14 July 2016

Preachers can have a tremendous influence on desperate souls looking for answers to their troubles, and the latter may take everything literally.

IT seems as if the last month has been marked by nothing but violence. Beginning with Orlando, Istanbul, then Dhaka and then the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by those of several police officers in Dallas, everywhere you looked, there was bloodshed, as if the whole world had gone to war with one another.

And we weren’t spared either. First an apparent first attack by Islamic State at the Movida club and then what seemed like a spate of gunshot killings in Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs.

The Inspector-General of Police became concerned enough about the killings to set up a special taskforce to investigate them.

Meanwhile, reams of articles are written about the profiles and motivations of the perpetrators in Orlando and Dhaka particularly. It turns out that these perpetrators were far more complicated people than any stereotype could predict. Which just goes to show the limitations of profiling anyone.

Indeed, stereotypes were very much defied in the Dhaka attack. Rather than being poor, disaffected youth who might have been led astray by men wearing robes and bearing money, the attackers were in fact young men from upper middle class families, who went to good schools and even studied abroad at private universities in Malaysia.

These were young men who were thought to have everything going for them. Until they started disappearing, only to re-appear carrying out an extremely vicious attack, even killing young people of the same background.

In the investigations into their backgrounds, much has been made about who could have influenced them. Perhaps theirs is an abject lesson in what all human beings need: spiritual succour.

Could it have been that while these kids had every material comfort, what they did not have was comfort for the soul? And so they went looking, and as fate would have it, found the ones that were easiest to understand, where blame could be laid on others, rather than on showing compassion and kindness in order to nurture the soul?

There have been suggestions that some of us have made too much of the influence of particular religious personalities and politicians in creating the sort of climate in which young people get attracted to IS ideologies. This is disingenuous, to say the least.

For one thing, nobody sets out to become a politician or a religious preacher without the aim of influencing people. That is the whole point of these jobs.

Whatever they say is lapped up by many people because it is assumed by the public that what they say must be important simply because of who they are. Politicians can turn what they say into laws and policies which will affect people’s behaviour. For example, if they pass a law that says you must wear seatbelts in the car, you have to do it or face censure.

Religious personalities may not always be able to pass laws but their influence can be even more powerful, because often people assume that what they say is the word of God.

Certainly those who do not have much religious knowledge (and thus far studies have suggested that IS members know very little about religion) are particularly susceptible to whatever they say because they have no other point of reference. They do not see these pronouncements as mere opinion or only one out of many interpretations, only that these words come directly from God’s vessel, the preacher.

It is even more disingenuous to say that those words were misunderstood. A person who does not allow for different interpretations of God’s words in the Quran cannot claim that he can’t help it if people understand his words differently from what was intended. Unless you’re unequivocal about what you mean, you can’t blame others for supposedly misinterpreting what you said.

Supporters of such people claim that they can’t be that influential anyway. Again, this is disingenuous.

If these preachers have only marginal effect on people’s lives, they would not be able to fill arenas with ticket-buying devotees. For sure, some people may go for the halal entertainment value but you never know what desperate soul might go to find answers to his or her own troubles and then take everything literally. After all, these preachers preach certainty. If you follow me, you WILL go to heaven. A potent message, which isn’t limited to Muslims only.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the ones who always call for the banning of Western performers because they might influence our young are also the ones who don’t believe that consevative preachers have any influence at all? At least Beyonce has never told her audience to go out and terrorise anyone.



30 June 2016

WELL, it’s been some week! To the shock of everyone, Britain voted to leave the European Union. I was in Britain not too long ago and nobody I knew believed they would leave. But by a whisker, they did. And the consequences are still rolling out all over the world.

All this can be put on the shoulders of one man, David Cameron. What started as an internal party issue was allowed to spin so much out of control that the shockwaves are still being felt.

The pound sterling has dropped, stock markets everywhere are falling and Brits are suddenly waking up to a world vastly different from just last week. A passport that is almost the equivalent of a world passport is no longer theirs.

Along the way people’s emotions got worked up into the nastiest form. Xenophobia suddenly became the norm. People became so divided; one young woman MP even got killed presumably for her views, a tragedy so rare in Britain that it shocked both sides of the divide.

It did not help that the right-wing media whipped emotions up for the Leave campaign with sensational headlines and very few reasoned arguments. In fact there was very little in the way of sensible and factual arguments.

