Menu Close

Terrorism, Death, Religion, The Government and The Other

Allow me first to begin my article by presenting an excerpt of a news article reported by CNN dated last May 15, 2018 in line with recent terrorist attacks that took place in Indonesia, particularly in Surabaya.[1] It reads:

Surabaya, Indonesia (CNN) A spate of deadly, ISIS-inspired bombings that rocked Indonesia’s second-largest city in 24 hours were carried out by three families — including their young children — who targeted churches and the police, authorities said.

In the latest attack on Monday morning, a family of five rode two motorcycles to the front gate of Surabaya’s police headquarters before detonating explosives, injuring 10 people.

On Tuesday, police identified the couple as Tri Murtiono and his wife Tri Ernawati, who carried out the attack accompanied by their sons, aged 18 and 14, and their 7-year-old daughter. CNN had previously reported that the girl was eight, per police statements.

She was riding as a passenger on one of the bikes and was thrown clear of the explosion, police spokesman Frans Barung Mangera said. A video of the scene showed her staggering through the rubble before a bystander picked her up and carried her to safety.

The bombing came one day after a family of six, including four children, detonated explosives at three churches, killing 12 people and injuring at least 40.

The father, identified by police as Dita Oepriarto, was said to have driven his wife Puji Kuswat and their two daughters, aged 9 and 12, to the Indonesian Christian Church. The trio went inside and detonated a bomb.

Oepriarto then drove the van to the Pentecostal Central Church, where, from inside the vehicle, he detonated another bomb, police said.

Around the same time the couple’s two teenage sons, aged 16 and 18, drove motorcycles to the Santa Maria Catholic Church, where they also detonated bombs. All members of the family died in the attacks, which ISIS claimed responsibility for via its Amaq News Agency in what it called “a martyrdom operation.”

Later Sunday, in what police also described as a terror incident, a mother and her 17-year-old daughter were killed in the Surabaya suburb of Sidoarjo when a bomb handled by the family’s father detonated prematurely. Police found the father of the family in a house holding a detonator and shot him, police spokesman Barung Mangera said.

The family’s 12-year-old son took his two younger sisters to the Bhayangkara Police Hospital, he added.

Tito Karnavian, Indonesia’s top-ranking police officer, told reporters Monday that police were working on the assumption that the attacks followed a directive from ISIS Central Command to avenge the imprisonment of the former leaders of  Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an Indonesian jihadi group that supports ISIS.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has struggled in recent months with a rise in Islamist militancy, which has come as ISIS has been squeezed out of its heartland in Syria and Iraq.

Karnavian also told reporters Monday that none of the families involved in the attacks had recently traveled to Syria, but Oepriarto had close links with someone who had recently returned from Syria who may have inspired him to carry out the attacks. …

Prior to this series of bombings, just a few weeks ago, and I believe most of us are already aware of what happened, a prison riot broke in Depok, south of Jakarta, where hundreds of terror convicts succeeded in plundering the weapons from nearby police caches, killing five elite counter-terror police and one prisoner. From the information gathered, the riot was sparked by a disagreement over food brought to the prison by an inmate’s family member and escalated quickly as other inmates became involved. After a 36-hour siege, the national police were able to reclaim the prison which forced the convicts to surrender without any resistance after an ultimatum was declared.[2] Many believed that this incident fueled other terrorist groups to begin their series of attacks in some parts of Indonesia.

Such is the political and humanitarian problem which Indonesia is facing right now. Radicalism, terrorism and other separatist ideologies slowly creep into the society no less than its basic unity, the family. The aforementioned terrorist attacks which happened over the past days which caught the Indonesian government by surprise tell us of the crisis of ‘I and the Other’, a rupture in human relationship. This is clearly not a sign of societal advancement but a social problem that needs solution. Ironically, the kind of terrorism that the Indonesian government is now facing is hiding under the blanket of religion. This disguise must be unmasked so as to prevent the error of hatred toward the Other and to avoid any forces which can further tarnish the noble nature of religion.

