Transforming Stereotypes of the West

By Inayah Rohmaniyah

Extremism in Indonesia appears to be on the rise amid recent news of attacks against police headquarters in West Java and North Sumatra. Some members of the groups responsible for these attacks and a recent bank robbery are linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant religious group whose name is Arabic for Islamic Community.

Such audacious and public activity demonstrates resistance to the rule of law and the government’s continued efforts to counter extremism and acts of terror.

There is a lot of speculation at the moment that religious radicalisation is being learnt on Indonesian university campuses.

Whether or not this is indeed the case, the educational system may just be the best place to counter such views and teach students a tolerant understanding of religion.

At Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarata, teachers are trying to do just that. Students in the Department of Islamic Theology and Philosophy are required to take a course called Orientalism. Although the definition of Orientalism was originally understood by Western nations as the study of Asian culture, people and languages, the Palestinian American academic Edward Said in 1978 reframed the term as biased and based on false assumptions. In Indonesia, this negative connotation prevails and Orientalism is understood more narrowly in this course as the study of Islam by non-Muslim scholars.

My experience teaching Orientalism for more than four years has shown first-hand how education can change students’ perspectives and attitudes toward non-Muslims and the Western world.

The course includes a study of the works of historical and contemporary experts in the field, such as Snouck Hurgronje, Ignaz Goldziher, William Montgomery Watt, Nabia Abbott, John Esposito and Mark Woodward. At the beginning of each class, I conduct an assessment of students’ perceptions of these scholars and, by implication, the societies they stem from.

Year after year, this assessment indicates how students join this class with the perception that non-Muslims and/or Westerners are “the enemy” of Islam, intent on “destroying” it.

At the beginning of the term, approximately 95 per cent of students taking my class believe that Western colonialism is “a war between Christianity or Judaism and Islam” that will never end. Almost all students link the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims to the Crusades which, as mentioned by Mark Woodward in his article, Tropes of the Crusades in Indonesian Muslim Discourse, are commonly understood as brutal wars of unprovoked aggression in which savage Christians attacked pious Muslims.

One student, sadly representative of his/her peers, commented that “The West/Christian people will always find a way to fight against and destroy Islam. They were defeated in the Crusades and they have changed the strategy now to an intellectual war.”

Sadly, such statements show how anti-Western perceptions have become mainstream among young Indonesian Muslims.

Fortunately these views can be transformed.

Throughout the term, students engage in intensive discussions on the history of Orientalism and the thoughts of contemporary Western scholars about Islam. Students often find these perspectives surprising, and at the end of the course most students express a change in their perception of Western-Muslim relations.

Although many still have concerns about perspectives of non-Muslim and/or Western scholars, 90 per cent of the students who complete my class express the belief that Muslim-Western relations can improve over time and that the West is not homogenous, but instead home to a plurality of views.

One student wrote on an exit assessment, “Before I took this class on Orientalism, what little I knew about it came from Muslim proselytisers. They said that all Western/non-Muslim scholars of Islam have a mission to spread Christianity and destroy Islam. This point of view led me to hold a negative perspective of Westerners. Now, after taking this class, my negative standpoint has begun to change. In fact, not everything these proselytisers said about the West and Western scholars is true.”

Similarly, another student confessed, “Before taking this class, I perceived an Orientalist as somebody who has a certain mission from the church, or a desire to destroy Islam. But, after joining the class my perception has changed.”

Before-and-after comments from students demonstrate how education can play a role in dispelling entrenched societal stereotypes. All of us – educators, government, students, parents and others who support a tolerant Islam – must take back the curriculum.

Inayah Rohmaniyah is a lecturer at the Faculty of Islamic Theology and Philosophy at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta. She is also a doctoral candidate at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, Yogyakarta.

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