The PM lost his gamble so he stepped down.

History will probably remember him as not only the man who broke up the EU but possibly also Britain because now Scotland is talking about another independence referendum. Perhaps Northern Ire­land too. Who wants to stay with a bunch of insular provincial people when there’s a whole world out there?

Which brings us back to our little country here, which seems to be getting ever more insular every day.

In this holy month, a religious leader, for unfathomable reasons, decided to declare non-Muslims not only infidels but the type of infidels that should be killed. Uncon­ditionally, only because they are not Muslims.

Naturally all right-thinking people, Muslim and non-Muslim, are reacting badly to this. Shockingly, he is not getting admonished by his superiors for such uncharitable talk about fellow citizens in the month of restraint.

At least in Britain when pro-Brexit people start talking about taking back the country for citizens of the white persuasion only, there will be people in high positions who will criticise them sharply.

But as usual in this country, when a man of the turban and long gown says anything nasty, nobody in a position of authority will protest.

They seem to think that God speaks through him so his word cannot be challenged. Someone should send him on a study tour to post-Brexit Britain where they would take one look at him, look up what he just said and promptly deport him for incitement.

Then there was the case of the Ipoh City Council that issued an invitation to an event for its staff and felt the need to detail what people should wear.

Instead of trusting that people would have the common sense to know what would be suitable to wear to such an event, some pea-brained person decided that they needed to underscore what could not be worn, the elegant and graceful saree.

Forgetting that they now live in the age of camera phones and social media, the council got caught out and added insult to injury by giving the lame excuse that the word kecuali does not actually mean “except” but means what you should not wear when you’re out in the field, even though this is presumably an indoor event with food.

In my childhood, my Mum’s friends Dr Sundra and Dr Ranjit wore sarees to work in the hospital and absolutely nobody freaked out about it. When she got married, my mother even wore a saree at one of her nuptial events because her friends had given her a beautiful one.

What I wish most, really, is that one of our leaders has enough of a conscience to step up and say “Enough!” and tell everyone to stop this nonsense.

Not saying anything is like David Cameron letting the Brexit ghouls out of Pandora’s box. Once such hate speech (and there is no other word for it) is allowed out, there is no pulling it back.

But looking at the calibre of our Cabinet in its latest iteration, there is no hope of that ever happening.

There is simply no moral leadership in this country, no one in Govern­ment who has the courage to point out what is patently wrong in our society today.

The tragedy is that nobody does anything that is not self-serving.

If this continues, then they may find they are ruling a country with no people. Sooner or later, (more) Malaysians may decide that it’s time for Mexit.

Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir batin.

16 June 2016

Instead of looking into how a man with a record could easily get a gun, some have focused on his religion and the alleged sins of the victims.

IS it too much these days to expect Ramadan to be the month of restraint, reflection and rest? In the past few years it has been anything but, both domestically and internationally. This year, sadly, is no exception.

This week in Florida a gunman allegedly shot and killed 49 people in a club and wounded another 53. That alone is tragedy enough.

After sending condolences to the families of the victims, the conversation should then turn to dealing with what is an obvious crime. Isn’t murder a crime in every country in the world?

Yet the conversation about a crime and its motives has been diverted towards other things. The fact that the gunman was allegedly Muslim. The fact that the victims were presumably gay.

Not the fact that an American citizen with an assault rifle massacred and wounded a lot of other American citizens. When it boils down to it, those are the bare facts.

But as things are these days, everyone wants to make a meal of it. The presumptive Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump basically used the tragedy to praise himself for having “warned” Americans about this danger. Never mind that the shooter is a United States-born citizen who, despite a record of being a wife-beater and being questioned by the FBI, had purchased his guns legally.

Various Republican politicians tweeted their sympathies to the victims, blamed Muslims and said nothing about the ease with which people can get guns in America. But then many of them had received money from the National Rifle Association to not vote for any legislation that would make it tougher to buy guns. Basically they helped put in place an environment which made it easier for these massacres to happen.

Most also ignored the specific targets of the shooter who were LGBT people, not the Republicans’ favourite people. The same people whom they have condemned and discriminated against for a long time.

In this, they may have been more aligned with the views of the shooter. But alas, he happens to belong to a faith that some of them, especially current and past presidential candidates, are also prejudiced against. What a dilemma!

