Put Yourself in Somebody Else's Shoe !!


June 27, 2008



I know this is not Ramadan, a month when Muslims refrain from food and drink for the entire day. However, the wisdom that almost every ustaz or religious teachers keep telling us whenever this month is on our doorsteps is deeply etched in my mind.

We fast, so goes the wisdom, because we have to teach ourself how hard the life of poor people is. Fasting is an act of solidarity, an act of putting yourself in somebody else’s shoe. With fasting we learn how it feels like to be living under a back-breaking poverty.

Whether or not Muslims internalize and live up to this “sweet”, ideal and noble goal of fasting, I frankly don’t know.

However, even if Muslims fail to elevate themselves up to this high-moral standard, and live instead in a double-standard world (I mean they fast in Ramadan, yet show an excessive display of consumerism as the month nears its end, as we all know very well), the wisdom of fasting as a method to teach us how it feels like to be in “other’s shoe” is still very attractive to me.

Echoing an ancient wisdom that is almost shared by great sages the world over, the Prophet Muhammad is related to have said that any one of us is not considered to be a believing person, mu’min, until h/she does unto others what h/she wishes they do unto him/her.

If you feel offended because others address you in a way that discriminates you, don’t ever do it to them. Social life is predicated upon the principle of “reciprocity”. As a noted anthropologist Marcel Mauss pointed out in his classics, The Gift, human society is sustained among other things through myriad cultural edifices such as the concept of gift and exchange. What underpins these concepts is the very idea of reciprocity.

Arrogance, self-righteousness, and seeing ourself as the sole holder of key to the truth are obviously against this ethics.

Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher, maintained that there are two modes of communication: the “I-It” and “I-Thou” communications.

The “I-It” way of communicating with others is to treat them as a passive “other” in the same manner we treat animal or inanimate objects. Whereas “I-Thou” communication is to treat others as human being with a great respect. That is what animates the ethics of reciprocity that lies at the very foundation of any society–the ethics of “putting yourself in other’s shoe”.

WHEN a group of people who arrogate themselves the “holy” task of defending Islam, God and his Apostle attacked the allegedly “deviant” sect, Ahmadiyah, demolished its mosques, kicked out its members from their houses, sent woman and children of Ahmadi families into shelterless refuge, they showed to us the lack of this very ethics.

Were Ahmadiyah a predominant sect in Indonesia, practicing the similar persecution and repression, what would those attackers think?

The problem with Indonesian Muslims is that they live so long as a majority, cultivating the mindset of “supremacy” given their status as the predominant religious group in the country. It never occurs to them how it looks like to be in the reverse position. It is so striking to see that the discourse of “civil right” is markedly missing in the rhetoric of Sunni majority in Indonesia.

Of course there are Muslim advocacy groups that adopt this discourse with a great enthusiasm. They try to defend the right of Ahmadi people to exercise their freedom of conscience. Unfortunately, those “good Samaritans” run into a risk of being designated as “westernized Muslims” adopting the language of western civilization, i.e. the language of civil right.

It seems that the only way for Muslim to learn how important civil rights are is to live themselves as a minority. That is exactly what I see happening in the US now. Being minority, Muslim in the US seem to realize that the only way to defend their right is to jump into the bandwagon of civil right movement. The good example is CAIR, Council of American-Islamic Relations, presumably the largest Muslim civil right organization in the US.

However, while CAIR is so enthusiastic to defend Muslims who are discriminated against in the US, which is definitely a very important task to accomplish, it strikes me that it pays so little attention to the same discriminatory practices that are so rampant in Muslim world nowadays, especially against minority sect such as Ahmadiyah. I would imagine that it is a very strong message for the Muslim world if Muslim organizations in the West such as CAIR say categorically that discrimination and persecution of minority sects, in all its forms and for whatever reason, is unacceptable in the civilized world. CAIR and the likes are in the best position to tell Muslims outside the West about the evil consequence of discrimination for any society, Muslim included.

That is, I think, the very implementation of “putting yourself in other’s shoe”-ethics. That is the realization of a noble goal of fasting in Ramadan: to learn how it feels like to be discriminated against.

Can Muslims live up to this Islamic ethics?

  Ulil Abshar Abdalla





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