Archive for the ‘Selections’ Category

Hang Tuah Sucks: Whe We Need to Deconstruct Our Flawed Heroes

Friday, January 5th, 2007

Hang Tuah Sucks: Why We Need to Deconstruct Our Flawed Heroes

Farish Nooor

 

Betuahnya negara yang tidak ber-Tuah.

 

There are times when our folk heroes need to be brought down a peg or two, particularly when they have overstepped the frontier of ideological correctness.  I have always nursed a vendetta against Hang Tuah, that beloved ‘budak Raja’ so adored by amok-prone keris-waving nationalists and humbug patriots who can never chant the slogan ‘Tak kan Melayu hilang di dunia’ too many times.  But of late the cult of Tuah and his keris antics have become too staid, too repetitive, too predictable for this academic; and so the time has come to take off the gloves and give the fella a good whuppin’.

Who hasn’t heard of Tuah and his gang?  The trials and tribulations of our national hero have become part and parcel of our nation-building process, and since childhood we have been reminded time and again of his blood-soaked exploits and his valiant efforts to keep the status quo intact.  Tuah was always an instrument of regime maintenance at best, and at worse comes under the category of Preman-mercenary types who, like the ever-so-loyal English yeoman, was cast as the salt of the earth.  In case any of us are still doubting, the opening lines of the Hikayat Hang Tuah (which, admittedly is a classic in its own right and a sample of authentic Malay literature) announces his entry thus:

Inilah Hikayat Hang Tuah yang amat setiawan pada tuan-nya dan terlalu sangat berbuat kebaktian kepada tuan-nya.

Terlalu sangat berbuat kebaktian kepada tuan-nya’ is an apt way of putting it.  Others might argue that it is an understatement.  The bottom line is that Tuah was and is blind loyalty and deference personified.  In the Hikayat he performs many deeds that are calculated to please his master, the Raja of Melaka, and more importantly, to uphold the presiding order of things.  Tuah’s fatal stabbing of Hang Jebat has been cited as the example par excellence of loyalty to the state superseding loyalty to his friend:  And by doing so anticipating the Hegelian dialectical conflict of state ethics versus the ethics of filial and familial relations.

For continued reading please go to:  http://www.othermalaysia.org/content/view/60/52/

Pity the Poor Keris

Friday, December 1st, 2006

Pity the Poor Keris: How a Universal Symbol became a tool for Racial Politics

By Farish A. Noor

“Elle est belle, elle est tres feminin”. (“She is beautiful. She is so feminine.)

I recall the words of my friend Nadia when I first showed a keris to her, as we sat on the verandah of my friend’s wooden house in the village of Bacok, Kelantan.

The keris, she remarked, was a beautiful object: Graceful, elegant and curiously feminine.  Yet I was not surprised.  This was not the first time I heard the keris described as a feminine object; indeed many of my European friends had uttered similar remarks.  Their observations were not unwarranted.  Even to the seasoned eye of the keris lover, the keris is an object of beauty – and its discreet, unstated charm lay precisely in the fact that it was slender, willowy, almost vulnerable and rendered all the more dignified with the patina of time-worn antiquity.

Yet how odd it is, that today, this most overdetermined symbolic fetish of the peoples of Nusantara has developed an alter-ego totally unkeeping with its past and purpose.  What was once an object of adoration and reverence has now become nothing less than a symbol of ethno-nationalist exclusivism, a totem of aggressive masculinity, and an emblem of a racialised communitarianism.  Pity the poor keris:  An object so noble deserves a better fate than to be sullied by such ignoble purposes.

The feminine Keris: Not a macho symbol.

It is in keeping with many right-wing movements that their members and leaders would be on the lookout for some symbol of power.  That the keris could be politically and ideologically redefined as a symbol of racialised masculine pride is not uncommon, nor unexpected.  Just take a look around us and we will notice that practically all right-wing organisations have adopted some weapon or another to stand for the purported claims of male leaders who wish to make their political will and intent public through some phallic fetish or another.  Right-wing movements (particularly of the militarist variety) have chosen all kinds of weapons to stand in the place of masculine power:  Guns (notably Kalashnikovs), rockets, missiles, swords, axes, hammers, spears, arrows, darts and even knuckle-dusters have festooned the shields and banners of so many right-wing nationalist movements that it would take years to catalogue them all.

