Thursday, May 31, 2007

Lina: the die is cast

Lina Joy loses appeal. As shouts of Allahuakhbar greeted the verdict, what now for Lina? What now for Malaysia? What does it say when laws and punitive legislation are needed to keep a people within the fold? (See Lina's statement through her solicitor Benjamin Dawson)

"Civil courts cannot interfere," Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz said. "In short, she cannot, at her own whim, simply enter or leave her religion... She must follow rules," he said .

With due respect, I thought the comment by the Chief Justice was unnecessary and uncalled for. Lina’s decision to leave Islam, I’m sure, was not on a mere whim or fancy, nor was it simply taken. She made a willful choice; she took a principled stand with both eyes open to consequences large and small; she lost her job, her home, family and friends. Yet she pursued her cause for a nightmarish 7 years at the courts that showed her neither compassion nor compunction for denying her fundamental right to freedom of conscience and belief.

This ‘human tragedy’ (The Becket Fund) is compounded when one remembers that Malaysia is a pioneer member of the revamped United Nations Human Rights Council, operating under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ironically according to Aliran, Malaysia is among member states that has ratified the least number of human rights treaties and conventions). Article 18 says:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Back on earth, in the real world that is Malaysia, for Lina to be told she must follow “rules” is a shame. Because her day at the courts was precisely to determine whose rules apply – the Federal Constitution or Syariah. On May 30, Malaysians were left in no doubt which one rules.

God, make me brave for life: oh, braver than this.
Let me straighten after pain, as a tree straightens after the rain,
Shining and lovely again.
God, make me brave for life; much braver than this.
As the blown grass lifts, let me rise
From sorrow with quiet eyes,
Knowing Thy way is wise.
God, make me brave, life brings
Such blinding things.
Help me to keep my sight;
Help me to see aright
That out of dark comes light.

Author Unknown

Friday, May 25, 2007

Persepolis: The Movie

When I first read Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography a few years ago, it stirred all kinds of emotions on so many levels. Mostly it made me think about Malaysia. One can’t help but see how easily man becomes God when law shoves grace aside. (BTW, there’s a sequel out, but you know what they say about sequelitis…)

Here’s a story of one girl’s childhood, one that could have been told by millions who were also brought up in liberal middle-class families. Except for that inconvenient turn in history. In the throes of a popular uprising against the ruling Shah Reza Pahlavi, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in victory and declared Iran an Islamic Republic. The Ayatollah put on the political-religious mantle of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and cloaked the world with the austere face of resurgent Islam.

It succeeds as few graphic novels do, with the obvious comparison to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (another favourite!), which is a well-deserved compliment. Told in straightforward first person narrative, Persepolis is all black and white, yet astonishingly rich in its simplicity. The monochromic look works, because it forces the reader to see how religion at its worse objectifies reality into black-and-white, and subverts morality into ideology.

Now, the author evidently believes this book would make a good movie. An animated adaptation in the style of the book is nearing completion, written and directed by her. Marjane Satrapi appears to be thrilled to bits. I am not sure, but the stills look very promising indeed. One is tempted to say, “like Sin City” but Persepolis is as different as ink is from paper, although both movies have their origins in comics.

Needless to say I shall be watching out for its release. But tell me, is this movie a good idea or what?

Stills from the upcoming movie
Marjane Satrapi's blog cum production journal
Bookslut interview with the author

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days

On February 18, 1943 a young German woman named Sophie Magdalena Scholl was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi flyers at her university in Munich. Three days later, together with her brother Hans and their friend Christoph Probst, Sophie was produced at the People’s Court and charged with high treason. The three young Germans had been secretly publishing flyers denouncing Hitler’s regime, his brutal ambition to dominate Europe, the crippling military offensive in Stalingrad, and state-sanctioned execution of Jews and other ‘undesirables’.

On February 22, they were convicted and sentenced to death. Hours later, all three were executed by guillotine. Hans was 26 while Christoph was 25. Sophie was only 21.

Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, is one of several recent German movies (i.e, Downfall, The Ninth Day) that take an unflinching look at the nation’s turbulent wartime history. More than fifty years later, I find the German readiness to confront their shameful past an exemplary act of national catharsis. That’s something Malaysia could learn from. No sweeping under the carpet on account of political sensitivity; no rewriting of history to mitigate the genocidal delusion of white Aryan ketuanan ideology. But I digress.

Directed by Marc Rothemund, this almost minimalist movie is a stark but true portrayal of a courageous few resisting the magalomania of Hitler and his state ideology. Drawn from actual archives and interviews, the story is unnerving as it is moving. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

The movie opens on Sophie (Julia Jentsch) singing along with a friend to a jazz song playing on the radio. It’s an ordinary and innocent prelude that hints at something ominous only as Sophie suddenly gets up, grab a suitcase by the door, and leaves for a friend’s basement studio in the city. The audience learns quickly that Sophie together with brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) and their friends are members of a small underground student movement called White Rose (sadly, the film veers away from more details here). These idealistic pamphleteers are ready to distribute a sixth tract; Sophie volunteers for the assignment thinking a woman would raise less suspicion.

