Monday, February 18, 2008

Islam and the apostasy debate

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Leaving Islam can be fraught with difficulty.

Despite the well-known Quranic injunction "There is no compulsion in religion", issues of religious freedom have persisted into the 21st Century.

A recent report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (co-authored with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights) throws a spotlight on problems in Egypt.

Suppose a Christian woman converts to Islam, for example when she marries a Muslim man, but later wants to convert back.

Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch relates what happened in one case.

"We had one woman telling us how, when she converted to Islam, it was 'Just hold on, when you've finished your coffee your documents will be ready'.

"But in trying to convert back to Christianity, she's had to go to court - she's been completely frustrated in those efforts."

Identity crisis

The problem was aggravated when the Egyptian state computerised identity documents over a decade ago.

Christians seeking to re-convert encountered bureaucratic hassle in getting their ID cards changed.

Another issue arose from the fact that the state officially recognises only three religions - Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Egypt's Bahais find it hard to
uphold their faith on official papers

This put the small Bahai community in an obvious difficulty.

Human-rights groups have welcomed two recent court cases as steps in the right direction.

In one, Bahais were allowed to leave blank the entry for religion on their ID cards.

In the other, a group of Christians seeking to re-convert were told the state should acknowledge their change of status on their identity documents.

Root of the problem

Apostasy - the abandonment of one's faith - is not just a problem in Egypt.

Some scholars favour the death penalty; others say the punishment should be left to God on the day of judgement
In 2006 an Afghan Muslim who converted to Christianity was sentenced to death and fled to Italy.

A new penal code that has been drafted in Iran would, if ratified, formalise the death penalty for apostasy.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini famously denounced the author Salman Rushdie as an apostate for his novel The Satanic Verses - and said he should be killed.

So what is the root of the problem? Why do some Muslim scholars favour such a severe penalty?

Abdal Hakim Murad, a lecturer at the faculty of divinity at Cambridge University, says Islamic law is extraordinarily diverse.

"There's a few things on which everybody agrees - pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan - but, in terms of public law, on most issues there is no consensus."

So some scholars favour the death penalty; others say the punishment should be left to God on the day of judgement.

Dr Murad says he recently attended a conference of Muslim scholars from around the world - and only one took the hard-line view. The others said the death penalty should no longer be applied.

But, for now, the debate goes on - and individuals continue to suffer.

The Star Online
Ex-follower of sect convicted of apostasy

KUALA TERENGGANU: The Syariah High Court has convicted former religious teacher Kamariah Ali and follower of the Sky Kingdom deviant sect led by Ayah Pin of apostasy.

Judge Muhammad Abdullah deferred the sentencing to March 3 to give Kamariah a chance to declare that she had repented and was willing to abandon any teachings contrary to Islam.

“Although I have drawn up several punishments, what I want to see is for Kamariah to change. The offence is an insult to Muslims in Malaysia and the world generally.

“Because Kamariah still lives in Terengganu and resides at the site of the Sky Kingdom which was previously used as a base for the Ayah Pin teaching, I would like to hear an admission from Kamariah that she has repented and is ready to leave all teachings except Islam.

“Don’t say I am telling Kamariah to repent because it must come from her own heart. I believe and am confident that Kamariah knows better of what is Islam and who is Allah,” he said.

Kamariah: Recited holy verses and told
the court she had regretted and repented

Kamariah, a graduate of Al-Azhar University was charged under Section 7 of the Syariah Criminal Offence Enactment (Takzir) Terengganu after she declared herself an apostate on July 21, 2005.

She could be fined up to RM5,000 or jailed up to three years or both, if convicted.

Kamariah, 57, was asked by Justice Muhammad to submit the declaration as this was a landmark case for the court here.

He also explained that the court was responsible to execute the Syariah law as her offence had insulted the feelings of Muslims in Malaysia.

“The court has a prima facie case against you, the sentencing could be heavy but the court is giving you a chance to repent and I would evaluate the sentence that should be meted out, later,” he said.

Earlier during the trial, Kamariah declined to recite the holy verses as requested by the court to prove that she was still a Muslim.

Pressed further by the judge, the mother of four said she was still a Muslim but did not want to recite the holy verses because she felt she had the freedom not to do so in front of other people.

The court then stood down for half hour and when the proceedings resumed, Kamariah finally recited the verses and told the court she had regretted and repented, prompting the court to defer the date of sentencing.

Kamariah's counsel Sa’diah Din in her mitigation asked the court to consider her client’s plea as she had not committed any other civil offences and was a widow with four children.

Prosecuting officer, Mustafar Hamzah asked the court to mete out a severe sentence as the accused was born a Muslim, highly knowledgeable in Islam, the case’s outcome could affect the faith of other Muslims in Malaysia.