The use of the keris as a symbol of male power is thus easily understood, though it begins with the fundamental error of thinking of the keris as solely and primarily a weapon.  We have argued elsewhere that the keris was first and foremost an object of religious devotion and a symbol of religio-cultural identity.(1)  Its origins date back to the Hindu-Buddhist era of Southeast Asia when the peoples of the region had other weapons to chose from.  Indeed, there exists little historical evidence that the keris was ever used in warfare.(2)  The peoples of Nusantara had other weapons to chose from when it came to butchering each other, from swords and axes to machetes and spears.  Later on by the late 18th century with the arrival of new weapons technology from India, the Arabs and Europeans, Southeast Asians adopted the use of muskets and then guns and cannons.

The keris was primarily a ceremonial object and its production was initially kept to select elite of Brahmin-craftsmen whose knowledge of metalwork and keris-making were closely guarded secrets.  It was never meant to be a popular item for the masses, but rather a religio-cultural totem of identity and belief; which is why there were so many esoteric rites and rituals that guarded the sacred world of this fetish.

One of the esoteric aspects of keris-lore was its intimate link to the philosophy and praxis of Tantrism, an ancient pre-vedantic system of beliefs and cosmology that pre-dated the vedantic-Aryan teachings that would later develop and be known as Hinduism.  Tantraism is today regarded as one of the earliest world religions and philosophies, and for feminists in particular is particularly highly regarded for its view of Woman as the centre of creation.  It would not be possible to delve too deeply into the Tantric influences on the keris in an article like this, suffice to say that the tantric aspects of the keris and keris-lore can be seen in the symbolism contained in it.

The keris, it has to be remembered, is a composite object:  It consists of the blade (mata keris) as well as the sheath (sarong keris); and in the symbolic coupling of the two (the keris inserted into the sheath or sarong) we see the symbolic enactment of the sexual act of copulation or intercourse.  Here the upright keris assumes its phallic identity as the penetrating element (linggam), while the sheath assumes the status of penetrated object (yoni).  But a tantric reading of this would reverse the order of interpretation by arguing that the masculine power of the keris blade is being enveloped and thus contained within the sacred feminine space of the sheath; thereby bringing about equilibrium and order, when the feminine encapsulates, embodies and contains the masculine.  Ultimately, therefore, harmony in the universe is achieved when the expansive (and potentially destructive) power of the masculine is domesticated and tamed by the feminine.  (Dedicated lovers of femdom would understand what I mean by this, but let me not digress.)

The composite keris (that is, the blade and the sheath assembled together) is thus a feminine object in the way that the feminine aspect is evident while the masculine is hidden.  This is how the keris is traditionally meant to be seen and presented:  Always in its sheath and never unsheathed in public.  Once, while interviewing a wizened old keris lover in Java, I was told that “the true lover of the keris will always keep his keris in the sheath. He never leaves it unsheathed, or displays the blade in public”.  Why, I asked the Obi-Wan of kerisdom. “Because only an uncultured brute (orang yang kasar) would do that. Would you ask your daughter to walk around naked in public, for all to see? If you love your keris, you would dress it up, keep it covered. That is why the sheath is called the sarong keris. Like a sarong, it has to be worn, to keep the keris decent, to respect its dignity. Itu baru yang sopan Mas Farish, hanya goblok kasar yang telanjangkan kerisnya…”

For cultured Southeast Asians in the past such as the Javanese, the art of wearing the keris was as important as the keris itself.

To unsheath the keris was an affront to society, the keris and the keris-owner.  It was an expression of crude, brutish masculinity that bordered on the uncivilised and bestial.  Yet tell that today to those demagogues who brandish the keris in public as soon as a camera is pointed at them.  By taking the keris out of the sheath and separating it from its feminine counterpart, the sarong, they have rendered the feminine secondary.  Here lies the symbolic machismo of the act, and in this singular gesture a feminine object of reverence and beauty has been transformed into a masculine symbol of power, aggression and violence.  This marks the first epistemic violation of the keris, though sadly there are many more.

The universal keris: Not a racial symbol.