Everything goes horribly awry when Sophie and Hans are spotted at the end of their heart-stopping paper drop along the corridors of Munich University. But that’s not the focus of the story, of course. Instead we are whisked away from the siblings’ arrest to incarceration, interrogation and trial, and then on to its chilling conclusion.

At first Sophie relies on her wits to deflect her interrogator’s allegations, but as evidence is produced, the stakes are raised, and it becomes a challenge of wills. Later, at her farcical court case before the notorious judge Freisler (AndrĂ© Hennicke), Sophie turns inevitably from student dissenter into steely-eyed conscientious objector, appealing to dignity, moral conscience and God as non-negotiable principles.

Julia Jentsch is wonderful as Sophie. Played with great empathy and sensitivity, the Sophie we see seems a little uncertain at first, like a girl who has wondered into the wrong movie. We see her looking out of windows towards the light, often pensive, sometimes in prayer, her face an incandescence of resignation and resolve. Light is an appropriate metaphor for freedom and hope, reflecting her unpretentious Christian faith as much as it exposes a people in thrall of evil.

The narrative is simple, but its message is profound, its foregone conclusion notwithstanding. Sophie was not a revolutionary in search of martyrdom, but a thoughtful girl who was full of life, enjoyed art and theatre, loved children and taught kindergarten. She wanted to change her country, but not through violence. Yet she also clearly understood that keeping her mouth shut was as good as justifying Nazi fascism. As Sophie herself announced during her trial, everyone knew the truth but no one dared speak up; someone only needed to do it first and she had chosen to be that person.

We learn from the movie that the values of dignity and justice were caught from her parents who themselves had suffered for their beliefs. At the end of the movie when she meets her parents for the last time, her father reaches out saying he’s proud of what she had done, that it was the right thing to do. It’s a poignant moment, as the whole family finally embraces in silence.

In a summer of big movie epics filled with conflicted super heroes and amoral pirates, Sophie’s story is an oddity. It’s not played in our cinemas (I ordered my DVD from a shop in Bangsar) and I don’t think it will anytime soon. Our loss. Comic heroes and real life martyrs are made of different stuff. That’s all the more reason to see it. A reviewer called it a ‘horror film’ but the real horror would be if 21-year old Sophie’s life does not move us to do more with our own. Sobering.


Sophie Scholl
Steven Greydanus' review at Decent Films Guide

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hip, Hip, Hurrah!

Here's a sharp piece by Azmi Sharom that just needs to be shared:


The Star

It would be nice to take politicians down a peg or two every now and then to remind them that they are where they are because of us.

LIFE, as M. Nasir once sang, is like a rollercoaster. You have your ups and you have your downs. Sometimes you cry and sometimes you laugh like a loon. Just ask Sheffield United and West Ham United supporters. The past couple of weeks have been a little like that.

Maybank’s instructions that all the law firms working for them must have a bumiputra component in their make-up made me pretty annoyed.

Yes, it is fundamentally unfair to the lawyers who happen to be born non-Malay; yes, it is doubtful that they have the authority to make such a request; but what really irritated me is that this is the very sort of thing that undermines affirmative action.

Affirmative action is meant to give a leg up to those who need it. No one can deny that thirty years ago there were very few Malay lawyers around. The NEP has done a lot to fix that. We can debate the rightness of the NEP some other time.

My point is that there are plenty of Malay lawyers now, and many of them got to where they are because they got government scholarships to go abroad or they were let into local universities under the quota system.

What Maybank tried to do is in fact saying that despite all the help that these men and women obtained, they still need help now. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes people mad. Just how much of a leg up does one need?

You are already qualified lawyers, for goodness’ sake. Act like one. Work hard and go out there and prove that you are just as good as any other lawyer.

It is true that Maybank made a hasty withdrawal from their position because of the public outcry (which goes to show that public outcries do work).

But the damage has been done.

This episode has shown that a major Malaysian institution was set on having a race-based affirmative action policy in a situation where it is totally uncalled for.

This does not bode well for us either in terms of race relations, or for the economic well-being of the country.

When are they ever going to understand that without a merit-based system as a genuine aspiration we will all suffer, because when the best are not doing the best work, we get nothing but mediocrity.

But life is about balance, and before the froth started to drip on my T-shirt something really amusing happened.

Now, a lot has been written about the MPs who think that making jokes about a fellow parliamentarian’s menstrual cycle is the height of Dewan Rakyat wit. Those pieces have been very, very angry. That is perfectly understandable.

I, on the other hand, think that what Bung (oh, how apt a name) did – although not what he said – was great.

All right, before I get furious e-mails from women (and sensitive men in touch with their feminine side), please let me explain myself. I am one of those people who think that politicians are given far too much respect.

After all, they are only where they are because of us. It would be nice therefore to take them down a peg or two every now and then to remind them of this fact.

This would normally be the job of satirists and the like and could take the form of the written word or stand-up comedy or even television puppet shows. Unfortunately, we don’t have very much of that in these parts.