If we dig deep into the error of terrorism, it is fundamentally an ideology, a system of thought, it’s belief and praxis, a method of exclusion which finds its root in the view that the Other is an object which must be manipulated or even annihilated. The existence of the Other is seen as a hindrance towards the furtherance of the ideology. The Other, the one who does not belong to the group, is marginalized and banished. By spreading fear, the Other is made a victim of isolation and persecution. The Other is reduced to nothingness.

This is the main sickness of terrorism, that the otherness of the Other is seen as a total hindrance, a stumbling block to the totalizing I. What is permissible and beneficial to the group is what is similar, the same. Difference is to be feared. Diversity is a deadly poison. Such ideology does not go with the national character of Indonesia which is culturally, politically, and religiously diverse. It has always been in the consciousness of majority of Indonesians to preserve this diversity as a riches that the country can share and be proud of.

With this in mind, knowing the serious threat of terrorism to the Indonesian nation, this article intends to learn from the wisdom of Emmanuel Levinas with regard to treating the Other responsibly, onto whom the error of terrorism has primarily committed. Through the lenses of Levinasian philosophy of the Other, I hope we can see and combat the said error which terrorism has arrogantly exposed. On the other hand, for those who are new to the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, this article shall serve as a short introduction to the thought of this French philosopher who championed in putting the Other on the pedestal of philosophical discussions and this article may also serve as a reminder for those who are already familiar with Levinas to remain steadfast in our commitment to be always responsible to and for the human other.

 The Other and The Face     

Emmanuel Levinas was born in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania on January 12, 1906. His two younger brothers, Boris and Aminadab were murdered by the Nazis. The Levinas family belonged to Kovno’s large and important Jewish community. The first language Levinas learned to read was Hebrew although Russian was his mother tongue. As a youth, Levinas read great Russian writers, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Pushkin. He was also influenced by Shakespeare. Levinas spent most of his academic years in Germany and France. It was in Germany that Emmanuel Levinas found his interest in phenomenology though his encounters with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. In 1930, Levinas became a French citizen and died in Paris in 1995.[3]

During the World War II, as a Jew, Levinas experienced firsthand the brutality of Hitlerism through his own losses in Holocaust. Years later, in memory of his exterminated family members, Levinas wrote on the dedication page to his work Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence two painfully striking remarks. The first remark, the upper dedication is written in French and reads (in translation), ‘To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists [Hitlerism, my emphasis], and of the millions and millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same antisemitism.’ It is like Levinas is also speaking on behalf of the ones who suffered from the horror of terrorism. The second remark is written in Hebrew, using traditional phraseology Levinas dedicates the volume to the memories of his father, his mother, his brother, his father-in-law and his mother-in-law. In an essay entitled Signature, Levinas sketched his short biography which he said to be “dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror.”[4]

Levinas’s philosophy is an ethics, a philosophy of the Other, the human other, the unique individual person. For him, the Other is not an alter ego, it is really other. The Other for Levinas cannot be assimilated by the ego, the I. Levinas’s philosophy is a reaction to a philosophy that always preoccupies itself with the question of Being, existing for the Being’s own sake. He is against the synthesizing mentality, totalizing all meaning within a single knowledge. His agenda is to leave the climate of Heideggerian thought whose Being-in-the-world, Dasein, always struggles to give meaning to its existence by exhausting all its possibilities, leaving almost no room for the Other.  For Levinas, however, to be is to be good, to be responsible for the Other. For him it is not the forgetfulness of being that becomes the problem, rather it is the forgetfulness of the Other.