The first epistemic violation of the keris lay in the transgression of its gendered meaning, from a feminine object to a masculine one.  The second violation occurred when it was transformed from a universal object to a particular one, turning it into a symbol of exclusive racial-ethnic identity.

Today the keris is seen by some as a symbol of exclusive Malay power and identity.  Set in the context of Malaysia where racialised politics has become normalised, the keris is now made to stand at the cultural frontier that separates the Malays from other ‘races.’  But honestly, was there ever a time when the keris was an exclusively Malay symbol?

As stated earlier, the origins of the Nusantara keris dates back to the Hindu-Buddhist era when the peoples of the region were Hindu-Buddhists themselves.  Thus from the outset the keris carries with it traces of Southeast Asia’s close connection to India and the Indian subcontinent, making it a pan-Asian object devoid of a singular homeland or origin.  It is, in fact, a transcultural object that crosses a number of cultural and geographical frontiers.

Furthermore the keris also bears traces of Tantric, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and praxis, which is sometimes made evident in the form and style of some of its variants.  And here it is important to note that the keris has never been a homogenous object, but rather a meta-symbol that has many local variants.

Ernest keris-collectors would know that there is a world of difference from the keris of Patani and the keris of Java, and that there exists hundreds of variants of the keris, from the rapier-like keris panjang of North Sumatra and Minangkabau to the sword-like keris sundang of Southern Philippines (Mindanao and Sulu).  Even in the Malay peninsula, there exists many distinct styles of keris, ranging from the Northeastern kerises of Patani, Kelantan and Trengganu to the Sumatran-inspired kerises of the West coast and the Bugis-inspired kerises of Johor.  If the keris was meant to be a symbol of a singular ‘Malay race,’ why the variety of kerises then?

One obvious answer to this is the simple historical fact that prior to the colonial invention of the notion of distinct ‘races’ in Asia, the peoples of the region did not think of themselves in terms of neatly-demarcated and firmly-defined racial blocs.  There was no ‘Malay race’ (or ‘Chinese race’, or ‘Indian race’ for that matter) before the Western colonialists came over and stamped these labels on our heads.  Not a single hikayat (epic) written prior to the 19th century uses the concept of race or even calls the people of the Peninsula the ‘Malay race.’

During this period the variety of kerises reflected the variety of identities among the peoples of the region.  There was such a thing as a Kelantanese keris because there was such a thing as the Kelantanese people; and there was such a thing as a Patani keris because there was such a thing as a Patani people.  But there was no such thing as a ‘Malay keris’ because there was no such thing as a ‘Malay people’: at least, not until our British colonial masters came and labelled us such.

Today it is a painful irony and insult to the keris that this most overdetermined of symbolic objects would be reduced to a marker of a simplified and essentialised racial identity.  The keris was a universal object because it connected the philosophies of Tantrism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam together.  It was a universal object because it connected the various nations and communities of Southeast Asia together.  To reduce this object of multiple complex meanings to such a simple ideological symbol may serve the ends of politics, but it has killed the universal spirit of the keris.

To add insult to injury, the keris has been desacralised by the very same people who have sought to use it for purely political ends.  The complex philosophy of the keris has been compromised by politicians who brandish it in public; and by those demagogues and ideologues who stick it on posters and flags.  How can the keris ever hope to regain its former glory and prestige, after it has been desecrated so?  What hope can there be to revive the universal spirit of the keris, after it has been stuck on placards with slogans like ‘This keris will drink Chinese blood?’  How can the keris maintain its silent dignity when some openly talk about taking out the keris, kissing it, waving it and asking when it will be used?  The recent spectacle of keris-waving and the hysterical outpourings of racial anxiety at the UMNO assembly was just another nail in the coffin of the  abused keris.  From being a feminine object of sacred beauty it has been debased to the level of a phallic symbol for frustrated politicians.  From the symbol of a universal philosophy it has been reduced to a static totem of communitarian politics.

