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2017-01-31
Pill

There has probably been a type of pill circulating in Indonesia over recent years, leading thousands of people to renounce their own reason. The tablet, as I recall, is Murti-Bing.

I read about this pill in a story in The Captive Mind, a book published in the 1960s. The author was Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.

In the book, Milosz examines an odd phenomenon: intellectuals, it turns out, can be attracted to a view that can actually gag the very basis of their lives: freedom of thought and speech. The book's title The Captive Mind captures the double meaning of 'captive', namely both 'fascinated' and 'trapped'. The main point of scrutiny in the book is the psychology of clever intellectuals who live contentedly with beliefs that confine.

Milosz calls this miracle the Murti Bing pill. He takes the metaphor from Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz's novel Insatiability.

The novel is a work of fiction about an imagined future of Poland under the control of Murti Bing. "Murti Bing," Milosz writes, "was a Mongolian philosopher who had succeeded in producing an organic means of transporting a philosophy of life." This 'philosophy of life' was obtained in a special tablet, DAVAMESK B 2 which, when swallowed, wiped a person's ability to think and rebel. "A man who used these pills changed completely," Milosz wrote. "He became serene and happy." He did not want to be troubled by profound questions.

This was the pill handed out to the people before Murti Bing's forces defeated Poland unopposed.

Milosz uses the DAVAMESK B2 pill as an allegory for communism, an ideology that once fascinated Polish intellectuals. They embraced communism because it provided a new direction and spirit at a time when they felt at a dead end viewing history. Communism offered optimism formulated 'scientifically'and thus not sensed as precarious. This was the case even when the terror in communism was established: the power of Stalin. Milosz attempted to delve into the spirits of the believersthose intellectuals who should have been critical but did not want to see the barbarism in Stalinism.

Were Milosz alive today, he would recognize the return of the Murti Bing pillin a particularly strident strand of Islamism.

Like the Polish experience under communism, Indonesians attracted to this kind of Islamism become 'serene and happy'. They do not want to be disturbed. They get a guide that "gives birth to feeling that everything is understandable and explained," Milosz says. They seem to live in "a system of bridges built over chasms," he writes. "One can travel boldly ahead over these bridges, ignoring the chasmsbut that, alas, does not alter the fact that they exist."

From this doctrine of forbidden-viewing is born what I call 'takfirism', namely a view that labels anything outside the network of their 'bridge' as haram or kafir. There is a kind of 'illusion of complete knowledge' that provides bridges for all questionseven though the answers are actually merely repetitions of a small number of formula. Eventually, 'takfir' (making others 'kafir') stops the process of tafkir, or thought.

The call to totalitarianism here is strong: an urge to place people and things within a single teaching that encompasses everything; no part or moment in one's life may deviate from that.

It seems that takfirism makes people 'serene and happy' because they exist beneath a net of deterrence so tight it extends to their thinking. But that deterrence is actually a sign of unending anxiety. The chasms below cannot be wiped out; life goes on changing.

But like communism, totalitarianism is optimistic. Communism is sure of achieving a society that is just, prosperous, and free: heaven on earth. The 'takfirists' are sure that there is heaven in the afterlife and that they can reach that.

But with communism, attaining heaven on earth or not can be tested in the experience of history. Whereas how can one verify heaven, except through death?

Maybe this explains the spirit of heroism and purity in 'takfirism'. It is like fascism. The Italian dictator Mussolini stressed fascist beliefs in purity (santit) and heroism (eroismo). Movements like IS, Darul Islam or the Tentara Islam (Islamic Army) are not far from this.

But 'purity' and 'heroism' do not easily accept different worlds. The world is never pure and heroism is not the pattern of behavior of people in general. Particularly with war and death. It is not surprising that fascism ended up isolated.

Unfortunately, these days the new version of the Murti Bing pill is still influential everywhere. Captivating.

Goenawan Mohamad



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