In describing the philosophy of Levinas which is actually an ethical philosophy, or better ethics as the first philosophy,  Bernhard Waldenfels writes:

Levinas’s ethics are rooted in the phenomenology of the body, close to that of Husserl, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty, even when he goes his own way. It is the hungering, thirsting, enjoying, suffering, working, loving, murdering human being in all its corporeality (Leibhaftigkeit) whose otherness is at stake. The otherness does not lie behind the surface of somebody we see, hear, touch and violate. It is just his or her otherness. It is the other as such and not some aspect of him or her that is condensed in the face. So the whole body expresses, our hands and shoulders do it as well as our face taken in its narrow sense.[5]

Levinas’s philosophy is not an abstract logical framework which plays with sophistications. Instead, his is grounded in the concrete human individual with all encounters. Levinas uses metonymy to describe the Other as the face.  He uses the face to speak of the whole person. As he said:

I think rather that the access to the face is straightaway ethical. You turn yourself toward the Other as toward an object when you see a nose, eyes, a forehead, a chin, and you can describe them. The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the color of his eyes! When one observes the color of the eyes one is not in social relationship with the Other. The relation with the face can surely be dominated by perception, but what is specifically the face is what cannot be reduced to that. (Ethics and Infinity, 85/86)

Thus for Levinas, to grasp and to totalize the Other is not the right attitude in perceiving the face. Instead, before the Other I become a hostage. The Other who in front of me is both a height and a destitute, someone who gives me a command and who also pleads. As I am face to face with the Other, I recognize immediately the command spoken by the Other, the first important word that the Other speaks, pleading: “Thou shall not kill”. This command, this plea are not so much of the words that are said, but instead the presence of the Other in front of me is a saying of the language of care, love and protection which does not necessarily require spoken words. The presence of the Other is the primary articulation of the language of “Thou shall not kill”. So Levinas writes:

The infinite, stronger than the murder, resists to us already in the face, it is its face, it is the original expression, the first word: “Thou shalt not commit murder” [tu ne commettras pas de meutre] (Totality and Infinity, 199)

The word is now not only heard but first of all seen through the face of the Other who commands me to go out of my self, to break free from the prison of my egocentrism and to reach out to the Other with love. “The face, expression simpliciter, forms the first word, the face is the signifier which appears on the top of his sign, like eyes looking at you’ (Totality and Infinity, 153). This is an act of seeing which does not try to overwhelm or totalize the Other but seeing the Other demands my response to that command “Thou shall not kill”. Immediately, face to face with the Other, I am captivated by the demand of care, love and protection.

My contact with the Other does not speak of intimacy that I can call the Other as the same as me. Instead it is the opposite of intimacy, as I maintain my distance from the Other’s face. The Other who appears to me in epiphany immediately transcends this appearance, escaping my grasp. This means that I do not have the power to thematize the Other, to grasp and to manipulate him or her. Intimacy is built by distance, not by grasping, not by the idea of sameness. ‘The immediate is the interpellation and, if we may speak thus, the imperative of language. The idea of contact does not represent the primordial mode of the immediate’ (Totality and Infinity, 52).

False ideology like terrorism or Hitlerism turns us away from the Other. It alienates the Other. It reduces the Other simply as a product of the mind by grasping the Other’s entirety for manipulation. For the terrorists, as many have testified, the contact with the Other is actually an exclusion, a radical alienation, an opportunity to attain infinity, the only direct passage to fulfilling the promise of eternity. In an interview by Najwa Shihab, Tito Karnavian made a comment regarding ways by which the terrorists carry out their attacks. According to him, there are basically two methods:[6]

For them there are two quick ways to reach heaven. First is if they got killed, they would enter heaven immediately. And then second, by putting the bomb where there is a crowd while they [the terrorists] themselves run away.

Karnavian further added that this time the method used was suicide bombing. He remarked:

But this time it was not the case. [The bomb] was wrapped around the body even a child’s body. They brought along with them their Family Certificate and identity cards. This means that they really intended to die because they believed that they would enter heaven.

Looking at the object of the act, this suicide bombing is a double violation against the Other. First, the contact with the face of the Other is not anymore a moment of hostage, a moment of surrender to the transcendent presence of the Other which must never be overthrown, but on the contrary, it now becomes a moment where the Other turns to be the hostage instead, a stepping stone towards infinity. The infinity is not anymore viewed as the transcendent Other whom must never be grasped, but it has become a strife for an endless existence, a total grasping of life for the I. The Other is a total stranger whose otherness is the key to the I’s fulfillment. Second, and this is the most disturbing scene, that the death of the Other is the very instrument for the I to achieve life, the so-called ‘eternal life’. The I can buy eternity by destroying the Other. The first moral command of “Thou shall not kill” is violated. The contact with the Other has become a dire need for my own salvation, that I need the Other’s death for my own life. It is egocentrism in its most horrible way.