No object in the repertoire of Nusanatara culture has suffered more in the name of politics and power than the keris.  But in the process of the keris’s desacralisation and exploitation, we truly see the extent to which the communities of Nusantara have degenerated themselves.  It is not the keris that has had her dignity compromised, but rather the ethno-nationalists and communitarians among us who have shown that they would stop at nothing to further their exclusive agendas:  Matinya Keris bukan di tangan musuh, matinya Keris di tangan UMNO.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist, historian and human rights activist. He is also a lifetime collector of kerises. Visit his site at www.othermalaysia.org

Endnotes:

(1)  See: Farish A. Noor, ‘From Majapahit to Putrajaya: The Kris as a symptom of civilisational development and decline’. Journal of Southeast Asia Research, 8:3. School of Oriental and African Studies, London. November 2000.

(2)  Many scholars of the keris have cast doubts on the notion that it could have served as a weapon in conventional warfare for a number of reasons:  Firstly, the shortness of the keris blade itself compared to other cutting and stabbing weapons of the time meant that it could not possibly be used offensively in man-to-man combat against an adversary who was not similarly armed.  Secondly the tang of the keris blade (the protruding shaft of the blade that enters the hilt) is often too short and slender to ensure that the blade would not bend or break if it was stabbed.  Thirdly many scholars have also noted that many ceremonial kerises were regarded as sacred objects that should not be defiled by blood or other impure elements, which would necessarily preclude the possibility of it being used against another human being.  Fourthly many ceremonial kerises were also ornately decorated and thus regarded as status and luxury objects, and here again it would be illogical that such objects would be put to use in common warfare.

Dr. Farish Ahmad-Noor (Dr. Badrol Hisham Ahmad-Noor)

Academic Researcher, Centre for Modern Orient Studies (ZMO)

