AL QALAM Institute was founded last 2011 by Ateneo de Davao University. This is an institute for Islamic identities and dialogue that envisions to have understanding of Islam, the Muslims, and peoples of Mindanao that are culturally linked to Southeast Asian communities.
With this goal in mind, unfortunately, there are some people who do not like what we do in Al Qalam Institute. They do not like the way we teach our Muslim youth today to be critical minded and have a process of discernment on certain issues they encounter in their communities. They do not like to hear us saying that there can be many “truths” in this universe when we speak about God, religion, and humankind’s way of life.
In Al Qalam, we have the monthly activity called Bitiala (conversations) within the university and sometimes with our partner communities to discuss about any important issues that our Ummah (Muslim communities) face in the current context. The Bitiala is similar to what we call today as “safe space”.
To describe what “safe space” is, I would like to quote an article written by Katherin Ho entitled, “Tackling the Term: What is a safe space?”, published online by Harvard Political Review last January 30, 2017. The article discussed that there are two types of “safe space”. Safe space according to Ms. Ho can be described as emotional space and academic safety.
According to her, “Emotional safe spaces offer comfort and respectfulness; academic safety refers to the freedom to make others uncomfortable through intellectual debate. When used correctly, emotional and academic safe spaces are both beneficial for students.” I agree with her definition but this is easier said than done. She also recognizes that a tension exists between emotional space and academic safety.
She argues, “If the goal of an academic setting is to keep people comfortable, then the acceptability of speech will be determined by how objectionable it is. And if arguments are limited based on how offensive they seem, people are expected to adhere to an implicit set of polite ideological norms. Speech is allowed so long it doesn’t appear to conflict with the socially accepted opinions on certain touchy topics. In this way, new safe spaces become less about respecting and empowering individuals than sanctifying certain ideas. Provocative speech is censored, which has pernicious effects on the academic tradition.” Terms like respect, empower, ideas, and speech are key in having a safe space discussions.
We in Al Qalam, we try to question the “status quo” in the name of justice and common good. We follow the principle that “truth emerges not only through dialogue but also from recognizing our differences and our diverse opinions.”
In one Bitiala we had last year within Al Qalam, we discussed the issue about “Muslims greeting their Christian friends, “Merry Christmas”. Is it allowed in Islam: Yes or No?” There were many opposing ideas that came out during the discussion. We learned that some ulama would argue that we cannot say “Merry Christmas” because it is like we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and recognizing him as a “Son of God”. There were also some participants who said that two decades ago, this issue in not a problem because we live in a Christian dominated country. Hence, we can greet our Christian friends as a gesture of respect, but we do not celebrate it the same way they do.
Unfortunately, in our context, most of our communities believe in that there is “only one truth”. They believe that their way is the “only way”. Having this line of thought have caused violent conflict in our communities. We should realized by now that we should find a space where we can compromise, not our own faith, but our way of building relationships with people that are different from us.
In my work in Al Qalam, I learned that when we listen with our heart, we can co-exists with other people who have different religion or political views from us. I learned that it is not life threatening to listen to other views, it actually makes us more human to learn our commonalities and find our humanity amidst our diversity. For this 2018, may we have more.