26 March 2015

Regardless of whether we can actually implement amputations, floggings and stoning, the mentality is already implanted.

A STAPLE of the news these days is the many barbaric acts of the group known as the Islamic State or IS in Syria.

Every day we are treated to news of their threats as well as actual acts of murder and mayhem against every person or group they don’t like.

They particularly specialise in the most gruesome ways of killing people, such as by beheading or burning them to death alive. And those are the lucky ones. Those left alive, especially women, are forced to endure the lifelong stigma of rape and abuse.

Over here, we widen our eyes in horror at such atrocities. Our officials are at pains to point out that these acts of barbarism are unIslamic and they have had significant success in arresting various people on their way to Syria to join IS.

Sermons are written to impress on us that we should not participate in this violence because of the very real fear that some people may get such a taste for it over there that they may want to do the same back home.

But we seem to be missing something here. Nobody needs to actually go to the Middle East in order to become barbaric.

Here at home we have moved one step closer to becoming very IS-like already. Regardless of whether we can actually implement any of these measures – amputations, floggings, stoning – the mentality is already implanted. All in the most official and “democratic” way too.

If anyone has the temerity to protest any of it, why, out come the daggers!

Thousands of fingers eagerly tap their keyboards to issue death or rape threats to anyone who has the courage to point out that the “laws” we want so much to implement should be the least of our priorities.

How can we have laws that require amputations for thieves when so many are in poverty? Why do we want to punish people in unQuranic ways?

If IS does not exist in physical form in our country, it sure exists in the heads and fingers of so many of our people.

Despite being followers of a religion that does not allow killing or any kind of injustice towards our fellow humankind, they think they are doing their “religious” duty by doing exactly the opposite. Baying like a pack of hounds for blood, the mob descends on anyone who speaks out, especially if they are female and Muslim.

To them, to think differently and to actually voice concerns is to de­­viate from the programme. We have to be like them, programmed to be obedient. And bloodthirsty.

If our authorities cannot see the connection between these acts of aggression towards those with different opinions and their futile attempts to stop people from joining IS, then they are either unintelligent or purposely blind. If IS is the nadir of a civilised society, then we are heading there, make no mistake.

Where are the voices to condemn IS? Instead we have so much illogical and ignorant thinking that one wonders if we should preserve those brains to be studied somewhere in the future when we hopefully regain our sanity.

One person says we should look to Nigeria for the “successful” implementation of hudud. I suppose that’s why Nigeria is such a successful country that their citizens are all over the world trying to make money.

Another person suggests that we must be on the right track because we are neither IS nor “liberal” so we must be nicely middling and moderate.

Sermons blare this warped definition of moderate every Friday. If you’re not with us, you’re either a liberal or an IS bandit. I would rather be a liberal who cares when people receive death threats than a “moderate” who keeps silent when citizens are faced with such violence. A truly moderate government protects its citizens from violence, rather than encouraging it by saying nothing.

I would like to ask our Prime Minister one question: are some of us Malaysians worth less to him than others? If so, may we know which ones and why? Should the “worthless” ones wear stars on their foreheads so that everyone knows who they are and can do what they want to them? If this differentiation is legal in the law, will our law enforcement officers stand by mute when something bad happens?

I fear for my country. We have so many good people in this land; kind, courteous and compassionate people. Unfortunately we have poor leaders, self-serving ones who care for nothing except for power, and who care for no one except themselves. I wonder how long before the mob realises that their so-called “heroes” don’t care about them either.

Meanwhile, all they’ve succeeded in doing is to divide people with hate. Lovely.

12 March 2015

We don’t want you to just love us, we also want you to respect us as equals.

ON International Women’s Day this year, some Afghan men did an extraordinary thing. They paraded in Kabul wearing the burqa to draw attention to the issue of women’s rights in their country, or rather the lack of women’s rights.

In most countries, events on International Women’s Day are mostly by women and for women. Rarely do men ever do something to show that they too are concerned about the violation of women’s rights.

When men do, they are often ham-fisted about it. Last year, I was on a panel with two other prominent women, talking about issues affecting women at work, when an earnest young man stood up to ask how a wife can support her husband in his work.

This was a fine example of male tone deafness and the inability to understand the milieu he was in and therefore the clanging awkwardness of that question. I have also been at women’s forums where men get up to declare how much they love women and manage to sound condescending and creepy at the same time. We don’t want you to just love us, we also want you to respect us as equals.