33 Kirchweg, 14129 Berlin, Germany

Pity the Poor Keris: How a Universal Symbol became a tool for Racial Politics

By Farish A. Noor
“Elle est belle, elle est tres feminin”. (“She is beautiful. She is so feminine.)
I recall the words of my friend Nadia when I first showed a keris to her, as we sat on the verandah of my friend’s wooden house in the village of Bacok, Kelantan.
The keris, she remarked, was a beautiful object: Graceful, elegant, and curiously feminine. Yet I was not surprised. This was not the first time I heard the keris described as a feminine object; indeed many of my European friends had uttered similar remarks. Their observations were not unwarranted: Even to the seasoned eye of the keris lover, the keris is an object of beauty – and its discreet, unstated charm lay precisely in the fact that it was slender, willowy, almost vulnerable and rendered all the more dignified with the patina of time-worn antiquity.
Yet how odd it is, that today, this most overdetermined symbolic fetish of the peoples of Nusantara has developed an alter-ego totally unkeeping with its past and purpose. What was once an object of adoration and reverence has now become nothing less than a symbol of ethno-nationalist exclusivism, a totem of aggressive masculinity, and an emblem of a racialised communitarianism. Pity the poor keris: An object so noble deserves a better fate than to be sullied by such ignoble purposes…
The feminine Keris: Not a macho symbol.
It is in keeping with many right-wing movements that their members and leaders would be on the lookout for some symbol of power. That the keris could be politically and ideologically redefined as a symbol of racialised masculine pride is not uncommon nor unexpected. Just take a look around us and we will notice that practically all right-wing organisations have adopted some weapon or another to stand for the purported claims of male leaders who wish to make their political will and intent public through some phallic fetish or another. Right-wing movements (particularly of the militarist variety) have chosen all kinds of weapons to stand in the place of masculine power: Guns (notably Kalashnikovs), rockets, missiles, swords, axes, hammers, spears, arrows, darts and even knuckle-dusters have festooned the shields and banners of so many right-wing nationalist movements that it would take years to catalogue them all.
The use of the keris as a symbol of male power is thus easily understood, though it begins with the fundamental error of thinking of the keris as solely and primarily a weapon. We have argued elsewhere that the keris was first and foremost an object of religious devotion and a symbol of religio-cultural identity.(1) Its origins date back to the Hindu-Buddhist era of Southeast Asia when the peoples of the region had other weapons to chose from. Indeed, there exists little historical evidence that the keris was ever used in warfare.(2) The peoples of Nusantara had other weapons to chose from when it came to butchering each other, from swords and axes to machetes and spears. Later on by the late 18th century with the arrival of new weapons technology from India, the Arabs and Europeans, Southeast Asians adopted the use of muskets and then guns and cannons.
The keris was primarily a ceremonial object and its production was initially kept to select elite of Brahmin-craftsmen whose knowledge of metalwork and keris-making were closely guarded secrets. It was never meant to be a popular item for the masses, but rather a religio-cultural totem of identity and belief; which is why there were so many esoteric rites and rituals that guarded the sacred world of this fetish.
One of the esoteric aspects of keris-lore was its intimate link to the philosophy and praxis of Tantrism, an ancient pre-vedantic system of beliefs and cosmology that pre-dated the vedantic-Aryan teachings that would later develop and be known as Hinduism. Tantraism is today regarded as one of the earliest world religions and philosophies, and for feminists in particular is particularly highly regarded for its view of Woman as the centre of creation. It would not be possible to delve too deeply into the Tantric influences on the keris in an article like this, suffice to say that the tantric aspects of the keris and keris-lore can be seen in the symbolism contained in it.
The keris, it has to be remembered, is a composite object: It consists of the blade (mata keris) as well as the sheath (sarong keris); and in the symbolic coupling of the two (the keris inserted into the sheath or sarong) we see the symbolic enactment of the sexual act of copulation or intercourse. Here the upright keris assumes its phallic identity as the penetrating element (linggam), while the sheath assumes the status of penetrated object (yoni). But a tantric reading of this would reverse the order of interpretation by arguing that the masculine power of the keris blade is being enveloped and thus contained within the sacred feminine space of the sheath; thereby bringing about equilibrium and order, when the feminine encapsulates, embodies and contains the masculine. Ultimately, therefore, harmony in the universe is achieved when the expansive (and potentially destructive) power of the masculine is domesticated and tamed by the feminine. (Dedicated lovers of femdom would understand what I mean by this, but let me not digress…)
The composite keris (that is, the blade and the sheath assembled together) is thus a feminine object in the way that the feminine aspect is evident while the masculine is hidden. This is how the keris is traditionally meant to be seen and presented: Always in its sheath and never unsheathed in public. Once, while interviewing a wizened old keris lover in Java, I was told that “the true lover of the keris will always keep his keris in the sheath. He never leaves it unsheathed, or displays the blade in public”. Why, I asked the Obi-Wan of kerisdom. “Because only an uncultured brute (orang yang kasar) would do that. Would you ask your daughter to walk around naked in public, for all to see? If you love your keris, you would dress it up, keep it covered. That is why the sheath is called the sarong keris. Like a sarong, it has to be worn, to keep the keris decent, to respect its dignity. Itu baru yang sopan Mas Farish, hanya goblok kasar yang telanjangkan kerisnya…”
For cultured Southeast Asians in the past such as the Javanese, the art of wearing the keris was as important as the keris itself.