In Shakespearean plays, the fool plays an important role. As he frolics and clowns around, underneath the silliness he is actually the voice of reason.

By virtue of his being seen as merely a joker, he gets away with saying truths that others may not dare to. In this way, the King’s shortcomings are oft exposed and he is shown to be a fool himself.

We don’t have many people who can play the Shakespearean fool in Malaysia, someone who can show up those in power. But with clowns like Bung in our Parliament, we don’t really need to, as they are more than capable of being fools themselves.

And what wonderful comedic support he has, too.

When one of their fellows said a totally despicable thing and then gets off scot-free, many cheered. Oh, how they cheered.

Hurrah, one of us has made a “joke” that we would be ashamed to make in front of our mothers, but never mind, he got let off. Hip, hip, hurrah!

Or what about the woman MP who defended this jester Bung? I simply must remember my best period joke to tell her if we were ever to meet. I am sure she will find it humorous and in the best possible taste.

Indeed, Bung the fool has plenty of supporting players to make that comedy stage we call our Parliament a truly funny place indeed.

How I laughed. And I think I can hear the world laughing along with me.

Dr Azmi Sharom is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bad taste

I’m sorry. Perception of Raimah is fast changing from tragic-heroic exemplar into a full-blown tragic-mistake. According to a Malaysiakini interview, it seems her plight was a result of a blunder brought on by the poor woman’s ignorance.

Raimah claimed that she was “misled” into signing the custody agreement and wants to take action against her husband’s lawyer, Karpal Singh.

“I am illiterate, and my husband’s lawyer did not explain the letter to me in detail. He told me to sign and I signed it. I am going to file a case against him. Now, I don’t have any rights over the children, you have all the rights,” an upset Raimah told her husband.

“Nobody comes to see me, not even the children. Even if the children are sick, only my husband can take them to the clinic. When the children were with me, many people came to see us. They gave rice and other things. They gave RM150 for expenses. But since the court case ended, nobody has come.”

Raimah remained unconvinced when her husband explained that the letter was read to her in court and that she was still their mother, no matter what.

“What more do you want? You get to visit them. I have only been given custody of the children. After they turn 18, they can decide for themselves,” said Marimuthu, 44, to his wife.

“Is seeing them enough?” retorted Raimah in tears.

“When they are above 18 and suppose they want to follow my religion, would you allow them? I was the one who got cheated. I was stupid to sign the (custody) letter.
“He (Marimuthu) wanted the children and I signed the letter, and now his problem is solved but I am left alone. I have just have one daughter staying with me but I have no rights over her either.”

A lot of bloggers (me included) went to town speculating about possible duress, Raimah’s ‘ultimate sacrifice,’ etc. The whole business is dreadful nonetheless as you can see. Whether she was misled is not the point, I think, but what followed in the wake of the controversy. To think that at the end of that tug-of-war, her well-being has become totally inconsequential. Where are the religious authorities now, so keen to assert control? Was a family broken up just to score a point?

Asked if he knew that his wife is a Muslim when they got married, Marimuthu said her identity card states her name as ‘Raimah Bibi a/p (or ‘daughter of’) Noordin’ and not binti (the Muslim equivalent).

“In her MyKad (which she obtained recently), her name is stated as Raimah binti Noordin and her religion as Islam. This is what caused all the problems,” he said.

Raimah, who is shown wearing a tudung (head scarf) in the MyKad photograph, said she has been a Muslim from birth, but her husband claimed that she never informed him about this.

“He said ‘if you had told me this, I would not have married you’. In the old identity card, all my family members have a/p (typically used for Indian Malaysian names) instead of binti.

“I got mine changed to binti a few months back but he (Marimuthu) claims that someone had added it. How can he not know I am a Muslim? Both Raimah and Nordin are Muslim names.”

Asked why their marriage was not legally registered, Marimuthu replied that it was not an important thing to do at the time.

Raimah revealed that she had approached the religious authorities on her own accord and informed them that she was a Muslim. However, her husband does not believe this.

Asked how the problem could be solved, Ramiah replied: “I already told them that I am a Muslim. How can I turn back again now, especially after the whole country knows the case? They (the Islamic authorities) will not allow me to turn back.”

On why she decided to do this after more than two decades of marriage, she said: “I did this because I thought all of us would become Muslims. I never thought he (Marimuthu) would do all this (take the matter to court). If I had known, I wouldn’t have revealed that I'm Muslim.”

Raimah also disclosed that she had not informed her husband of her intention to meet the religious authorities.

Marimuthu ruled out the possibility of converting so that the family can live together again. He also claimed that he was offered rewards such as a loan and land in return for his conversion.

“I was born a Hindu and that’s how I wish to remain. If this question was posed to me six years ago, I might have agreed because I was forced to sleep with my family on the streets when our squatter house in Ampang was demolished.

“But everyone, including Malay leaders that I approached for help, wanted money in return. Nobody helped me, so why I should convert?”

On whether he would reconsider his decision for the sake of his children, Marimuthu was firm about raising them as Hindus and said he is prepared to face any hardship that arises.