Further Readings:
Malaysia: Lonely Widow's Battle To Leave Islam
Malaysia: Islamic Court Places Woman's Faith On Trial
Escape from Islam
Kamariah Ali - vs - Kelantan
Malaysia: Totalitarian Aspects of a "Moderate" Muslim Regime
Is Malaysia an Islamic state?
Malaysia's 'moderate" Islam supports oppression
Malaysia's "Moderate" Islam Means Racism and Oppression
Ex-teacher still a Muslim, rules court

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Malay view of 'Ketuanan Melayu'

'O people! Your God is one and your forefather (Adam) is one. An Arab is not better than a non-Arab and a non-Arab is not better than an Arab, and a red (i.e. white tinged with red) person is not better than a black person and a black person is not better than a red person, except in piety. Indeed the noblest among you is the one who is deeply conscious of God.' - a saying of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him)

Dr Azly Rahman

'Malaysia - to whom does it belong? To Malaysians. But who are Malaysians? I hope I am, Mr Speaker, Sir. But sometimes, sitting in this chamber, I doubt whether I am allowed to be a Malaysian. This is the doubt that hangs over many minds, and ... [once] emotions are set in motion, and men pitted against men along these unspoken lines, you will have the kind of warfare that will split the nation from top to bottom and undo Malaysia.' - Lee Kuan Yew, now Senior Minister, Republic of Singapore

Instead of defining Ketuanan Melayu as 'Malay superiority' which is quite meaningless, philologically inaccurate, and philosophically arrogant, I think the word 'dictatorship' is closer in meaning. As you read this piece, please refrain from value judgment and from bring trapped in the prison-house of language pertaining to the word 'dictatorship'.

To dictate connotes to tell, which connotes to narrate. To narrate means to weave a story based on an ideology. To ideologise means to encapsulate. To encapsulate means to be trap. Dictatorship, here might also mean an entrapment. Instead of acknowledging one's freedom to rule, one is acknowledging being in an entrapment - and to rule out of that condition. This is a form of false consciousness.

Words, as a literary theorist Raymond Williams might say, must also be contextualised/situated within the economic condition they emerge in. Marx's famous dictum that human beings' existence is defined by the economic condition they are in and that this condition is already predetermined. This is a deterministic view of human history.

I first read heard the phrase Ketuanan Melayu in the mid-1980s from a book by one Malik Munip. I was reading his work, at the same time reading Lim Kit Siang's 'Malaysia in the dangerous 80s', to get a sense of the argument. I was an undergraduate reading Literature, Education and International Politics.

I also heard that Malay students were discouraged from reading Kit Siang's work and encouraged to read 'Ketuanan Melayu'. I love banned books and books that others tell me not to read. There is a sense of intellectual challenge to be able to read banned books.

I read Mahathir Mohamad's 'The Malay Dilemma' and Syed Husin Ali's 'Malays: Their Problems and their Future' and Syed Hussein Alatas' 'The Myth of the Lazy Native' at the same time. Again, to get a sense of balance.

I read Malaysian official publications on economic outlook, juxtaposing them with a close reading of analyses on the political-economy of the Malaysian capitalist state.

I read the work of Freud and Marx to see where some of the major authors of the Frankfurt School of Social Research are going with their arguments on totalitarianism. I read the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata to see where the arguments on race superiority lie and what the fate of humankind will be.

The idea of social dominance and racial superiority might all be primarily about economics, if we are to read the history of the development of ideologies of superiority. But my question is - who has the right to claim that this or that land belongs to this or that group of people. At what point does culture and citizenship meet and negotiate the issue of egalitarianism? When does 'the truth of one's culture' reach its limit and the question of 'the truth of citizenship' dominate?

This is a very complex question Malaysians must answer after 50 years of Independence. We must open up the dialogue on this issue.

Lyrical propaganda

Let us look at how the idea of ketuanan Melayu is disseminated to the young. One way is through indoctrination camps in which songs are used.

Over the decades, perhaps millions of Malay students like me were taught the dangerous propaganda song, 'WARISAN/Anak Kecil Main Api'(A Child Plays with Fire). One verse concerns the power of the Malays:

… kini kita cuma tinggal kuasa

yang akan menentukan bangsa

hasil mengalir, ke tangan yang lain

pribumi merintih sendiri…

My loose translation of this 1980s propaganda song by the Biro Tata Negara reads:

… political power is what we are only left with

one that will determine the fate of our nation

wealth of this nation flows into the hands of others

sons and daughters of the soil suffer in solace...