Men can also be blindsided by the dazzle of a few women. When there is an outstanding woman whom men respect, they tend to think that these women are exceptions. To them, it is not normal for women to be so good at what they think of as men’s jobs, so these women are not the rule but the exceptions that prove it.

I have seen men become totally dumbfounded when asked to name expert women in a particular field apart from the one they see in the papers all the time. They assume that no others exist. A little research, with the assistance of their female assistants, would have unearthed many.

In some cases, men think they are doing women a favour by “defending” them in very masculine ways. In India, a mob attacked a jail where a suspected rapist was being held, stripped him naked and then beat him to death.

What difference does this actually make to the female victim, who would still be shunned by society, and to other women who still face the same dangers every day? This murderous act was done more to avenge the honour of the men to whom the woman “belonged”, rather than in defence of the woman herself.

And interestingly enough, when I posted an article about the Delhi rapist blaming his victim for her own death, among the many violent reactions from men was one calling him a derogatory female epithet. The highest insult to a man is to call him a woman because we are still lesser beings.

In our own country, we can hardly find any man who would stand up publicly in support of women’s rights. Instead we have men who can find a myriad of justifications why women get raped, beaten, summarily divorced, denied positions of leadership and so on.

When women call them out on it, they retreat and then deny what they said or wrote. But how many men, from the same community, told him off? Did their silence mean they agreed with him?

There are many men out there who do not believe that women deserve to have such horrific treatment meted out on them. These men are well aware that women gave birth to them and cared for them until adulthood and that they have sisters and wives whom they would never wish such violence on.

But at the same time they are cowed by the culture of macho-ness where to talk about women’s rights is to be a traitor to their sex. Where sometimes even their own sexuality can become suspect, just because they defend women. That such a culture can be also oppressive to them is something they are oblivious to. Why should any man be vilified just for being a decent human being?

When we teach young boys that violence towards those they perceive as weaker than them is all right, then we should also prepare them to live in a world where there will be nothing except violence all the time.

They will have to spend their time always having to fight either someone weaker or someone stronger than them. Why would we want to subject our sons to this? Won’t they ever get sick of it?

Gender inequality may seem like fair sport to some but studies have proven that it does nothing except drag a whole society down to its most primitive levels. Gender equality, exemplified by less violence against women, benefits both sexes and allows a country to progress.

Perhaps we should ask the misogynists whether what they really want is a society with only men?

26 February 2015

The root of all sorts of societal problems, including religious radicalism and violence, is in the schools.

IN the end it all boils down to the same thing: education. I was reading an international newspaper and two articles struck me because of their similarities. One was a story about the French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Vallaud-Belkacem is the first woman to be made Education Minister in France. More remarkably, she is both a Moroccan immigrant and Muslim.

Vallaud-Belkacem has been put in charge of educating young French people about the dangers of radicalism, the type of so-called religious fervour that led to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. She believes that schools have a big role to play in this. And indeed she is living proof.

The minister was born in Morocco but went to France with her mother and older sister to join her construction worker father. There, her five younger siblings were born and the entire family lived in poverty in a small northern city. Vallaud-Belkacem credits the French education system with giving her the opportunities she has had, and which allowed her to enter politics and eventually be where she is now.

But she also understands that it is the poor education that most immigrant youth, especially Muslim youth, receive that drives them to become radicalised and to want to take up arms against their perceived enemies, both at home in France and abroad.

These youth are poorly educated because of discrimination. At the same time, that poor education sets them up for even more discrimination, especially in the job market. This creates frustration and anger and makes them vulnerable to the sort of easy answers that radical preachers may provide.

The other story was about Nigeria where stereotypes about the Muslim North and the Christian South abound. The author of the article, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Christian, recalled that when she was growing up, there were special boarding schools that were set up to help the different Nigerian communities understand one another. These schools offered a high quality education and had quotas for the different communities so that they had a diverse mix of students.

However, there was a persistent problem of poor education in the north of the country. The quota system ensured that many northerners got jobs but often without the same level of education as the southerners.

That same low quality education meant that the northerners also did not value education for their own people, leading to a constant downward spiral of frustration due to the lack of opportunities despite the richness of resources in the region. This thus created conflict with southerners who were more educated and thus could avail themselves of better opportunities.

Needless to say, the north is also the home of Boko Haram, a violent group that has a particular distaste for education, particularly Western-style education. The exploits of Boko Haram are now well known and suffice to say that only uneducated people would think nothing of sending out eight-year-old girls as suicide bombers.

The point of these two stories is clear: the root of all sorts of societal problems, including religious radicalism and violence, is education. More specifically, the type of education we provide our children will predict what they will do in the future. Poor quality education, that does not prepare our children for a competitive global market, will be the root of all sorts of trouble, including the kind where a 14-year-old girl thinks it’s exciting to go to Syria to marry a gun-toting stranger she met on Facebook.

We are seeing now the beginnings of the true results of our messed-up education system. Our young people are unable to think beyond what is immediate and exciting. They actually believe that you can get to heaven by killing people for reasons they are unable to articulate. These are not illiterate people but are certainly not educated in the broadest sense of the word.

On social media we find many people who are unable to reason things out, or to accept different points of view. They are absolutely certain they are right, mostly because people they see as authoritative have convinced them that authority is always correct, even when those in authority tell them to do things that are patently wrong, such as to discriminate against or kill those different from them. Not all human beings are equal, is a mantra they are hearing every day.

“All men are not equal”, by the way, was the chilling ideology I happened to read at the site of the former headquarters of the SS, the Nazi stormtroopers, in Berlin recently. And the propaganda the SS used had an uneasy familiarity to it.

And what is propaganda after all but another form of public education?

12 February 2015

The moderate person knows that you don’t need to comment about every single thing just because you cannot be an expert in everything.

OF late, there’s been a lot of talk about how moderate Malaysians need to rise and speak up against the extremists in our country. While this is certainly a much-needed call, we find that definitions tend to get in the way.

For example, everyone denies being an extremist and claims to be moderate. It seems that in this country, as long as you don’t pick up a gun and go and shoot someone, you’re not an extremist.

Those who certainly spout violent and hate-filled language are not yet defined as extremist even though their talk may spur some followers to do the worst imaginable one day. After all, if they can make the effort to go join a band of brigands who have no qualms about chopping off heads and burning people alive, why wouldn’t they be as motivated at home?

If everyone is now claiming to be moderate, there is a need to further define what would be the true characteristics of such a person. There are indeed differences between true moderates and those merely pretending to be one.

For one thing, a true moderate respects another person’s point of view even when those views are patently abhorrent. For a moderate, freedom of speech and expression is a very important value.

A non-moderate however can barely tolerate any viewpoint that is contrary to theirs and would rather they were not allowed to speak at all. If they had to engage with another group, it would only be to convince the others that they are wrong and must immediately convert to the non-moderate perspective. No middle ground there.

Secondly, the non-moderate believes that there needs to be a law for everything. Without punitive measures, they believe that people will simply all go wild and do all sorts of crazy things. For example, according to them, people cannot be trusted to not walk the streets naked if there was no law against it.

True moderates on the other hand trust that an average human being in our country has quite a bit of common sense and will not simply be anti-social just because they can. Malaysians, like most Asians, do care what people think of them and that acts as a major deterrent to any sort of bizarre behaviour. For example, gathering a large group to go and shake posteriors in front of someone’s house cannot, by any measure, be considered a common sense act and, therefore, anyone who does that cannot rightly be called moderate.

Moderates tend to speak in a careful way. Every word is considered well before spoken or written and tends not to be overblown or exaggerated because that would be immodest and therefore immoderate.

On the other hand, a non-moderate person tends to shoot his mouth off, verbally and in writing, refuse to apologise, organises people to show support with unoriginal slogans and then sits back while his boss gives a lame excuse for his bad behaviour. It stands to reason that many non-moderates are a bit lacking in the integrity department.

It might be fair to say that maturity is also a hallmark of the moderate person. The moderate person knows that you don’t need to comment about every single thing just because you cannot be an expert in everything. You especially cannot spend all your time making police reports about everything other people say and do, not least because this may give the impression that you have plenty of time on your hands and have no need to earn a living like other people.

The non-moderate, however, thinks nothing of filing multiple police reports in a single day on anything that comes to mind that they can spin as insulting to themselves. In this way they keep our already harried police force busy trying to work out what precisely their complaints are and not out chasing all manner of crooks, including those stealing public money.

In fact, perhaps we can define extremists as those who spend their time wasting taxpayers’ money by making all sorts of facetious police reports, especially those that are not actually crimes. And we should also ask why they have the luxury of spending all day at police stations, sometimes wearing outrageous costumes, without the need to have any sort of job. How DO they pay for their daily nasi lemak?

There may be other ways to differentiate the true moderate from the false one. There aren’t, for example, many publicity hounds who can convince anyone they are actually moderate in their views. They understand very well that extreme views make for good TV. So virtually anyone you see too often in the mainstream media is probably suspect.

Meanwhile, the rest of Malaysia is trying to get by on their increasingly less moderate incomes.

30 January 2015

The idea is that young children will become used to diversity naturally and hopefully grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

FOR three consecutive years I’ve been invited to speak to a group of Norwegian students visiting Malaysia about the work that my colleagues and I do on Muslim women’s rights.

These students are learning about different faiths in order to be better able to teach comparative religion back home in Norway.

Instead of merely learning about all these religions in theory, every year, their university organises a trip for them to visit various South-East Asian countries to observe first-hand how these religions are lived and practised.

In Norway, every child learns about comparative religion from the age of six with the idea that they will grow up understanding the diversity of faiths and beliefs in their society and the world today, and respecting all the faiths equally.

The books they use are vetted and approved by the respective religious authorities, so, for example, the Norwegian Islamic authorities approve the books on Islam.

The students who came to listen to me will eventually become the teachers of those Norwegian school kids.

Lest anyone think they only get to listen to “liberals” like me, they also meet and talk to all sorts of people with knowledge on the religious landscape in our country, including in our universities.

This is to ensure that they get a balanced picture of things in Malaysia.

I was really impressed by this approach by the Norwegian government to address potential issues in a rapidly diversifying society.

Obviously, one of the ways to avoid conflict in society is by ensuring that everybody understands each other.

Including comparative religion in their school curriculum from the earliest years means that young children will become used to religious and cultural diversity naturally and hopefully will grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

In a study comparing the English and Norwegian comparative religious curriculums and how schoolchildren reacted to them, most of the students viewed the classes positively, with one student saying, “It is important to understand religions in order to understand humans, sort of improving our social intelligence a little.”

It is interesting that Norway, with a population of under six million people, 82% of whom are Lutheran Christian, is so concerned about the possible conflict that ethnic and religious diversity might cause that from 1997 the country decided to educate people on other religions.

Undoubtedly, the concern was well-founded when in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-confessed fascist and hater of multi-culturalism, murdered 77 people, blaming Norway for allowing immigrants into the country.

Norway, too, is home to many right-wing groups claiming white supremacy and that Muslims are taking over Norway, despite being all of 3.6% of the population.

Perhaps it is in the nature of supremacist groups everywhere to make up stories about threats to their people without the need for supporting evidence.

Still, the policy of educating children about religions other than their own is a step in the right direction.

And bringing students to countries where those other religions are the faith of the majority helps to humanise those faiths, and prevents the stereotyping that extremists like to do.

It’s too bad that if anyone were to raise the issue of including comparative religion lessons in our schools, our own religious supremacists would undoubtedly go ballistic, claiming that this was a plot by a Muslim-majority government to Christianise their people, as ironic as that may sound.

Obviously, supremacists all work from the same manual.

There is no evidence that learning about different religions in school, with each (including atheism by the way) given equal weight, has led to the conversions of anyone to another religion.

It does, however, based on my experience with these Norwegian students, lead to far more intelligent questions than from those of my own faith.

Meanwhile, few people here in Malaysia are coming up with any bright ideas on how to reduce the polarisation that everyone acknowledges is a growing problem in our society.

The best that anyone can come up with is putting everyone in the same school, which would be a good solution if the standard of education in those schools was higher (as measured globally) and if everyone was taught to respect differences.

But the way they are now, even many Muslims do not want to send their children there if they can afford it.

Our children live in a multi-religious society where they won’t be able to avoid noticing that different people worship differently.

If they ask questions of adults around them, do we take our inability to answer as a personal affront or as an opportunity to learn?

The former is the arrogant way while the latter is more humble.

Which should we choose if we genuinely want peace and harmony?