My Responsibility To And For The Other

For many times, we speak of responsibility always in reference to freedom. Only a free being is responsible for all his actions. Thus we say that freedom is the prerequisite to responsibility as the famous line in the movie Spiderman goes: “With great power comes great responsibility.” With that, freedom offers us power because a free subject has the capacity to determine the course of his actions.

Whenever I fall back to myself, I sink down into the anonymous, the impersonal, the neutral, into il y a, the “there is”, a state of neutral impersonality. And for so many times, the Other has been made mute, unable to give command. The Other has been made voiceless. Ironically, in terrorism done through suicide bombing, one’s death is joined with the death of the Other is an effort towards conatus essendi, the effort of being, self-preservation. The deafening noise from the explosion of the body is radically the silencing of the other, the death of the Other. The most perplexing ideology held in terrorism that is motivated by similarly perplexing religious propaganda is that one is an enemy if one does not belong to the same religion as me.

However, following the wisdom of Levinas, we cannot say that the Other has no say to my religiosity. We are primarily responsible to and for the Other. My responsibility concerns the responsibility of the Other as well. For him, our existence has been interpellated by the Other right from the very outset. As I exist, immediately, I am put into question. The Other enables me to become even more creative and the face of the Other is actually an honest reminder of how true have I lived out my religiosity. Life therefore is a constant rupture, a constant disturbance.

The universal truth of religion is this responsibility for the Other whose inspiration we get from our responsibility to the Divine. Our way to God passes through the face of the Other. Such is the implication that if we cannot love the Other whose face we can see, then how dare we to say that we can love God whose Face we cannot see. This is a total lie! It is our pride which has put limit to the love that God has for all His creatures. We even dare to say that God’s love is only reserved for this or that particular group. And if we say that we believe in God whose power and might are limitless, how can we dare to do the contrary, to limit His power of loving. We have been worshiping a ‘god’ whom we falsely create in our minds not the God who truly exists beyond the workings of our reason.

This disordered attitude is actually a manifestation of our fear towards our own finitude. We want to accumulate more power to compensate our finitude. In a struggle to preserve ourselves, we draw a false image of God and the Other. To explain such phenomenon, Roger Burggraeve wrote:

Still, since this God represents for this finite believer a key to what he himself cannot attain, He remains a sign that, ultimately, the believer does not truly accept his finitude. And it is exactly for this reason that he falls back on God as function, correlate and extension of his self-interested effort to be. But then, [consequently], this God is no longer Holy, that is to say truly separated (sanctus: from sancire, to split or divide) and thus irreducible to the “being of the ego and of all beings.[7]

So, it is not God’s fault, it is our fault. For every man, according to Levinas, assuming responsibility for the Other is a way of testifying to the glory of the Infinite, and of being inspired. It is through the Other we can approach God.

 The Third Parties

Philip Nemo in his interview with Levinas remarked that it is but our natural tendency to preserve our existence. To exist side by side with the Other, we cannot but mind our existence. We live at the expense of the Other. ‘One cannot live without killing’. On which Levinas commented:

In society such as it functions one cannot live without killing, or at least without taking the preliminary steps for the death of someone. Consequently, the important question of the meaning of being is not: why is there something rather than nothing – the Leibnizian question so much commented upon by Heidegger – but: do I not kill by being? (Ethics and Infinity, 120)

Here Levinas puts into question the ever natural tendency of human existence that in order to exist, in order to preserve myself and my ideology, I sacrifice the Other, I exist to the detriment of the Other. What has been natural in the very beginning becomes very much problematic. Such egocentric attitude is forever put into question by Levinas.