I do not think we have a clear understanding of what the lyrics mean. I doubt if the songwriter even understand what a 'people's history of Malaya' means. It is a song based on racist intents; its lyrics penned by one who does not have a good grasp of the political-economy of Malaysian history, let alone the latest advances in the field of psychology of consciousness.

The training programes that encapsulate the theme of this song are meant to instill fear of the Malays, not of others but of themselves, and to project hatred onto other ethnic groups without realising who the enemy of the Malays really are.

Using relaxation techniques to bring the brain waves in the alpha and state (conducive for suggestive and subliminal messages), trainees were put under 'half-asleep' conditions to get the ketuanan Melayu message to colonise the consciousness. The technique pioneered by Russian brain scientists Barzakov and Lozanov in the1970s, called 'suggestopedia', is used to instill the deep sense of fear for oneself and hatred of others.

History is a complex syntagmatic pattern of interplay between technology, ideology, culture, inscription and institutionalisation not easily reduced to simplistic lyrics as such sung to the tune of pre-war German-nationalistic-sounding compositions.

History is about the complex evolution of the ruling class which owns the technologies of control. As Marx would say, at every epoch it is the history of those who own the means of production that will be written and rewritten. The winners write history, the losers write poetry or study anthropology, some would lament.

Back to the lyrics. After 50 years of independence, who is suffering in Malaysia? Who has become wealthy? Who has evolved into robber barons? What has become of our judiciary system, our universities, our city streets, our sense of public safety and security, our schools, our youth, and our entire socio-economic arrangements at the eve of the 12th general election. How has the idea of ketuanan Melayu contributed to this state of affairs?

Language of power and ideology is at play in those lyrics. The definition of 'bumiputera' is at play. It has become a problematic word in this age of deconstructionism; an age wherein as the poet WB Yeats said, "the centre cannot hold".

Rock musicians will recall the Scorpions' famous song 'Winds of Change' to serenade the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the breakdown of the Soviet Empire. We have to face the 'wrath' of the word.

Put an end to Ketuanan Melayu

For Muslims in Malaysia, this saying by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is familiar: 'Your descent is nothing to be proud of. Nor does it bring you superiority. O people! All of you are the children of Adam. You are like equal wheat grains in a bowl ... No one has any superiority over anyone else, except in religion and heedfulness. In order to consider someone a wicked person, it suffices that he humiliates other people, is mean with money, bad-tempered and exceeds the limits…'

I would say that ketuanan Melayu is a dangerous concept that is threatening race relations. It is an arrogant interpretation of selective history; of a history that is largely benefiting those who profits from the ideology.

Those promoting this concept are not well-versed in the matters of philosophy of history. I do not think thinking Malays these days subscribe to the idea of 'Malay dominance and dictatorship'. If there is a ketuanan of one race, then the rest are 'slaves' and 'serfs' and 'sub-citizens', if we are to analyse it from the point of view of 'Master-Slave' narrative?

As a Malay wishing to see the withering of and an end to the concept of ketuanan Melayu and the birth of a new consciousness that will respect the dignity of all races and the humility of all ethnic groups, I call upon Malaysians to continue to be critical of any attempt by any race to project their own sense of false superiority that would only breed dangerous ethnocentrism bordering on xenophobia.

We should work together to deconstruct all forms of race-based political arrangement and work towards establishing a new order based on a more egalitarian economic design that takes into consideration the basic needs and dignity of all races.

We should teach our schoolchildren how to deconstruct such sense of racial superiority, through the teaching of not only tolerance but social egalitarianism - via peace education strategies. We will have a lot to gain for generations to come.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

From freedom of speech to blasphemy

Wed, 30 Jan 2008 22:15:41
By Bita Ghaffari, Press TV

There is a border between freedom of expression and blasphemy - a border that should never be crossed.

Attempts to confuse the concept of free speech with one that is inciting, provocative, or offensive has a long history.

Attacking Islam and striving to portray it as a religion harboring violence and extremism is not a new phenomenon. However, there have been renewed attempts to distort the image of Islam through profane utterances or writings concerning Muslim sacred entities in recent times.

Certain naïve political figures resort to sacrilege as a means of working their way up the ladder of political success. Austria's Susanne Winter is one such figure. Her blasphemous remarks regarding the Prophet of Islam Muhammad (PBUH) and the assertion that Islam should be 'thrown back where it came from, beyond the Mediterranean Sea' only expose her prejudiced and ignorant mindset. Can that be considered an instance of extremism?

Apparently, she made the hate speech with the intention of garnering massive support at the city council elections - a strategy which failed to work.

Winter's comments even drew immediate condemnation from several top-ranking Austrian authorities including Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer who said she had absolutely no right to attempt to undermine the values and beliefs of an acknowledged religion.

