Students, question authority!

by Dr. Azly Rahman

(Below is Part 2 of the speech on “student idealism” delivered at the annual gathering of the Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim Students in Washington DC, USA, December 2007.)

Most respected Malaysian and Indonesian students of the Islamic faith, let us continue. I begin with two quotes:

“Everything is good in the hands of the author of Things, everything degenerates in the hands of Man,” said Jean Jacques Rousseau, the spiritual force of the French Revolution.

“Know thyself know thy enemies, one hundred battles one hundred victories,” said the legendary Chinese military leader Sun Tzi.

If there is a thesis statement or a guiding idea or an inquiry theme in my speech today, it is this: question authority, break new frontiers of thinking, but listen to the voice of the inner self in order to serve humanity.

We live in interesting times, as chairman Mao Zedong once said; interesting because the forces of globalisation is at perpetual war with humanity’s inner sense of beingness.

We are a republic onto itself. We are a kingdom we govern ourselves. In each and every one of us lies an inner world bigger than the world outside – a world if known, if and only if we know ourselves – is a world in which freedom reigns and one in which the self refuses to be caged and shackled by structures of oppression built by others.

The essence of being human is that of having the insatiable urge to question and to search for answers, and next, not satisfied with the answers, to continue to question. Some revolutionary [thinkers call this dialectics; the permanent revolution in our world of cognition. Becoming a human being is a process – we are as a French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would say, beings in the process of becoming and by doing so we define the world and able to “name” it. We have always lived a life in which our world is already pre-determined, our belief system prepackaged, and our knowledge of the political world prepared for us as propaganda produced and disseminated by those who owns the means of producing propaganda. We have live in what a British writer Eric Blair/George Orwell called a world of “doublespeak” wherein what it said has its form and appearance.

Ethos of questioning

As students living and breathing the world of knowledge, in a culture – the American progressive culture – of learning, we must embody the ethos of questioning. We must question everything and not allow answers to live inside of us for long. It is only through this process that we will feel and experience within ourselves – our Inner world – the process of constant or permanent revolution in how we acquire our understanding of the world.

To evolve into wiser individuals with enquiring minds, we must ask questions and reflect upon the answers suggested to us. If we are afraid to ask questions, our mind and consciousness will be owned and manipulated by those who think they have the right answers, or by those who wants to use force to tell us what the right answers shall be.

Question authority – that was what a Harvard University historian of science Thomas Kuhn spoke about in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” which chronicled the advancement of scientific knowledge made possible by questions raised in each field of science – questions that made paradigms collapse, giving birth to newer ones.

Every moment of our waking life must be a philosophical one. Every moment must generate enough questions to make us go to bed still questioning the phenomena we see around us and the experiences we are confronted with in that waking moment. Questions make us more human just as the food we eat gives us the strength to continue living as human beings and the self-affirmation mantras/doas/zikirs/prayers we say silently to ourselves give us the inner strength to feed our spirit so that we may know ourselves better and ultimately know the Creator.

The mind, the body, and the spirit become the tripartite of this beingness and becomingness of our existence. It creates, recreates, constructs and reconstructs this kingdom of the Self we inhabit. Not even the Sultans some choose to bow down to in this world of illusion, can ever see how powerful the inner kingdom we have built within us – only if we are aware of the power within. No even the Neon Gods on Times Square New York reigning on New Year’s Eve, come close to understanding how beautiful and glorious the Inner World we inhabit – again, only if we know who we are.

We are evolving selves in a journey to understand, realize, and finally inhabit and embody the Ultimate Truth. The truth is universal. We are little truths that live in the moments of the particular. I shall not elaborate further this philosophical notion of Universalism versus the Particularism, Form versus Appearance, the evolving self versus the larger Self as to confuse you. You will need to experience this journey yourself – by first questioning authority and freeing yourselves from the mental and spiritual cages you let others with money and the skills to create architecture of power built.

Basic questions

Who are you as a self that questions your very existence? Let me offer some a clue of what being an “individual” means; of what being a ruler of one’s own kingdom entails. But first, let us ponder upon these basic questions:

How are human beings controlled by those who own the means of intellectual and economic production?

How does power, in its raw and refined form, operate in our society?

How is it dispersed?

How is power sustained?

How is truth produced?

How is truth multiplied?

How is the self constructed?

How are we alienated?

What is inscribed onto the body and into the mind, in the process of schooling?

How is human imagination confined and how might it be released?

How is the mind enslaved by the politics of knowledge?

How is historical knowledge packaged?

How do we define our existence in this Age of Information?

Who decides what is important in history?

What is an ideal multi-cultural society?

How has our idea of multi-culturalism influence the way we live our lives?

What historical knowledge is of importance?

What tools do we need to create our own history?

How is the individual more powerful than the state?

How is a philosopher-king created?

How is justice possible?

Who should rule and why?

How are we to teach about justice?

And finally, how might we realise a democratic-republic of virtue – one that is based on a form of democracy that is meaningful and personal?

Thank you for not falling asleep during this lecture. I suppose you have the right to do so if this is a dead boring lecture. I will have to tell the conference organizers to provide you with pillows then – yellow pillows with pictures of the Malaysian flag and the Petronas Twin Towers on it.

[PART 3 will follow]

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 11:29 am

    All that questioning and the only term that I pick up is the word Democratic-Republic. By definition, a republic is one that is a representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy of Greek ideal.

    Theologist highest ideals is not democratic republicanism but rather theological ideals. In fact, you can basically trace a lot of the conflicts, one based on popularism while the other divinity.

  2. #2 by dawsheng on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 1:54 pm

    “Who are you as a self that questions your very existence?”

    If you are lazy, you learn less, you can’t think, you became stupid, you needs help, you are a problem, your existence means nothing.

  3. #3 by U32 on Saturday, 12 January 2008 - 1:05 am

    Before a student questions the authority, the student must know that he or she is in the right, especially with regards to wrong doing if any, and disciplinary action. We do not want the next generation growing up fighting against authority without knowing what they are actually fighting for. We don’t want rebels without causes.

    However, the students must be brave to question what they are learning. Not just questioning in order to get a better explanation but also questioning in order to gain more information. Our setting is that the students do not question. They have their own reasons which we can guess. Reasons from being embarrassed to feeling stupid. Not questioning is part and puzzle of our tradition. Even politicians are not encouraged to question. Or else you all will be reminded of the Ikut Suka Aku action.

    We have not arrived at a stage whereby questioning is part of our lifestyle. I use the word arrive because Malaysians are moving towards that direction but at a very slow pace. We are threatened when we question. If we are not threatened, we are ignored. Statements like ” I don’t want to listen ” can mean many things like for example you don’t have any answers for the questions given to you or you think you are the greatest so who should question you. Unless you all know that you should be free to speak your mind, then it is like imprisoning yourself. By the way, how many of you know that you are imprisoning yourself ? You do not allow yourself to think deep and wide. You tell yourself you should not do so. In fact you lie to yourself when you think that only some can question but you yourself are not allowed to do so. Sometimes it has to do with psychology. Sometimes if nothing ever happens and your life is good so far, you take it for granted that it will be good forever.

  4. #4 by oknyua on Saturday, 12 January 2008 - 1:09 pm

    ‘To evolve into wiser individuals with enquiring minds, we must ask questions and reflect upon the answers suggested to us. If we are afraid to ask questions, our mind and consciousness will be owned and manipulated by those who think they have the right answers, or by those who wants to use force to tell us what the right answers shall be.” Dr Azly

    I just hope our fellow commentator Shamshul Anuar reads this. But then again, he can still say we got it all wrong.

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