It is a dilemma for American Muslims as well. On the one hand, here was another incident where the predictable reaction would be more general condemnation of all Muslims as if all are responsible for the murders. As has happened with past violence, a rise in Islamophobic incidents will no doubt occur.

On the other hand, many Muslims are uncomfortable with the LGBT community, believing that they are sinful aberrations of God’s creations. Still, discomfort does not mean that Muslims believe that they should be killed, hence for many American Muslim organisations, their position is clear.

The largest Muslim organisation in North America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), immediately issued a statement expressing sympathy with the victims’ families and calling on Muslims to donate blood to the injured survivors.

The Executive Director of CAIR, Nihad Awad, was quoted as saying that the attack was “a hate crime, plain and simple”. 

He said CAIR’s sympathies lie with the LGBT community, and that the goal of extremism is to create divisions among as many social groups as possible.

Meanwhile thousands of miles away, Muslims living in a Muslim country where they should be fasting and doing charitable things are instead taking to applauding the shooter for killing those 50 people and hoping that the other 53 will die too. Easy for people who live in their own little bubble to say things like this when it isn’t their own family and when they have never felt the fear such violence evokes.

How many Malaysian Muslims have truly experienced what it means to be in extreme danger? And how many Malaysian Muslims have ever experienced out-and-out Islamophobia?

So easy to express outrage at people marching against Muslims in Europe, yet even easier to hypothetically tweet that even a gay sibling should be killed. What is all this murderous talk in this holy month?

Our ignoramuses in Malaysia should take heed of what Nihad Awad, at the frontline of so much hate, said: “ Homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia are interlocked systems of oppression. We cannot fight one and accept another.”

They need to understand that all Muslims are being unjustly blamed once again for the act of one man. By applauding his act, they are agreeing with the Islamophobes that we are inherently a violent people.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the police have caught another heavily-armed man who was hoping to “harm” the gay pride parade there. He is neither coloured nor Muslim.

Perhaps the most pertinent comment comes from the activist filmmaker Michael Moore: “This is the 163rd day of a year in which there have already been 173 mass shootings in the US.”

20 May 2016

In addition to what we learn in school, other people we meet can give us valuable lessons, too.

MONDAY this week was National Teacher’s Day. I had lost touch with this day until a friend reminded me in a rather unique way.

Although we usually think of teachers as the ones in school, my friend used a broader definition of “teacher” and thanked all the people she had learnt something from in life including, to my surprise, me.

Going by the conventional definition, I did have a lot of good teachers. I can remember my primary school teachers, Miss Ong who came to school in a bright orange flared skirt, and Miss Chew whom everyone adored so much, we all cried when she was transferred.

I had teachers who gave me my love of the English language and who made sense of Mathematics to me, who guided me all the way through my exams and believed that I had more potential than I thought.

I had a History teacher who taught me to organise my thoughts so well when writing essays that I still use her method today. And last year I visited my old Physics teacher and found out that although I always thought I was quiet, she remembered me as very opinionated.

Of course, there must have been teachers who were also mean and nasty but time seems to have softened my memory of them. In any case, I don’t remember them being too awful and none of them were bullies like those I hear about today.

My teachers taught us a lot about values, about the need to be aware of what is going on not just in our country but also around the world, about right and wrong.

If anyone says I am well educated, I have to say that my education started well in my childhood and continued all the way until adulthood.

As I grew up I had many more teachers, some of whom were in unexpected quarters. When I first started working on HIV issues and knew nothing about any world different from my own, my teachers were all the people who were most affected by the epidemic.

I remember Jack, the first Malaysian to ever come out as a person living with HIV, teaching me how to use non-discriminatory language when I wrote about the people most vulnerable to the disease.

Drug users and sex workers told me their life stories and taught me that some people have been dealt really bad cards in life yet they soldier on, especially when other people depend on them for survival.

All of these people taught me that every human is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their circumstances in life. And I think that’s an important part of everyone’s education.

A great teacher is one who is able to make you see something so clearly that the world never looks the same again afterwards. Dr Jonathan Mann was the first director of the Global Programme on AIDS at the World Health Organisation, and then went on to head the Institute of Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

In 1994, I was fortunate enough to hear Dr Mann articulate a human rights approach to health that made more sense to me than anything I had ever heard before. From that day I really wanted to learn more from Dr Mann but it was only four years later that I got to meet him at a conference in Geneva.

