31 July 2006

Wednesday July 26, 2006

Shift in focus needed


I RECENTLY visited my favourite museum in Istanbul. The Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) was built in 537 AD as the most magnificent of churches by Emperor Justinian, filled with beautiful mosaics of Christian saints. When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque.

At first the Turks preserved the mosaics and frescoes but in the 16th Century they plastered over the figures since Islam forbids human representations.

In 1935 the Ayasofya was turned into a museum and today it is remarkable not only architecturally but also because it is one of the few places where you can see Islamic symbols of worship alongside Christian ones. Our guide was proud to point out that the Ottoman sultans never destroyed the Christian artwork in the Ayasofya, recognising them as part of the heritage of their people. Restoration work is ongoing on the entire museum including the frescoes.

I realised that the respect and magnamity of the Ottoman sultans all those years ago must have been because they were absolutely secure in their faith. There was no need to destroy another religion’s place of worship, especially one so beautiful, when they had absolute confidence in their own faith and when they knew they would go on to build other beautiful buildings such as the Suleimaniye and the Blue Mosques. Such was the thinking of more than 500 years ago.

I wish people today felt as secure in themselves and their own faiths, and not see threats under every rock. It seems that if we so much as mixed with people of other faiths, or looked at icons of others, we are very likely to lose ours.

How weak we are, and how powerful we allow others to be! Therefore we need to be always penned in, protected by the most rigid of barriers. I read in wonder that according to some people, 100,000 Muslims have apostasized. How does one ever verify this number when if even one person seeks to change their religion, they will not be allowed to? It is a system guaranteed to ensure that we can never verify such numbers.

Why not focus on the more easily verifiable number, those who convert into the religion since these are very welcomingly registered?

It is a bit surprising that the very guardians of our faith are those raising alarms about the people we have “lost”. Does this mean they have not been doing their jobs? If they were CEOs of companies, this would constitute a loss and they would likely be fired. I get the feeling sometimes that we do know we are doing things wrongly, that instead of attracting people with a religion that promotes justice, equality, compassion and freedom, we are bludgeoning people with one that is joyless, uncaring, rigid and restrictive.

But for some reason, we are unable to return it to its true form because some people think that this dour interpretation is all there is. I have to wonder how a God that created so much beauty, wonder and joy in the world could be represented by such gloom.

So our insecurity leads us to keep the gates of the pen shut as tightly as possible, even as some of our people strain to get out. Yet in the Quran, God says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth has been made clear from error. Whoever rejects false worship and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.” (Surah al-Baqarah: 256)

And more: “If it had been your Lord’s will, all of the people on Earth would have believed. Would you then compel the people so to have them believe?” (Surah Yunus: 99)

The supreme irony of it all is that there have been those who have cast aspersions on the faith of the Muslims who defend the right of people to not believe. Yet if those same human rights defenders were to say, “Okay then, since you doubt my faith, don’t count me in this club”, the same accusers would refuse to let them be anything but Muslims. So the message is clear: it’s quantity, not quality. No matter how nominal or even unbelieving, let’s just keep everyone with the same label in the pen.

“So if they dispute with you, say I have submitted my whole self to Allah, and so have those who follow me. And say to the People of the Scripture and to the unlearned: Do you also submit yourselves? If they do, then they are on right guidance. But if they turn away, your duty is only to convey the Message. And in Allah’s sight are all of His servants.” (Surah Al Imran: 20)

17 July 2006

Wednesday July 12, 2006

Double standards


SOMETIMES I think some people are right when saying that Malaysians are easily confused. We perpetually contradict ourselves without even being aware of it.

One of the concepts we are almost always confused about is the concept of freedom of speech. There are some people who don’t believe that anyone should have any freedom of speech but at least we know exactly where they stand. Then there’re the people who do believe in being free to say what you want and we know where they stand too. But then there’s that confused section whose general stand is “only people who agree with us should have the freedom to speak; everyone else should be made to shut up”.

Some time ago a group of people complained about how the media shut them out from a particular debate. Rightly, they complained about censorship and I side with them completely on that. But then they went on to say that the media really should not publish irritating columns by people such as me. Now which is it; freedom of speech or censorship? You can only have one, not both. If you want space for your views, then you must also allow views by people who don’t agree with you. That’s called democracy.

I saw that again recently in a letter to the editor which complained about not being allowed to have peaceful protests. I was rah-rahing the letter-writer until I came to the end when he said that the media should really shut down or censure the opinions of certain personalities. Again, which does he want?

I don’t know whether it is just cultural or a result of our force-down-your–throat education system but we have great difficulty entertaining the idea that people with diverse opinions should have equal space with us. We hide behind the amorphous concept of “sensitiveness” to ensure that contrary opinions don’t collide with each other. Either one takes the politically correct view or not at all.

But what if the politically correct view isn’t the right one, or at the very least needs refining? How does that happen if no other opinion is allowed to see the light of day?

That’s when the secret weapon comes out. Their opinion is divinely sanctioned. Therefore contrary opinions must surely be divinely forbidden. How anyone knows this with such certainty is a mystery. Surely they aren’t suggesting they are the Voice of God?

The plurality of voices has existed since the beginning of time. Over thousands of years, people find a way to talk to one another, to discuss and come to some consensus. Sometimes a lot of blood is shed to achieve this but surely we have come a long way since then?

There are some people who claim that having freedom of speech (or freedom of anything) means allowing the profane, the immoral and the hateful. But in most countries, there is some form of law that disallows such speech. In Germany you cannot say anything to glorify the Nazis. In Britain freedom of speech is limited by laws against “hate speech”, ie words that cause one group of people to hate another. In Malaysia supposedly we should be sensitive to the feelings of our different communities and not say anything to offend them. (Except maybe in Parliament?)

But I get the impression that such sensitivity only goes one way. People are exhorted not to hurt the feelings of one particular group, while some members of that group blithely say insulting things about others with no conscience at all. They talk as if the slightest contact with these others would taint their own people. Is this not hurtful? Yet these are the same people who complain about not being allowed to speak if anyone protests against them. Freedom to say vile things about others? I’m not sure about that.

There is always talk that rights and freedom should always be tempered with responsibility. Well I completely agree. But let’s walk the talk, shall we? I wonder if some of the things said by public figures in this country are responsible, especially when they claim divine authority? I see people defending them solely on the basis that they are holding taxpayer-paid posts. Claims are made that they are correct with no specific examples given (for example, there are those who claim that there are ungodly activities that go on at kongsi Raya events but without ever specifying what). How responsible is that?

When we allow freedom of speech that is fair to all, as well as hold people to high standards of evidence and truthfulness, then we will clear confusion. While our stand on this remains wobbly, then it’s no wonder that people think double standards is the norm.

03 July 2006

Wednesday June 28, 2006
True meaning of pluralism
If there’s one thing that can be said about globalisation, it’s that sometimes you wonder where you are. You look out your window, whether you’re in KL, New York or Manila and you see McDonald’s and for a minute there, you’re not sure what country you’re in.
I was just reading about my fellow women writers around the world and came across one who would make Attila the Hun look like a lamb. Ann Coulter is a conservative writer with a capital C.
On Sept 12, 2001, she responded to the World Trade Centre attack by saying, “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” She told a Vietnam War veteran that “people like you caused us to lose that war”.
In 2001, she said, “women should be armed but should not be allowed to vote.” Or what about this: “I have to say I’m all for public flogging. One type of criminal that a public humiliation might work particularly well with are the juvenile delinquents, a lot of whom consider it a badge of honor to be sent to juvenile detention. And it might not be such a cool thing in the ‘hood to be flogged publicly.”
And in case we don’t know where her political sentiments lie: “The thing I like about Bush is I think he hates liberals.” Most recently she called 9/11 widows “witches” just because they want to know what happened.
In case anyone thinks she’s just joking, I met a reporter who actually interviewed her and she told him that what gives liberals chills is that she actually means everything she says. And he believes her.
Now what gave me that feeling of not knowing where I am is when I open our own newspapers and read about people warning about the dangers of liberalism and pluralism.
Oh my, Ann Coulter on my own doorstep! They should get together, the blonde with a penchant for high slit dresses and the guys in long gowns. So much in common to talk about!
I looked up pluralism and this is what it is defined as: “Pluralism is, in the general sense, the affirmation and acceptance of diversity. The concept is used, often in different ways, in a wide range of issues. In politics, the affirmation of diversity in the interests and beliefs of the citizenry, is one of the most important features of modern democracy”.
Religious pluralism is somewhat trickier. Islam, like most other monotheistic faiths, views itself as the only true path for following the will of God and going to Paradise. But the Quran also accepts diversity of religions as created by God:
“For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way, and if Allah had pleased He would have made you (all) a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you, therefore strive with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; to Allah is your return, of all (of you), so He will let you know that in which you differed”. (Surah 5, verse 48).
So it’s a bit difficult to be Ann Coulter if you’re a faithful Muslim. What more if you live in a pluralistic multicultural multi-religious country like ours.
Liberalism is also another of Ann Coulter’s targets, which puts her exactly in the same camp as some people here.
According to my encyclopaedia, “Liberalism is an ideology, philosophy, and political tradition that holds liberty as the primary political value. Broadly speaking, liberalism seeks a society characterized by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on power, especially of government and religion, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy that supports relatively free private enterprise, and a transparent system of government in which the rights of minorities are guaranteed. In modern society, liberals favour a liberal democracy with open and fair elections, where all citizens have equal rights by law and an equal opportunity to succeed.”
I can’t argue with that really, although there are people who claim that liberalism is the freedom to wear bikinis in Parliament. Which goes to show how shallow some people are. The only problem with liberalism is that people who are liberal tend to be very liberal with the people who aren’t and who are certainly not grateful for that courtesy in any case.
Imagine an international convention of the Illiberals and the Anti-Pluralists. Just think who would be there. President Bush would deliver the keynote opening address titled “There is No Room for Pluralism: Everyone Should be the Same.” Some of our guys could speak on “Liberalism: The Devil’s Way – Forget about Caring for Other People”. There would be workshops where different fundamentalists can compare notes.
In one room photographs of prominent liberals would be pinned up so that delegates can throw mud at them. Everyone would be united in their common hatred.
Guess that’s what globalisation means.