On books, cowards and lazy people
|Azrul Mohd Khalib works on HIV/AIDS, sex and human rights issues. He is becoming cynical and is in danger of losing his sense of humour and mind. He also runs and is battling an addiction to the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series. Azrul can be contacted at [email protected]|
JUNE 21 — Let’s start by first being honest with ourselves. All who heard of and read Irshad Manji’s book “Islam, Liberty and Love” in either English or Bahasa Malaysia, or any of her works before the former got banned, please raise your hand. Depending on the kind of crowd, chances are in a room of 100 persons, there will be probably not more than 10 hands raised. I haven’t read it myself. From the looks of it, it’s now going to be tough getting a copy.
Of late, there has been an increase in hostilities levelled against certain publications, leading to both their outright ban and seizure or, even in some cases, hostility against and the arrest of their authors and publishers.
This trend of intimidation, fear, suppression and oppression is clothed in the guise of wanting to protect the aqidah of the Muslim ummah in Malaysia against opinions, views and teachings which may lead people astray from the teachings of Islam. But what it really represents is the malaise of laziness and dearth of scholarship and discourse which has long afflicted our religious authorities when it comes to contrarian and alternative viewpoints.
Rather than engage in learned dialogue and argumentation as espoused by groups such as Sisters in Islam, the authorities (both religious and non-religious bodies) have instead resorted to the time-honoured crude and arrogant practice of banning books, persecuting authors, publishers and bookstores.
Many of us of the Muslim faith in Malaysia have long been conditioned to always accept without question the religious fiats as espoused by our religious authorities, to not engage in debate unless one is extremely learned in theology, to never question least it sways our faith in Islam and to always be fearful of the efforts of others to proselytise and convert.
Much of the troubles faced today such as the fear-mongering, paranoia and bogeyman conjuring (read: Hasan Ali, Harussani, et. al) can be traced back to such a blinkered, ignorant and bigoted approach in which Islam is taught in schools yesterday, today and, from the looks of it, the future.
The trend it seems among our authorities, particularly those of religious bodies, is to enforce unquestioning obedience and to tolerate no dissent. Yet, Islam, the official religion in Malaysia, has in its golden age a long and distinguished history of scholarship, discourse and constructive dialogue.
In Malaysia, we love to reminisce about the good old days when Islam practically brought civilisation to a third of the known world which at the time was still wallowing in barbarism, self-destruction and ignorance born out of religious strife and social discord.
Hell, the fact that a third of the content in current secondary school history textbooks discusses it (more like bragging, really), means that every student knows what happened more than 500 years ago when medieval Europe benefited from the enlightened Muslims (albeit kicking and screaming and often at the point of a scimitar or sword).
We owe a lot to those long-dead Islamic scholars who dredged up, kept alive and further developed the sciences and the arts of the ancient Greeks who were animists, atheists and polytheists. Consider the rigorous scholarship and intense debates which must have occurred by towering figures such as Al-Biruni, Umar Khayyam, Ibn Sina. Who knows where we would be today if religious fanatics had decided that all we needed to live on was the knowledge contained within the Quran and destroyed any other source?
But it seems like while we are keen to bask in the past glories of others who are long gone, many today are afraid of the future, particularly those in the religious department in our country.
The actions of the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) and the Federal Territories Islamic Department (JAWI) in the case of Irshad Manji’s book once again highlight the lack of accountability, governance and the licence of impunity conferred upon these bodies in the name of religion.
Consider this: the fact that copies of these books were seized by the abovementioned religious bodies. The fact that a bookshop store manager has been charged in the Kuala Lumpur Syariah High Court with selling the book on May 23. She has been charged under the Federal Territories Syariah Criminal Offences Act of 1997, which carries a RM3,000 fine or a maximum two years’ jail or both. The fact is that the Home Ministry only gazetted the ban on the publication of the book as well as its translated version “Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta” on June 14. Yet, this person has been charged in court with selling a book which was only formally banned two weeks later.
The fact that the publishers of the Malay translation of Irshad Manji’s book were arrested and copies of the book were seized.
I have yet to hear an articulation of what is wrong with this book. How this book could “shock the people and harm public security and order” (under section 7(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984). How this publication is deemed to be “contrary to Islamic law” (under the Federal Territories Syariah Criminal Offences Act).
It is probable that neither the minister nor the religious officials in question even read the book prior to it being banned.
But then again, maybe the reason for the banning of Irshad Manji’s book was not due to what it contained but rather the author’s support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual issues. It seemed to be that way as the representatives of the said religious authorities were initially clueless about the book’s content but were certain of the author’s views on LGBT.
Let’s recognise it for what it is. The use of such legal truncheons is aimed to intimidate, instil fear, suppress contrarian thoughts, opinions and views.
As Malaysians and as Muslims, we must find courage within us to fight such tyranny. If we disagree with others, let’s not ban them. Let’s engage, discuss, argue and work to convince.
The Federal Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression. I am reminded of a quote from Voltaire who said: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These are opportunities to educate others and ourselves.
Banning is the way of cowards and lazy people.
This week’s column is dedicated to Ray Bradbury who died a few weeks ago at the age of 91. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451”, a story set in a dystopian society where books are burned and dissenting ideas are suppressed. The culprit is not the state but the people for letting it happen.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.