She was also reprimanded by Vice-Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik and finally President Heinz Fischer who said the remarks were 'intolerable and outrageous'.

Yet again, another Islamophobic European politician recently announced his plan to make a film with the clearly stated objective of attacking Qur'an, the Muslim holy book. Geert Wilders, the head of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party, announced he would release a 10-minute film to show his view that the Holy Qur'an, 'is an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror'.

He earlier proposed a ban on the Holy Qur'an. There are even fears Wilders might burn or tear up Islam's Holy Book in the film. Threatening to commit sacrilege against the sacred book of 1.2 billion people? Is that not extremism?

French writer Robert Redeker in an article printed in Le Figaro caused offense to Muslims through his provocative remarks about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the religion of Islam, but was defended and offered protection by the French government.

In 2005, a Danish newspaper infuriated Muslims around the world for publishing offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which were later reprinted in several other European media under the pretext of freedom of expression. What are these if not vivid instances of extremism?

Having been introduced into the current political parlance, the words 'terrorism and extremism' are in sudden vogue. This is part of a scenario to instill a phobia of Islam and of the Muslims worldwide.

A review of the crime situation worldwide would reveal that most 'advanced' countries have crime rates which are several times higher than the corresponding rates in major Muslim countries. Not to mention that the number of lethal domestic assaults would have been much higher, in US for instance, had it not been for the availability and improved quality of emergency care and medical variables.

The mass media of the so-called civilized world keep branding Islam as a religion breeding violence, turning a blind eye to the fact that a great many lives are being everyday sacrificed in uncalled for wars that are waged by non-Muslims in the first place. Consider the civilian toll in hot spots like Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine today.

Religions are for promotion of peace and love for humanity. Some, however, have been conspiring throughout history to misuse religion as a tool to accomplish their hideous ploys.

One need not be a passionate religious believer to realize that making profane remarks against other religions - be it Islam or other divine faiths - or arousing a sentiment of anger and disgust among followers of a certain faith is not a way to uphold freedom of expression, but a most unethical practice.

Interestingly enough, most European countries prohibit any speech or writing that denies the Holocaust but turn to advocates of liberty of expression when it comes to unfair and biased interpretations of Islam.

A German court recently sentenced Sylvia Stolz, the former lawyer of Holocaust revisionist Ernst Zundel, to 3.5 years in prison, and banned her from practicing law for five years.

Also, French judicial police summoned French revisionist historian Robert Faurisson on charges of attending an anti-Holocaust conference in Iran.

To date, Faurisson has been subjected to a long list of official and unofficial penalties from assault and battery leaving him with a broken jaw, to a suspended prison term of three months, a fine of 7,500 euros as well as removal from his university chair - for questioning the historic events surrounding the killings of European Jews by Germany in WWII.

France's 1990 Gayssot Act makes it an offense to question the existence of crimes against humanity. It is one of several European laws prohibiting Holocaust denial.

Islam is a religion that is embraced by about 1.2 billion people around the world from a host of nationalities and races. That means one in every five people is a Muslim. What therefore encourages some to try to blatantly desecrate Muslim sanctities and what good do they achieve from offending the beliefs of followers of the world's second largest religion?

Islam is attracting an increasingly larger percentage of global population at a faster rate (2.9 percent) than the total annual population growth (2.3 percent).

The world today needs discourse among religions and cultures more than ever before. Followers of divine religions need to be vigilant and think twice before they fall for the 'black propaganda' intended to mislead.

The irony is that covert Western hands can be traced in creating the breeding grounds for extremist movements. First, the groups are mentored, funded and trained; later, they are reprimanded as radical Islamist groups involved in terrorism.

Violence is committed by groups that are bred and fostered by Western powers to give a distorted impression of Islam.

Let us not be carried away by the tide of provocations and deceptions. Religions are to shine the light of guidance throughout the human journey toward perfection. The faiths of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (PBUH) have all aimed to provide mankind with direction.

All throughout history, people's religious sentiments have been provoked to sow the seeds of discord and enmity, by timeservers who think of nothing but quenching their insatiable greed for power and wealth.

Extremism comes into play where there is ignorance and deception. It is the duty of the elite to keep the public opinion from falling for such distortions of reality. There have been and still are numerous cases wherein Muslims have been the victims rather than perpetrators of violence and terrorism in recent history.

Extremism and terrorism are terminology propagated by hegemonic powers to justify invasion of foreign territories and plunder of their resources - those who live in homes that have been built at the expense of ruining other people's homes. They need alibis to attack and invade; wage wars, and sell arms. What can serve their purpose better than clinging to the excuse of 'fighting extremism'?