Levinas adds that we are also responsible for many others beside you and me. From the moment that we are aware of this plurality, socio-political responsibilities come into the picture. With the entrance of the many others, the society has to be organized. Therefore, the responsibility has to become universal. The responsibility we render to the unique Other is also extended in a way to the many others. Here we need a socio-political order, the positive ethical meaning of the state. We are part of a global justice system. It is in this line, the state plays an important role in stabilizing human existence from tendencies such as terrorism which abhor the presence of the Other. The Indonesian government has been serious in its commitment to the eradication of terrorism and other forms of radicalism.

However, there is present also an ambiguity of such system especially in the principle dura lex sed lex: ‘the law is harsh yet it is the law’. Law treats everyone equally but in the process the incomprehensible character of each person is lost. Therefore, there is always a necessity to review the laws so that everyone will always be included. If skipped, this can lead to totalitarianism. And this is precisely the aim of radicalism transported to the minds of many through the vehicle of terrorism, that the individual subjects must submit themselves fully to the whims and wishes of the collective majority. The unique voice of the personal Other is mercilessly engulfed by the deafening noise of the crowd.

It Is But A Test

With the emphasis on the Other, Levinas reminds us that our existence is immediately at the service of the Other. We are responsible for the Other. The command “Thou shall not kill” is the first word spoken to us that demands our response. This is what is always forgotten. We tend to mind our own existence that in living we push the Other away. Life is seen as a competition. This is precisely the cause of many disagreements and wars when we forget to respect the Other. We impose our ideology onto the Other without minding the uniqueness of each individual. Terrorism stands along this line.

From where can we begin to combat the evil of terrorism or radicalism? Our gifts as a nation that is marked with diversity is where we should begin. The cultural, political, and religious diversity that our nation has is but a single machine that moves us together in the spirit of unity in diversity towards authentic advancement and coexistence. All these evils that we have mentioned are but a test to our national character, to our gifts of being enriched with this diversity, of how committed we are to the spirit of unity in diversity, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika. It is our honest struggle to always respect the many sacrifices of those who have gone ahead of us, our ancestors and our heroes, who through their sweat and blood dreamed to build a strong and prosperous nation that is so diverse in the spirit of unity, not conformity. What unifies us is what has been written in our 1945 Fundamental Constitution, in our National Ideology (Pancasila), and the noble values of the Indonesian Republic.

Therefore, to rescue us from the trap of terrorism, it is but also necessary to educate people about respect and responsibility for the other. Our nation has to be safeguarded by this profound sense of alternity. This is what many Indonesians are doing in their respective communities that it is very much possible to live in harmony amidst diversity. Now is the time for us to respond seriously to the ethical command of the Other who says “Thou shall not kill.”      


[1] Devianti Faridz, Euan McKirdy, and Eliza Mackintosh, “Three families were behind the ISIS-inspired bombings in Indonesia’s Surabaya, police said,” CNN, May 15, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/05/13/asia/indonesia-attacks-surabaya-intl/index.html. Accessed from the internet on May 19, 2018.

[2] Erin Cook, “Do Indonesia’s Surabaya Attacks Signal a Rising Terrorism Threat?”  The Diplomat, May 19, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/do-indonesias-surabaya-attacks-signal-a-rising-terrorism-threat/. Accessed from the internet on May 19, 2018.

[3] Simon Critchley, “Emmanuel Levinas: A Disparate Inventory”, in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), xv-xix.

[4] Emmanuel Levinas, “Signature” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1999), 291.

[5] Bernhard Waldenfels, “Levinas and the face of the other”, in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, ed. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 65.

[6] For the English translations, I myself did the translating based on the remarks made by Tito Karnavian which were originally said in Indonesian language during the interview by Najwa Shihab in the program Mata Najwa in the episode Melawan Terorisme (Fighting Terrorism).

[7] Roger Burggraeve, The Wisdom of Love in the Service of Love: Emmanuel Levinas on Justice, Peace, and Human Rights (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2002), 56-57.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.