The rubber tapper, who earns between RM500 and RM1,200 a month depending on the weather, said: “I am confident I can take care of them even if I have to do it alone. I am content with the current arrangement, where my wife comes and visits the children.

“When the children are old enough, let them decide which religion they want to follow. They (the religious authorities) have separated me from my wife in the name of religion, but they cannot separate her from the children. For that, I am happy.”

Marimuthu claimed that, prior to this problem, religion had never been issue between him and his wife.

“No matter what problems we faced, we were happy together.”

In the past, he said, Raimah lived like a Hindu and was not averse to frequenting temples.

Recalling the day that his wife and children were taken away, Marimuthu said he suffered from mental and emotional anguish.

“I couldn’t sleep or eat. I was like a mad man. It is this that drove an uneducated man like me to seek help from DAP and go right up to Parliament. I was afraid that they would convert my children,” he added.

Raimah admitted that she lied to Marimuthu that she was going out to get medicine, but had gone to the Islamic affairs office instead.

“Contrary to what my husband thinks, I did not do this because I wanted to leave him. I still want to be with him. But he thinks someone has influenced me to do this,” she said.

“I always wanted to do this (return to being a practising Muslim). I had this idea for a long time, but did not know how to go about it. Although, I went to temples and performed prayers, I could not forget my religion.”

At least the man's got his head on his shoulders, saying he preferred their children to decide what religion to follow when they're "old enough." Choice - that's a fundamental right that even a simple man like Marimuthu understands. Still, say what you like about the business being all settled; there is a lingering bad taste in the mouth. Right now a woman’s cast out and at risk, and a family needs help. After the brouhaha, mouths need feeding.

Watch the 3-minute video.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Defending my country

Demonstrators wave Turkish flags during a pro-secular rally in Izmir, western Turkey, Sunday, May 13, 2007. Some 1.5 million Turks attended a secular rally in Turkey's third-largest city, which would make it the largest demonstration so far against the Islamic-rooted government. The rally, in the Aegean port city of Izmir, was organized as a show of strength before general elections on July 22, and it follows similar demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul last month. (AP Photo)

This is amazing! I find the public demonstration of support for secularism in a muslim-majority country a welcome change from bombs and carnage that are normally mentioned in the same breath as Islam. Protestors held up banners that said, “NO TO ISLAMIC LAW, NO TO MILITARY COUPS: A DEMOCRATIC TURKEY.”

Reports quoted a teacher who participated in the massive pro-secular rally in Turkey as saying, “I’m defending my country.” I find that rather refreshing. Back here in Bolehland, for the longest time, Malaysians who hold similar views have been tarred unfairly as anti-national, unpatriotic, and anti-Islam.

No. No. And no.

In Malaysia, we who cherish the ideals of equality and liberty in a secular state are also defending our land.

Friday, May 11, 2007

No dialogue

Malaysiakini reported the last minute ban of an international Muslim-Christian Interfaith dialogue to be held in Kuala Lumpur. This is a sad indication of how our authorities view the increasing religious tension in the country. The Building Bridges confab would have been the 6th annual dialogue involving Christian and Muslim scholars since it was convened in the wake of Sept 11.

It’s a pity. "Malaysia would have been a litmus test to see how the mix of different religions and different ethnicities worked," said participant Mona Siddiqui, Profesor of Islamic Studies. Looks like Malaysia failed the test.

Allowing the confab to go on as scheduled sends a signal that the present government believes and adheres to pluralism even if Islam remains the national religion. It would go a long way to assuage fears that Malaysia is losing whatever’s left of its multi-religious and multicultural heritage. It would show the world that in Malaysia it is still possible to sit down and talk, pursue commonality, build bridges, promote unity in diversity despite occasional outbreaks of intolerance.

If calling it off was out of concern for possible flare-ups of extremist behaviour, then the UMNO-dominated ruling coalition is already showing its hand: the government will not upset the extreme segments of the majority who are rejecting religious diversity while tightening their stranglehold on democratic space. Not that it cannot handle the repercussions (see how well the reformasi demonstrations and the toll protests were contained), but that it won’t.

It also suggests that it will not even try to defend and enforce the hyped-up 'moderate' veneer of so-called Islam Hadhari, nor will it take action against those who threaten violence in the name of religion. More telling, it is no longer shy about its long-term agenda of Islamisation in the country. Instead it sees advantage in leveraging on communalism and threats of religious backlash to deny civil society from emerging.

On the other hand, Muslim-Christian dialogues are sticky business, by virtue of the exclusivist doctrines of both faiths. Conservatives in both camps tend to frown on such initiatives, particularly when the ecumenism that is promoted veers away from traditionally-held theology. When fundamentals are downplayed or reinterpreted in the interest of peace and respect for different belief systems, you’re stepping on sacred ground. One may move some furniture around, but to question or offer alternative viewpoints to what is perceived as foundational doctrines is an assault on the faith itself.

