Again students from the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula get in Egypt insightful live “course” on politics.
Among the foreigners that have happened into the dramatic scenes in Egypt are some thousands students from Indonesia and more than 10,000 students from Malaysia who study in the Land of the Nile, mainly in Cairo, the ground zero of the uprising.
Majority of them attend the prestigious Islamic university of Al-Azhar; since 1960s it expanded its curriculum to include also non-religious subjects and it also offer now faculties as agriculture, medicine, commerce, and engineering. It even opened the gates to women almost a half century ago for learning in a women’s college.
The Indonesian and the Malaysian students who study nowadays in Egypt actually follow the traces of much earlier generations of seekers of knowledge and learning from the Malay-Indonesian world.
Since the second half of the 19th century young Muslims from both Indonesia, then Dutch East Indies, and Malaysia, then Malaya, moved westward to Egypt to study, most of them at Al-Azhar University.
It was not only Egypt that has much attracted generations of seekers of knowledge form the Malay-Indonesian world; even much earlier many of them started to signify the Holy Cities in Arabia, Mecca and Medina, as a destination for acquiring Islamic knowledge.
These two centers of Islamic learning have widely exposed them to variety of religious knowledge, ideas, and thought. There they have even established their own communities and networks of ulema and have been engaged in Islamic thought that have marked their influence on the religious life in the Malay-Indonesian world.
As early as the 1920s a former student neatly summarized, as it cited by the historian William Roff, the unique opportunities that Cairo offered to Malay-Indonesian students then: “In Mecca one could study religion only; in Cairo, politics as well”.
Indeed, it is clearly evident through a broader historical perspective of the twentieth century that Egypt has offered to many seekers of knowledge from the Malay-Indonesian world what the Arabian Peninsular couldn’t; to watch from very close a multidimensional complex of politics, marked among other things by diversity, intensity, ideological fervor and passion, and even the pioneering drive.
It is not surprising then that products of the creative Egyptian political-ideological laboratory, that has no competitor in the entire Arab world, have often found their ways during the last century to the entire Middle East, North Africa and far beyond.
What has been unfolded in Egypt, in Cairo in particular, to the eyes of young educated Muslims from the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula during the last century and what kind of ideological winds blew right at their face there? Just to present some illustrations: distinctive vivid ideological and conceptual scale from strict secular oriented streams of thought to most zealous militant religious ideologies and doctrines.
Almost all the possibilities in between also exist, such as Islamic modernist and reformist thought and even preliminary liberal Islamic thought on one hand and very assertive voice of political Islam that announced its appearance by the Muslim Brothers as early as late 1920s; varied spectrum of collective identities from different local nationalist orientations to Pan-Islamism and Pan-Arabism; struggle for independence and against perceived remaining strongholds of colonialism as well as defying of perceived new-colonialism and imperialism; the rise and the fall of democratic parliamentary practices; downfall of monarchy and raising to power of military dictatorship; political assassinations and executions of regime opponents; effects of the blast waves caused the Arab-Israeli conflict including painful sense of military defeats and also euphoria of a sense of a victory; and a pioneering move for settle this conflict by signing a peace agreement with Israel.
The unfolded scenes, voices, knowledge and ideas originated in Egypt have not been remained as private memories and intellectual assets only; seekers of knowledge who studied in Egypt functioned as conduits for transferring varied ideas, concepts and doctrines to the Malay-Indonesian world.
The sojourn in Egypt even further pushed many of them to involvement in varied fields, among them religious affairs, education, academic life, politics, and journalism.
At the time of writing of this article both Indonesia and Malaysia are still engaged in evacuation of their nationals from Egypt, for safety. Nevertheless, even those students who were already evacuated from Egypt had enough time in late January and during the earlier days of February to experience in Egypt itself an unprecedented massive protest and demonstration of people’s power aim to remove from power the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
It is likely that also manifestations of an anarchy and chaos also did not slipped form their eyes as well deep feeling of insecurity and uncertainty, let alone that is too early to tell to what political reality the uprising would eventually lead.
It is also likely that some thoughts about the form of government in the homeland flashed in the minds of those among the Indonesian and Malaysian students who have strong political awareness while watching both the protest and the anarchy around.
Perhaps those students from Indonesia, whose homeland is often described as a remote periphery of the Islamic world, looked proudly around; their country, a home to the largest Muslim community in the world, that almost 13 years ago made a dramatic transition from years of authoritarian rule into democracy, has already succeeded to develop many attributes of a consolidated democracy.
Notwithstanding, perhaps the uprising in Egypt will further strengthen their belief in the need to move forward to a target of a full-fledged democracy. The recent severe manifestations of religious intolerance in Central Java may also serve as a reminder for them.
As to Malaysia, its political system is often described as “semi-democracy” or “quasi-democracy”. But perhaps some students from Malaysia who study in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East have also noticed that though the democracy in their homeland has many shortcomings, it yet enables channels for political participation and expressions that are still uncommon in the Arab world.
Therefore, perhaps certain among the Malaysian students who happened into the stormy scenes in Egypt will come back home with a lesson saying that democracy is not an obvious concept, but a precious, meaningful form of government and way of life that should be consistently sustained, nurtured and improved.
The unfolded scenes, voices, knowledge and ideas originated in Egypt have not been remained as private memories and intellectual assets only.
Dr. Giora Eliraz is an associate researcher at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Affiliated Fellow at KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden.
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