here: to learn about Indonesia. Get to know the culture, the people, the policies…”
I felt like giving a standing applause (which was barely possible since I was playing the language interpreter). My dear friend took Hassan’s question and answered very nicely. You certainly do have to give credit for that! But really, Hassan’s sincerety of a child made me realize how big the effect of social assumptions are. Though sometimes when we assume, we assume way too much or even out of line. Many conflicts, both minute and major, are caused by miss communications and little understanding of the two parties involved. I am not saying that no one can be blamed in the so-called conflicts; even I take stand in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Syrian civil war or the election of DKI’s local governor. But in my humble opinion, the intensity of the problems escalate just because of public opinions and shout-outs. Whilst in reality, individuals of the society are just shouting, period. Many do not try to see from the perspectives of those they do not support. Thus hatred and prejudice becomes a problem.
Looking back at my experience back at the Pesantren made me realize how essential it is to get to know other cultures, religions and nations. This reminded me of an article I read on VOA Indonesia on August 7, 2012 entitled “Peserta Pertukaran Mahasiswa Pluralisme dan Keberagaman Budaya Bertolak ke AS” (Participants of Student Exchange on Pluralism and Multiculture Departs to the US – translation) . Students of two very different countries came together and learned issues of democracy, pluralism and multiculturalism in Indonesia and United States. During the travel, the group was directly confronted by the reality of the two countries, good or bad. Meeting with some of Indonesia’s prominent figures, such as Professor Amien Rais and Alissa Wahid, visiting Yogya Hiphop Foundation and Inter-religious discussions — they certainly must have learnt a lot. Most importantly the delegates shall learn to see things from other people’s perspectives. Even when these “other people” are considered an arch enemy on TV. I guess what I’m trying to say is, these students are forced to come out of their comfort zone – their shell, their bubble – and walk in someone else’s shoes.
You certainly must be able to imagine how hard that is. But this attempt most certainly is life changing — and if it does help make the world a better place, why not? Maybe next time, we could do a similar program with… Ahmadiyah and Fanatic Islam? Or even Jokowi-Ahok and Foke! Let’s walk in other people’s shoes, people!