Take Dr Michael Ipgrave, Archdeacon of Southwark and an interfaith adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury. As a UK participant in the Building Bridges conference, he has written that Muslims and Christians worship the same God:

"I as a Christian verify that Muslims and Christians worship the same Abrahamic God. I will recognize that God speaks to those he calls heirs to Abraham, with different tunes. I will recognize that for us the God, whom Abraham worships, is the God whose energy expands internal limited faithfulness to a more general sense of belonging. If we belong to that real God, as His creations and those who seek to answer His call, we should consequently belong to each other. Through respect and affection which bring understanding, we can be sure of a reliable dialogue between each other".

Now, that sort of thing is old hat to Christians, and even if some may dismiss it as so much fuzzy thinking, it is unlikely that hordes of otherwise decent churchgoers will demonstrate publicly to deny Dr Ipgrave’s right to breathe and spout such contrarian ideas. There can be no mutual 'respect and affection' otherwise. There will always be countless shades of differences in opinions and beliefs as there are people. Individuality and freedom of choice are fundamental to human dignity. Yet as we well know, Dr Ipgrave's position won't probably sit well with a large number of Muslims.

So it was with delight that I learnt of the late Grand Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad Amin Kuftaro (1915 –2004). As a founder of the League of Muslim Scholars, he was hugely celebrated as an ardent advocate of constructive inter-religious dialogue, and courted controversy for his views. (See here and here) Unusual and admirable, but perhaps he lived in a different time. As unofficial spokesman for Islam, the Grand Mufti traveled the world, and even met with the Pope in 1983.

In a UN conference held in Brazil 1992, he delivered a call for peace, and ended with a quote from Jesus’ Beatitudes:

"O People of Faith, Allah has made us brothers under the banner of Abraham. He has shown us our various rites and rituals and guided us on the right path. He has laid upon our shoulders the responsibility for human brotherhood and social reform. He has urged us to exert our best efforts for the establishment of peace, compassion and universal humanness:

Congratulations be to the peacemakers, for they are called the children of God."

The Mufti certainly understands that above all, people of faith must exercise compassion and ‘universal humanness.’ If we will not appreciate this nor make peace (as opposed to keeping the peace) there is little future for society. Not only that, we will lose the right to be called God’s children.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Is Christianity good for the world?

You don’t want to miss this. Christianity Today carries its first installment of an online debate (a correspondence actually) between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens titled, Is Christianity Good for the World? If some of us felt that the one recently hosted by Newsweek between Rick Warren and Sam Harris was a ridiculously uneven match, this one ought to see more sparks fly. Here’s an excerpted salvo from Hitchens:

I cannot, of course, prove that there is no supervising deity who invigilates my every moment and who will pursue me even after I am dead. (I can only be happy that there is no evidence for such a ghastly idea, which would resemble a celestial North Korea in which liberty was not just impossible but inconceivable.) But nor has any theologian ever demonstrated the contrary. This would perhaps make the believer and the doubter equal—except that the believer claims to know, not just that God exists, but that his most detailed wishes are not merely knowable but actually known. Since religion drew its first breath when the species lived in utter ignorance and considerable fear, I hope I may be forgiven for declining to believe that another human being can tell me what to do, in the most intimate details of my life and mind, and to further dictate these terms as if acting as proxy for a supernatural entity. This tyrannical idea is very much older than Christianity, of course, but I do sometimes think that Christians have less excuse for believing, let alone wishing, that such a horrible thing could be true.

Doug Wilson answers by questioning the atheist's self-respect - what's it worth anyway if we're nothing but a bunch of 'churning chemical reactions.'

One last question: In your concluding paragraph you make a great deal out of your individualism and your right to be left alone with the "most intimate details of [your] life and mind." Given your atheism, what account are you able to give that would require us to respect the individual? How does this individualism of yours flow from the premises of atheism? Why should anyone in the outside world respect the details of your thought life any more than they respect the internal churnings of any other given chemical reaction? That's all our thoughts are, isn't that right? Or, if there is a distinction, could you show how the premises of your atheism might produce such a distinction?

As the Day 1 exchange shows, among other things, the whole idea about God – even the possibility of his existence – is resisted by an atheist not because there is necessarily an absence of evidence (not that it doesn’t matter), but because if God does exist, there would be a massive reordering of lifestyle. For one, it would mean submission to a higher authority.

In the words of C.S Lewis, "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."

That’s a discomforting thought, that someone should tell you how you should live in the "most intimate details of [your] life and mind." Better to be one’s own God, as it were.

Back to the Newsweek debate, there's quite a bit to chew, even if it was one-sided (also, the preamble was thick with the interviewer's own bias). I personally didn’t think Rick Warren was unnerved by the almost overbearing Harris. To Warren’s credit, I thought he conducted himself with appropriate humility. And even if Warren did not specifically address Harris’ objections, the appeal to Pascal’s Wager to my mind is no less a sensible apologetic.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Is that all?

A friend asks what could anyone do in light of the current siege on the Federal Constitution. That’s a hard question to answer. Indeed, what can a person do without succumbing to cynicism, or worse, buy a one-way ticket to where the grass is proverbially greener?
So I said,

1.Be informed
2.Inform others
3.Get involved

Is that all, came the reply.

Well, I don’t know.

Will it help?

Some, I’m sure. But being informed and getting involved is a good place to start.

It shouldn’t surprise me anymore but the fact is just too many people I meet haven’t a clue what’s happening. Seriously, and frighteningly so. When told about Raimah Bibi, this friend in her twenties asked, "Who?" A man in his fifties looked askance and asked what Lina Joy had to do with us, since it was an Islamic dispute. A young couple said they had a vague idea, but what’s the story again, they asked? A college grad says that’s why he's getting out of here. So people have not read the Federal Constitution. Then again, nobody’s reading history anyway. I have met a bunch of teens who hardly knew anyhting about Hitler (oh, the man with the moustache) and the holocaust, so there.

My guess is,
a. there isn’t sufficient coverage in the papers or no one’s giving the big picture round-up, exploring or commenting on the seriousness of the issues (because our politicians would have you believe they know what sort of news you need to read)
b. a lot of people aren’t reading newspapers these days, which I suspect is the real reason besides it being compounded by reason of (a)
c. they are logged online, but they’ve got more things on their minds than local politics and socio-economic blather, like...
d. the European Cup.

Sure, our papers are conspiratorial in their silence and I shall not mourn their passing, whatever minister of information Zam may say. It appears rural Malaysia still depends on old media for their news, while urbanites are deserting it in droves for the web. Yet, are there so few who are online or who have assimilated into the IT collective, who feed on alternative news, sniff out angst-ridden prose about social injustice and political intrigue (and find new uses for expletives)? At the latest count, Malaysia has 11 million internet users, which adds up to 38.9% penetration in a population of some 28 million. Is this simply a preternatural disposition of middle-class elite who are uncomfortable in their material comforts?

Obviously this leads to the next question: how to be involved?

Some nervously light candles and join peaceful demonstrations. Others add their names to petitions. The vocal few join NGOs, make noise, write letters, rant in blogs, and/or question their MPs. But a lot more ought to vote. 5 million - the majority being first time voters out of their teens – are by default lying down in the path of a trundling national theocratic ambition.

Then there are those who simply refuse to join the voting constituency for reasons that are better known to themselves. For instance, I know a senior banker who was slightly miffed when I came on too strong about his indifference. “It’s not indifference, just being realistic. Want me to vote opposition-ah? What can they do?”

Candle-lights get snuffed out. Forum permits get withdrawn or are shouted down. Petitions get withdrawn or politely ignored. Kerises are unsheathed. May 13 is invoked. Voters are swayed by bread-and-butter needs than matters closer to the heart and soul (say, aren’t these intertwined?)

We read of massive demonstrations in Turkey to keep the nation secular, and don’t we just wish thousands felt the same way too about our own nation. The Berlin Wall came down. Poland became a liberal republic. Communist USSR is in the rubbish heap of history.

A lot of people must have prayed.

That's another good place to start as well.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Karpal, King Solomon and Raimah

Karpal Singh would have us believe that P. Marimuthu and Raimah Bibi received Solomon’s justice (Malaysiakini). Nevertheless, it's a commendable thing to do what Karpal has done. I can see where he’s coming from, but I happen to think the comparison with Solomon is faulty. We’re not all literate in things of the Bible, so here’s a simple lesson:

According to the Bible, King Solomon was considered the greatest of Israel’s kings. His wisdom was legendary (so was his fondness for women – he kept a harem of hundreds of wives and concubines – which wasn’t at all wise, and as the Bible tells it, led to his downfall and ended his empire). Solomon’s wisdom was exemplified in the story of two prostitutes who both claimed to be the mother of the same baby (1 Kings 3:16-28).

So who’s the biological mother? Understand that this was way, way before DNA testing became di rigeur in paternity or maternity suits. As the story goes, Solomon cleverly suggested cutting the child in half so each mother could have one half of the child.

The first woman filled with compassion cried out to the king, "Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!"

But the other woman agreed, saying, “Neither you nor I shall have the child. Cut him in two.”

It was these opposite reactions that led Solomon to rule in favour of the first woman. Justice was served, a scam was exposed, and a child was returned to her rightful mother.

Perhaps it could be said that Raimah Bibi gave in under duress; her back was against the wall, and so chose to give up her children to spare their lives from an oppressive fate. In this – and only this - is Raimah’s sacrifice comparable to to the first woman in the biblical tale.

A compromise that separates a mother from her biological children, dissolves her common law marriage union, denies a woman the love of her husband, splits a home in two, leaves her to fend for herself, simply drives a stake into a mother’s heart. This is not “Solomon’s justice.” The second woman won.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Raimah Bibi's sacrifice

Letter by 'Jeffrey' to Malaysiakini comments on Raimah Bibi's sacrifice. He disagrees with Karpal Singh that the judgment was a 'good compromise':
Karpal Singh said that the case ‘sets a new precedent’ with Jais agreeing to hand over the custody of the children from a Muslim mother to a non-Muslim father. ‘We are resorting to King’s Solomon justice. It is a good compromise’ he said in the malaysiakini report Hindu man gets custody of children

What is the nature the ‘good compromise’ as proclaimed by Karpal? I beg to disagree.