I really should have used that opportunity to talk to him as much as I could but I thought I had time. Sadly, only two months later, Dr Mann and his wife were killed in the crash of Swissair 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia. In the worst possible way, I learnt that we must always make full use of every opportunity given to us.

Of course, I have had many other teachers as well. Women’s rights activists are a particularly inspiring lot, Muslim women activists even more so because they are often misunderstood by everyone.

Women like Amina Wadud, Asma Lamrabet, Kecia Ali and our local Zainah Anwar, Norani Othman and the late Dr Nik Noriani have so much knowledge based on both scholarship and the lived realities of women that their detractors can do no more than question their credentials.

Yet all round the world, their work is resonating with women, including me, because it provides hope, something we don’t find anywhere else.

So we go through life meeting many teachers, not just the ones at school. School teachers may be the ones we meet first but we should always be open to all sorts of other teachers in our lives, sometimes who we don’t even recognise at first.

Education doesn’t end with school. Too bad not everyone learns that.

05 May 2016

I CAME across this great quote the other day. It’s by a filmmaker called Pierre Sauvage who, as a child, was saved by German villagers during the Holocaust. Interviewing the villagers as an adult, he found out one thing: “Those who agonise, don’t act. Those who act don’t agonise.”

In other words, when it comes to doing the right thing, people who do take action don’t spend a lot of time thinking of what might be reasons not to do it.

That’s probably true about all the people who want to do good in society. If they see someone in need, they start thinking of how to help them, not hoping that someone else will.

That’s how people start soup kitchens, collect clothes and essentials when disasters happen or read for the blind. Or get into boats to run supplies to refugees stranded at sea.

People like that don’t think about how much work it would take, how much it would cost or what risks they would face. All those are just problems to solve, not barriers to action. People like these are can-do people and a lot of the time, they are quite effective.

On the other hand, there are the agonisers who may have good hearts but spend so much time agonising over every possible consequence of their potential action that they wind up being too slow or not doing anything at all.

If Pierre Sauvage’s saviours had agonised about saving him and several thousand others, he would likely not have survived to become a filmmaker.

I remember one reader’s response to a column I did about the late Princess Diana who had not hesitated to hug HIV-positive people in hospitals and consequently set an example against the stigma and discrimination that such people faced. “We can’t do that,” said the indignant reader. “What if they are a different sex from us?”

Suffice to say that one of the reasons we remember Diana to this day is because she did not agonise over such matters. Every human in distress needs comfort. It was not about her, it was about them.

Most of us, me included, spend a lot of time agonising over the big decisions in our lives. If it’s going to cost money, change our usual life or involve some personal risk, then of course we are going to think it over thoroughly. Few people rush into buying homes, marrying someone and moving to a foreign country or undergoing major surgery without mulling over many factors, and taking our time about these decisions.

But when we’re thinking about other people and doing right by them, then mulling too much may not be the best response. Especially when the mulling involves thinking up imaginary reasons not to do something.

I know people who worry about whether they should put their thoughts in a blog, for instance, before they write a single word. They believe that it would attract negative reactions from the authorities because they’ve seen what happens to other people’s blogs.

That’s exactly the type of self-censorship that the authorities want, where people worry so much about consequences that they don’t write a single word. The thing is, it may be that what they write will attract not that much attention at all from the people they fear, or very little relative to other people. That may sound disheartening but if you’re worried about nasty consequences, then why should it be an excuse for not expressing your thoughts?

Similarly I get lots of people who say that they cannot do what I and a lot of other activists do because they stand to lose so much. Well, so do we. Being locked up, even for a night or two, is tough and something I hope I never have to experience. But activists do what they do because they believe in it. They don’t agonise, they act.

If we see something terribly wrong happening around us which will lead to so much future suffering, it would be so easy to close our eyes and ears and wish it would all go away by itself. But it won’t unless we act.

That’s why there are people who, regardless of race, religion, age, station in life and political beliefs, are taking action to try and right what is wrong. It may seem futile to some but it’s a lot better than doing nothing. People who act can always hold their heads up high that they tried to do something, and not passively let misery rain upon them. Foolish they may seem to some but a lot of people are, as Nelson Mandela once said, making choices that reflect their hopes, not their fears.

So, ask yourself, are you an agoniser or a person who acts?