Emanuel Dapa Loka, Contributor, Jakarta | Wed, 03/16/2011 9:27 PM | People
Everyone has heard of Zuhairi Misrawi, the young intellectual from Nahdlatul Ulama, also known as a prolific writer, Middle East observer and chairman of the moderate Muslim society.
But few people know how this 34-year-old from the small fishing village of Kapedi in Madura made it this far.
Misrawi, affectionately called Gus Mis, comes from a modest background indeed. His father was a fisherman and his mother a rujak (fruit salad) seller at the local market.
“So they were busy eking out a living as low-income workers,” he told The Jakarta Post during a recent interview in Jakarta. His parents never gave much thought to any of their children’s schooling.
When Gus Mis was still in sixth grade, his father wanted him — the eldest son — to become a fisherman. But Gus Mis couldn’t stop vomiting after spending three days on a boat, so his parents concluded he wasn’t fit to be an angler.
As a child, the graduate of Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt, was eager to go to school, realizing it was his passport to wealth and intelligence. When he started primary school, he said it expanded his horizon and gave him a new perspective.
“So I aspired to become a cleric who would lecture and communicate ideas to society,” said Gus Mis.
He was top of his class until junior high school, sliding to third place for a little while before climbing back to the top again, defeating students from all over the country, including Jakarta.
But his mother never found out about his high achievements until high school.
“From primary to early senior high school, I signed my school reports myself,” he laughingly said.
While in high school, Gus Mis’ teacher, Kiai Idris Djauhari, invited the former’s mother to let her know that her very bright son had in fact never paid his compulsory educational contributions (SPP) and that he would be sent to Cairo to study further. Little did his mother know Misrawi had spent all the money his parents gave him for SPP on newspapers and books instead.
“In junior high school, I bought Jawa Pos newspapers and various books with the money so I could learn the thoughts of Muslim figures like Gus Dur, Emha Ainunnadjib and Cak Nur,” he said.
Gus Mis to this day has no idea why he was so interested in reading, unlike most children in his village who spent most of their time playing. His second home was his junior high school library, where he devoured books of diverse origins. Armed with such knowledge, he won physics and social science contests up to the regency level, besides developing his skills in chess, table tennis and badminton.
He learned about philosophy and journalism. He delved into religion not only as a faith but also a way of life, a means to achieve greater peace and tolerance. Non-Muslim ideas like those of Romo Magnis and Romo Mangun also inspired him to regard religion as a domain of humanity. Man, as God’s most perfect creation, should accordingly give prominence to human qualities.
“A combination of religion, philosophy, literature, history and other subjects shaped my understanding of life, broadening my perspective. So I believe poverty can be overcome by enhancing human capacity, knowledge and social relations, which will change everything. All this will awaken our conscience and minds to live in mutually beneficial way,” he explained.
Gus Mis is most inspired by (former president) Gus Dur.
“I used to read Gus Dur’s books as a youngster. He could always be relied on to get out of difficult situations by making a tough problem an issue of common concern. It’s like when we faced the government of Soeharto. Gus Dur said we could surmount this problem if we dealt with it together,” said the bespectacled man.
Gus Mis believes the kind of poverty he grew up in can be overcome through strong determination and serious effort. He follows the teachings of Imam Ali, who articulates that man’s major enemy is ignorance. In Gus Mis’ eyes, today’s widespread violence is the result of a lack of mutual understanding. Problems between Muslims and Christians throughout history have arisen because of prejudice plaguing both communities, without mediation for mutual acquaintance and recognition.
According to him, people should get to know each other in order to reduce hatred. However bad we think someone might be, what makes them special must still be recognized because God created man with a purpose.
“For instance, we say we’re good while Ahmadiyah is bad. But Ahmadiyah actually also has its conscience, special qualities and positive sides.”
The state hasn’t found a way yet of eradicating poverty and ignorance from the country. Poverty triggers violence here, while ignorance makes a meeting of minds and interaction impossible. There should therefore be mutual assistance for such a meeting and sharing, he went on.
“With the new National Education Law, Christians learn about Christianity and Muslims about Islam. But Christians should learn about Islam and Muslims about Christianity. This doesn’t involve converting people to another religion, but rather promote an understanding of universal values and enhance our awareness of humanity,” added Gus Mis.
Poverty is widespread in Indonesia. Educated minds will think of a better future, whereas the poor will only think of today. But poverty is not God’s destiny, as God says in the Koran that He will never change a group unless it changes itself. So poverty is man’s business, not God’s.
“Since it depends on us, the government should have the political will or commitment to eradicating poverty. And religion also has the commitment to encouraging its followers to work hard because I believe religious teachings serve as the ethos of work. It’s a matter of how the ethos is conveyed through religion to induce diligence.”