As I understand it, the ‘new precedent’ for which victory is claimed is the negotiated and compromise outcome that allowed Raimah Bibi Noordin - in professing that she remained a Muslim (ie desist from apostasy) - to bargain with and procure the release by religious authorities of six of their seven children to her husband, Marimuthu Periasamy, to be raised as Hindus.

I submit that such an outcome is not satisfactory for defenders of our secular constitution and civil liberty. It is a defeat which they should be rueful about rather than a victory to celebrate for following reasons.

First, there is no victory as there is no precedent set at all for a Muslim (whether born or converted) to exercise freedom of religion. Second, there is also no precedent that a Muslim could freely choose to have his or her child opt out of the religion as Karpal seems to imply.

Raimah Bibi Noordin’s case does not constitute such a precedent. This is because in the first place, she was born an ethnic Indian and although adopted by a Muslim convert family, had always – until the deal was struck with the religious authorities – proclaimed herself a practising Hindu.

Raimah’s wearing of a traditional Malay floor-length attire with a Muslim headscarf to declare to the High Court that she would ‘remain a Muslim’ was made in circumstances suggestive of duress. It was an outcome after a month of being whisked off to a Muslim village - Kampung Melayu Liga Emas in Selangor's Batang Kali - for rehabilitation and religious counseling.

It was suggestive of a trade off for the freedom for her children to remain with her husband as Hindus. And it was a sacrifice that only a mother would make that gives new poignancy to Mother’s Day celebration.

In fact, it was more a victory of sorts for the religious authorities. They could prevail on a person like Raimah, whose better part of her life had been spent as a practising Hindu (and whose old identity card, until the change to Mykad, had corroborated this fact) to now renounce her earlier profession as a Hindu to publicly embrace the Muslim faith.

Never mind, one may speculate, that it was a bargain to procure the release of her children and the price to pay for their freedom to be brought up under the Hindu faith.

The religious authorities could also take away Raimah Bibi and six of her seven children on April 2 and prevail on Raimah to renounce her earlier professed Hindu faith for the Muslim faith all without a whisper of reprimand or comment from the governmental and political authority.

In a word, they have amply demonstrated that they could be law unto themselves. What this shows is that religious authorities have become independent of the civil, political and governmental authority of this country.

As Article 121(1)A of Federal Constitution would, as interpreted by some recent High Court decisions, restrain civil courts from having jurisdiction over matters within jurisdiction of the Sharia Courts, so in the case of Raimah Bibi Noordin’s predicament, it appears that civil, governmental and political authority have equally no jurisdiction over the activities of religious authorities.

With respect to Karpal, the compromise outcome of Raimah Bibi Noordin represents no victory at all for civil society, women’s groups, civil authority or the Federal Constitution. It is a fiat accompli and victory for the Islamic state with the missed opportunity here to test the constitutional point of Raimah's case before our highest court - though no one could possibly blame or judge Raimah for taking the sacrifice of compromise to relieve her family from an ordeal of a protracted contest.

So this is justice: more developments (2)

NST pix: Raimah Bibi Noordin and P.Marimuthu leaving the court
after reaching a settlement regarding custody of their children.

Marimuthu and his common law wife Raimah are now told they're not 'legally' married - 21 years and 7 children later. They're rubber tappers, numbered among Malaysia's poor and marginalised. Marimuthu gets his children back but loses his wife. Raimah gets access but loses a husband. Religious authorities score a win. Is this what justice looks like?

At the hearing Tuesday, Raimah Bibi, 39, broke down and sobbed openly when the judge asked her if she would give up custody of their seven children, who are aged between four and 14.

However, in a statement to the court, Raimah Bibi said she was born a Muslim and wants to "continue professing the Islamic faith."

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Apostasy : more developments (1)

The full Al-Jazeera Everywoman segment on apostate Revathi is already up on Malaysiakini. Let’s see. Other than the hyped-up “never seen before footage of the Islamic rehab center” the brief coverage over the contentious apostasy issue was just that: brief, but emotionally powerful nonetheless. So what do we get out of that 10-min international coverage?
1. Perak mufti Harussani Zakaria was heard to say Islam mandates the death sentence for apostasy but no such law is applied in Malaysia. Instead there are laws to prevent Muslims from leaving the religion. He declared that without apostasy laws, “we’re finished; the malays would be finished.”

That is incredible as much as it is unsurprising since it’s the usual paranoia given vent by some politicians and street demos. With due respect, if a majority people and over 1 billion religious adherents feel so easily threatened and therefore need the force of legislation for protection, something is wrong somewhere.

2. Prof Shad Faruqi who was previously on record as saying that conversion out of Islam ought to be subject to Syariah as a legal safeguard (against abuse and evasion of charges of Islamic offences) was heard here saying that freedom of conscience for all people - including muslims - is enshrined in the Federal Constitution under Article 11 (clause 1). Religious arrests therefore not only violate Article 11 but also personal liberty.

3. Farid Suffian Shuaib, law lecturer at International Islamic University claimed the Constitution must be acknowledged in the context of history. Prior to the arrival of colonialists, Islam was already “applied.” The dual system of civil law and Syariah as spelled out in the Constitution simply extends to muslims their historical right to regulate themselves. En. Farid believed the Syariah court should determine the actual status of Revathi’s faith (presumably at birth, since her current belief is unacceptable if she was ‘born’ a muslim). If as it appears that Revathi is Muslim, then there was no marriage – “not according to Islam, or under Malaysian law” (Marriage and Divorce Act).

Again, I find it astounding that Revathi’s personal faith conviction has completely no relevance in the raging controversy.

3. SIS Zainah Anwar admitted that ethnic relationships between muslims and non-muslims have been strained, and that “real life” had been overlooked. The reality was that someone who was forced to believe is, “deprived her liberty, deprived her child, deprived her husband, and her right to a family.” I applaud Zainah’s compassion because all laws, whether religious or civil, are never abstract constructs.

In a not entirely inappropriate context (but probably totally unacceptable to Islam), Jesus once said that God created Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Really, the distinction between these two ideas is at issue here as well.
Finally, there’s nothing the ordinary Malaysian does not already know. But there is one consolation however. Brief though it was, at least the Al Jazeera segment brought alive the human dimension behind the heart-wrenching episode. A mother has been separated from her baby. A husband has been denied his right to both wife and child. A family has been torn apart.


Some sort of compromise was reached in another case involving rubber tapper P. Marimuthu and his allegedly muslim wife Raimah Bibi, the mother of their 6 children (who were all forcibly separated as well). Marimuthu gets his children back, but not his wife. Malaysiakini has the report:

The Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) this morning agreed to grant the custody of the children to Marimuthu to be raised as Hindus. They are expected to be handed over to Marimuthu by tomorrow.

However his Muslim wife Raimah Bibi Noordin would still be in the custody of the religious department. She will be granted access to her children but would not be allowed to live with her Hindu husband.

Karpal Singh calls it a compromise and likens it to Solomon's justice. Hardly. Far, far from it. Perhaps the exercise was all about face-saving. If so, Marimuthu's tears tell us justice has not been served.


In an interview with Malaysiakini, Dr M surprises with his views on the apostasy issue. I’ll have to give credit where credit is due, and from what has been revealed in the short excerpt, it’s certainly a progressive point of view that people of goodwill can heartily concur with. Below is an excerpt:

Malaysiakini: The Federal Constitution says that the definition of Malay is that you have to be Muslim, and allowing for Malays to covert out of Islam would unravel the whole thing. What’s your point of view on this?

Mahathir: The thing is, if you are not a Muslim, then you are not a Malay. That’s all. That’s what the constitution says.

Malaysiakini: And that is what some Malays are worried about.

If you are prepared to give up Islam, you must also be prepared to give up (the rights associated with) the definition of a Malay. You must say that ‘I am not a Malay.’

Malaysiakini: Would you agree to that?

Why not? People would still be Malay, but officially, he would not be a Malay. Being a Malay in this country has certain privileges, so he wouldn’t enjoy those privileges.

Malaysiakini: You’ve got no problem with the definition of the Malay?

At the moment, we’ve got no reason to change the definition of a Malay. There are only two countries in the world where the race is linked to the religion.

Malaysiakini: You’ve got no problem if a Malay actually renounces Islam?

If he renounces Islam, then he is not a Malay. That’s all.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Truth needs no props

Saw this in the Star today. I thought this was the most hopeful articulation by respected Islamic authorities on a sensitive subject in recent days.

Islam is not to be made the desperate handmaiden of any political party in dire need of support and membership at all costs. Islam is God’s gift of mercy to mankind. Accepting and recognising this gift does not make God greater for He is not in need of anything.

Similarly, by refusing, it does not make Him a lesser God. Islam is not a religion for fools. Using the mechanism of the judiciary to ‘Islamise’ people, or to prevent them from leaving Islam is totally absurd.

All it achieves is to unjustly portray all Muslims as ignorant fools, and as a result of association, Islam becomes the victim.

Imagine what the non-Muslim community in general will understand of Islam. They will conclude that Islam is a cruel religion that seeks to separate a parent from his or her children.

As a result, Islam will be put on trial. And this is already happening.[More]

There are two issues: the rights of persons who are forcibly prevented from leaving Islam and therefore denied freedom of choice ( suggesting a poor conception of the dignity of personhood) and the oft-quoted demeaning of Islam’s image (which suggests the religion's inability to prevail against perceived threats). These writers express greater confidence in Islam’s integrity to stand without artificial buttresses, unlike the views of many reported in the media – after all, what is’ truth’ if it needs props to burnish its image or keep its faithful in line? If these words even hint at the official line, we’re close to turning the corner.