Thursday, March 04, 2010

The price of speaking up

By Jacqueline Ann Surin

(Pic by circo de invierno @ Flickr)

CONSIDER this. Despite the available evidence of Al Islam's unethical undercover report in which the magazine's Muslim journalist spat out the holy communion to photograph, no action is going to be taken. The Attorney-General's Chambers decided this despite the police reports and a memorandum lodged by Catholics about the insensitive treatment of a holy sacrament in Christianity.

Then consider this. Because some Muslims perceive that Islam is being challenged by a non-Muslim journalist, English-language daily The Star could potentially lose its publishing permit. At the same time, because some Muslim groups have taken offence at a statement by Sisters in Islam (SIS), the Muslim women's group will likely be investigated under Section 298A of the Penal Code for causing disharmony and disunity on grounds of religion.

What exactly do these developments tell us about the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration's idea of justice and fairness? And how can citizens make sense of how our government is responding to these issues?

Muslim "sensitivities" paramount

It's clear that when it comes to defending a particular faith community's sensitivities, Muslim sensitivities trump all others. And because the majority of Muslims in Malaysia are racially categorised as Malay, it would be logical to surmise that the BN government is only interested in defending Malay-Muslim Malaysians' rights.

Other faith communities, mostly comprising the other races, will just have to contend with being second-class citizens who will not be accorded the same protection as the majority.

Al-Islam magazine containing the
offensive article
Actually, the state shouldn't even be in the business of defending those who have been personally offended by the views or actions of others. Indeed, Al Islam's offence was unethical journalism and acting in ways which were un-Islamic despite its pretext of acting in the ummah's interest. Hardly a crime against an individual or the state. No, the state should not be in the business of penalising offensive actions or words.

But since the state has decided to be the guardian of public sensitivities through various legal provisions, it needs to demonstrate that it will treat all citizens and their complaints fairly and equally.

By not doing so, the BN administration, now under Datuk Seri Najib Razak's leadership, is clearly proving that it is incapable of treating all citizens with equality. And that if you're not a Malay-Muslim in Malaysia, there are no guarantees that the state will do right by you.

How else would we be able to make sense of why the administration will not act on addressing Catholics' hurt feelings, but will immediately snap to action when some Muslims' sensitivities are affected?

Price to pay

There is another lesson to be learnt from what has happened recently. If one speaks up for justice and compassion in Malaysia, there is a strong likelihood that there will be a penalty to pay. More troublingly, it is the state that will ensure a price is exacted against citizens who speak up against injustice.

Marina Mahathir (Courtesy of
Marina Mahathir)
What exactly was The Star's managing editor P Gunasegaram's crime when he appealed for compassion in the name of religion in his 19 Feb 2010 column titled Persuasion, not compulsion?

Why was The Star made to feel so threatened by the state that it felt compelled to remove Gunasegaram's column from its online version, issue a public apology, and censor long-time columnist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir?

Sure, at least five police reports have been lodged against The Star, including by the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS). But what crime was committed that the daily should be given a show-cause letter by the Home Ministry? And why is it a crime for a non-Muslim to reasonably appeal for justice and compassion in the name of Islam? How does doing that denigrate and undermine Islam? How can it even be offensive to Muslim sensibilities when Islam preaches justice, peace, compassion and fairness?

To be sure, the argument used by these complainants — that no non-Muslim should speak up about the administration of Islam in Malaysia — is actually just a red herring. Because SIS, too, hasn't been spared from the wrath of those who have been "offended" by the organisation's statement condemning the clandestine caning of three Muslim women for "illicit sex".

SIS logo
And what was SIS's crime? Seems like it was that SIS spoke out against the state's use of Islam to justify the cruel and inhumane punishment of Muslim women for a private sin the state should have no business policing. Its crime was that it was courageous enough to speak up against abuse of power in the interest of justice and compassion.

So what can we conclude? It's not about whether one is Muslim or non-Muslim. Anyone, regardless of faith, who dares to challenge the state's interpretation of Islam will be threatened and punished until they back down.

Really, we shouldn't be too surprised that the BN administration is doing this. After more than 50 years of BN rule, there are more than enough examples of how the government will crack down on those who speak up for truth and justice. From arrests under the Internal Security Act and charges under the Sedition Act to the closure of newspapers including The Star during 1987's Operasi Lalang, the BN is a government that will be neither challenged nor held accountable.

Hence, the use of Islam and the introduction of the notion that Malaysia is an "Islamic state" is really just another way to stifle challenges and attempts at holding state power accountable. After all, God's laws, unlike human-made laws, are sacrosanct and cannot ever be challenged. How convenient, no?

This, then, is what our current government is all about. My question is, do we really want more of the same?

Jacqueline Ann Surin wishes more citizens, newspapers and organisations would stop allowing state and non-state actors from bullying us into submitting to injustice and violence. She believes that standing up to bullies is the best way to stop them from getting their way. Courtesy of Nut Graph.

No comments: