Juan L. Mercado

Old issues, new eruption

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 “Mad is he?” King George II once snarled about one of his aides. “Then, I hope he’ll bite some of my generals.” It would also be daft if any official here tried to confiscate Korans from Filipino Muslims. Both law and practice buttress liberty of faith.

 

The exact opposite unreels in Malaysia. The Islamic Religious Department (Jais) confiscated 300 bibles in Selangor State. In late 2009, it impounded 15,100 bibles printed in Indonesia—where eight out of 10 are Muslims.

Why? “Because they used ‘Allah’ referring to God,” BBC reported. Two Bible Society officials were briefly detained. “We were investigated for breaking a state law banning non-Muslims from using the word Allah,” said the chair.

This is a new eruption of an old storm. At its vortex is Catholic weekly Herald editor Fr. Lawrence Andrew. He said Christians in Malaysia and other parts of the world used

“Allah” in their prayer. The Federal Constitution did not ban such practice.

Indeed, Bahasa-speaking Christians used “Allah” long before the formation of Malaysia in 1965. Kuala Lumpur then splintered from  Singapore, over political and religious issues.

Jais insists the Selangor Non-Islamic Religions Enactment of 1988 prohibits non-Muslims from using 35 Arabic words. These include: “Allah,” “nabi” (prophet), “injil” (gospel) and “Insha’Allah” (God willing). The gag applies to Sikh, Hindu and atheist.

Article 11(3) of the The Federal Constitution does not permit an enforcement agency of one religion to have jurisdiction or purview over religions, the Malaysian Bar said Saturday. “Appalling,” snapped Jagir Singh of the Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism. Sabah and Sarawak churches, where Christians constitute a majority, protested.

Critics “accuse government of tacitly condoning bible seizures to deflect anger against Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government,” BBC reported. “Poor Malay Muslims are angry over subsidy cuts likely to force up electricity, petrol and sugar prices.”

Najib’s coalition barely squeaked through last May’s elections. “It was the coalition’s worst result in more than half a century in power. The United Malays National Organization underpins Najib’s brittle coalition.

Has “religious intolerance gone intolerable” in Malaysia? Not on paper. “Islam is the religion of the federation, but other religions may be practiced in peace,” Malaysia’s constitution says. Kuala Lumpur signed on to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 undergirds the “freedom of an individual or community, in public or private, to manifest belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Malaysia has one of the world’s strictest forms of media censorship. That is the reality. Government, for example, censored BBC’s and Al Jazeera’s reports on rallies. Nearly a hundred moves have been banned in the past decade.

 

All newspapers need an official yearly permit to print. The licensing system allows padlocking at will and pressures publishers to toe the line. The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh, and two weeklies, The Sunday Star and Watan, were closed down for several months. The Star was the primary English newspaper that provided news in the opposition’s point of view. This was considered “treason.”

A July 2013 report to the Malaysian Parliament tallied 6,640 websites blocked since 2008. Excuse: “The websites insulted Islam, the royalty, contained pornography or malicious content, or infringed copyrights.”

In one year alone, 56 books were banned by the Internal Security Ministry. That included a Bahasa translation of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” Works by Czech author Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, even Khalil Gibran, have been proscribed.

Until recently, the Internet, however remained unfettered. Not anymore. In August 2012, or specifically on Aug. 14, 2012, Malaysia Internet Blackout Day occurred. This series of coordinated protests was directed against a proposed amendment to Malaysia’s draconian Evidence Act.

The amendment of Section 114A “makes individuals and those who administer, operate or provide spaces for online community forums, blogging, and hosting services, liable for content published through its services.”

This presumption of guilt goes against a fundamental principle of justice: innocent until proven guilty. It would  hold publishers of websites accountable for seditious or defamatory postings even if they are not the actual authors.

The 17th UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva  grilled Malaysia in its  “Universal Periodic Review,” the second for Malaysia since 2009. Austria and others prodded Kuala Lumpur to allow the freedom to practice, even change, religions.

Keep your pledge to abolish the 1948 Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, the United States urged Prime Minister Razak. These laws leash media through permits.

“The fear is Muslims will start practicing Christianity if both groups refer to God by the same name,” Waleed Aly wrote. Do Malaysian Muslims need a form of protection from their own ignorance?

“Young, educated, urban Malays in particular, are deserting this brand of politics in droves. They’re becoming increasingly skeptical of their own privileged status. Upwardly mobile, they are unlikely to be swayed by a Mecca-oriented compass.”

Not the “old guard Malays. They confront the fact that the privileged position they’ve held for the first 50 years of Malaysian independence won’t hold for the next 50. Now they’re lashing out, as if trying to resist the death throes of their own supremacy.”

Did Waleed Aly write that in Malaysia? Of course, that would never see print there. But the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia published it.

 

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