Eight reasons why books should not be banned
JUNE 24 — On Monday, June 25, 2012, Sisters in Islam (SIS) will be in court again. This time around, the Government of Malaysia is appealing a High Court decision that lifted the ban on a book published by SIS, “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Extremism.”
The book was first banned on July 31, 2008, on the premise that it was “prejudicial to public order.” Other reasons cited by the Ministry of Home Affairs were fears that the book would “confuse Muslims, particularly Muslim women” and “those with shallow knowledge of Islam.” SIS appealed against the decision, and on January 25, 2010, Justice Mohamad Ariff Md. Yusof lifted the ban. His reasoning was that there was no evidence that the book had created a public order problem during the two years it had been in circulation.
He also concluded that the minister’s decision was “an error in law” — that the decision was illegal, irrational, and “wholly disproportionate” — to the argument made.
Justice Ariff’s decision was significant as it applied two recent Federal Court decisions which ruled that the court had the right to objectively review a minister’s discretion to be unreasonable.
However heart-warming the Honourable Judge’s decision was, it is disconcerting to note that book-banning in Malaysia is not an isolated practice. Over the years, we have seen a host of other books axed, the most recent being Irshad Manji’s “Allah, Liberty and Love.” She is joined by a long list of international and local authors, including John Esposito and Karen Armstrong (two Christian academics considered among the most sympathetic to Islam), Khalil Gibran, Kassim Ahmad, Faisal Tehrani and cartoonist Zunar. What is even more alarming today is that the religious authorities are using provisions under the Syariah Criminal Offences law to charge a book store manager for selling a book they deem “offensive.”
While the list of books being banned is growing, the reasons given for their banning are not. The most oft-repeated reasons include the “tendency to confuse”, “tarnishing the sanctity of Islam”, “contrary to a fatwa” or “causing suspicion and public anxiety.”
Book-banning is the precursor to far more dangerous and insidious developments. The collateral damage created in such a climate of paranoia is only to our detriment.
Here are eight fundamental reasons why book-banning should stop.
1. Ban a book, close a mind
Book-banning is an attempt to stop free flow of thought, ideas and information, usually the kind that does not conform to mainstream views. In Malaysia, the argument is that these ideas may potentially create confusion, disrupt public order, and/or are allegedly against a religion.
History shows that many banned publications are now visionary and brave observations that promoted “sacrilegious” ideas, for example, the idea that the Earth is round, not flat. Choking knowledge is one effect of book-banning but there is deeper injury inflicted on society.
It sends a menacing signal, eventually nurturing fear of knowledge. A frightened mind is a closed mind, one that cannot create or produce a bright future.
2. What on earth are we thinking?
Authorities that ban books ostensibly believe that people cannot think for themselves. When people are barred from thinking, ideas are created in isolation. These inevitably clash with reality, or have no connection to it.
Ironically, this is a key factor that creates confusion in society, creating fertile ground for the very same disorder the authorities claim they are trying to prevent. Allowing free flow of thought, however, gives individuals the opportunity to engage and interact with new ideas, creating vibrant intellectual activity and discernment. Robust ideas will withstand critique and argument.
3. Two thumbs down for the education system?
A good education system produces individuals who can think critically and with conscience. The widespread banning of books is an acknowledgement of the failure of the existing education system.
It is a clear signal that we have failed to produce Malaysians who can tell the difference between knowledge and ignorance. Ironically (once again) the authorities’ actions indicate that the problem lies not in the book, but in an education system that produces easily confused, disruptive and disrespectful citizens.
4. A monopoly of ideas
In a democratic society, it is only logical that those who are responsible for public administration must always be open to criticism. In fact, as citizens we have the right to voice our opinions, more so on the policies that govern and impact our daily lives.
However, when an authority perceives its interpretations or solutions are challenged, book-banning provides a means by which to stifle this criticism. In Malaysia and in the context of Islam in particular, book-banning is an attempt by the religious authorities to monopolise the discourse to only those who subscribe to one particular point of view.
Freedom of expression is a universal value guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and upheld in the teachings of Islam.
5. Irksome, ineffective and irrelevant
The ostensible reason for banning a book is to stop it from being read. But all publicity is good publicity. A ban merely arouses curiosity and books that otherwise would not have garnered much interest will now be sought out by many more online.
Moreover, barriers to information have been decimated by the Internet. Not only can one buy a banned book online, one can easily gather the “taboo” information with a few smart search words. A single email from one individual to another can go viral, hitting the inboxes and social media accounts of thousands worldwide.
This phenomenon is anything but new. Those who think books should be banned are simply exposing themselves as commodities that have long passed their sell-by date.
6. Is this where our taxes go?
When a book is banned, the relevant government authorities mobilise resources, both human and financial, to raid bookstores and publishers, and seize the books. The cost of this exercise in futility is borne by the taxpayers when funds should instead be spent in ways that enrich, not cripple, the rakyat.
7. The knowledge economy
We hear much about Malaysia becoming a knowledge-based society in mainstream news, an idea that is publicly promoted by authorities. The banning of books and the knowledge and ideas within them is in direct contradiction to realising this goal.
A stunted mind cannot be a resource for growth in a knowledge economy and will leave Malaysia far behind, as the world races ahead towards a higher quality of life.
8. Fundamental liberties in Islam
Islam is clearly based on principles of justice, equality and fairness. All the points above show that book-banning goes against all these principles. Random harassment of individuals, arbitrary book banning, violations of fundamental liberties and criminalising legitimate ways of earning a living cannot in any way be equated with the justice and compassion which define and constitute Islam.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.