To unsheath the keris was an affront to society, the keris and the keris-owner. It was an expression of crude, brutish masculinity that bordered on the uncivilised and bestial. Yet tell that today to those demagogues who brandish the keris in public as soon as a camera is pointed at them. By taking the keris out of the sheath and separating it from its feminine counterpart, the sarong, they have rendered the feminine secondary. Here lies the symbolic machismo of the act, and in this singular gesture a feminine object of reverence and beauty has been transformed into a masculine symbol of power, aggression and violence. This marks the first epistemic violation of the keris, though sadly there are many more…
The universal keris: Not a racial symbol.
The first epistemic violation of the keris lay in the transgression of its gendered meaning, from a feminine object to a masculine one. The second violation occurred when it was transformed from a universal object to a particular one, turning it into a symbol of exclusive racial-ethnic identity.
Today the keris is seen by some as a symbol of exclusive Malay power and identity. Set in the context of Malaysia where racialised politics has become normalised, the keris is now made to stand at the cultural frontier that separates the Malays from other ‘races’. But honestly, was there ever a time when the keris was an exclusively Malay symbol?
As stated earlier, the origins of the Nusantara keris dates back to the Hindu-Buddhist era when the peoples of the region were Hindu-Buddhists themselves. Thus from the outset the keris carries with it traces of Southeast Asia’s close connection to India and the Indian subcontinent, making it a pan-Asian object devoid of a singular homeland or origin. It is, in fact, a transcultural object that crosses a number of cultural and geographical frontiers.
Furthermore the keris also bears traces of Tantric, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and praxis, which is sometimes made evident in the form and style of some of its variants. And here it is important to note that the keris has never been a homogenous object, but rather a meta-symbol that has many local variants.
Ernest keris-collectors would know that there is a world of difference from the keris of Patani and the keris of Java, and that there exists hundreds of variants of the keris, from the rapier-like keris panjang of North Sumatra and Minangkabau to the sword-like keris sundang of Southern Philippines (Mindanao and Sulu). Even in the Malay peninsula, there exists many distinct styles of keris, ranging from the Northeastern kerises of Patani, Kelantan and Trengganu to the Sumatran-inspired kerises of the West coast and the Bugis-inspired kerises of Johor. If the keris was meant to be a symbol of a singular ‘Malay race’, why the variety of kerises then?
One obvious answer to this is the simple historical fact that prior to the colonial invention of the notion of distinct ‘races’ in Asia, the peoples of the region did not think of themselves in terms of neatly-demarcated and firmly-defined racial blocs. There was no ‘Malay race’ (or ‘Chinese race’, or ‘Indian race’ for that matter) before the Western colonialists came over and stamped these labels on our heads. Not a single hikayat (epic) written prior to the 19th century uses the concept of race or even calls the people of the Peninsula the ‘Malay race’.
During this period the variety of kerises reflected the variety of identities among the peoples of the region. There was such a thing as a Kelantanese keris because there was such a thing as the Kelantanese people; and there was such a thing as a Patani keris because there was such a thing as a Patani people. But there was no such thing as a ‘Malay keris’ because there was no such thing as a ‘Malay people’: at least, not until our British colonial masters came and labelled us such…
Today it is a painful irony and insult to the keris that this most overdetermined of symbolic objects would be reduced to a marker of a simplified and essentialised racial identity. The keris was a universal object because it connected the philosophies of Tantrism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam together. It was a universal object because it connected the various nations and communities of Southeast Asia together. To reduce this object of multiple complex meanings to such a simple ideological symbol may serve the ends of politics, but it has killed the universal spirit of the keris.
To add insult to injury, the keris has been desacralised by the very same people who have sought to use it for purely political ends. The complex philosophy of the keris has been compromised by politicians who brandish it in public; and by those demagogues and ideologues who stick it on posters and flags. How can the keris ever hope to regain its former glory and prestige, after it has been desecrated so? What hope can there be to revive the universal spirit of the keris, after it has been stuck on placards with slogans like ‘This keris will drink Chinese blood?’ How can the keris maintain its silent dignity when some openly talk about taking out the keris, kissing it, waving it and asking when it will be used? The recent spectacle of keris-waving and the hysterical outpourings of racial anxiety at the UMNO assembly was just another nail in the coffin of the abused keris. From being a feminine object of sacred beauty it has been debased to the level of a phallic symbol for frustrated politicians. From the symbol of a universal philosophy it has been reduced to a static totem of communitarian politics.
No object in the repertoire of Nusanatara culture has suffered more in the name of politics and power than the keris. But in the process of the keris’s desacralisation and exploitation, we truly see the extent to which the communities of Nusantara have degenerated themselves. It is not the keris that has had her dignity compromised, but rather the ethno-nationalists and communitarians among us who have shown that they would stop at nothing to further their exclusive agendas: Matinya Keris bukan di tangan musuh, matinya Keris di tangan UMNO.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist, historian and human rights activist. He is also a lifetime collector of kerises. Visit his site at www.othermalaysia.org
Endnotes:
(1) See: Farish A. Noor, ‘From Majapahit to Putrajaya: The Kris as a symptom of civilisational development and decline’. In Journal of Southeast Asia Research, vol. 8. no. 3. School of Oriental and African Studies, London. November 2000.
(2) Many scholars of the keris have cast doubts on the notion that it could have served as a weapon in conventional warfare for a number of reasons: Firstly, the shortness of the keris blade itself compared to other cutting and stabbing weapons of the time meant that it could not possibly be used offensively in man-to-man combat against an adversary who was not similarly armed. Secondly the tang of the keris blade (the protruding shaft of the blade that enters the hilt) is often too short and slender to ensure that the blade would not bend or break if it was stabbed. Thirdly many scholars have also noted that many ceremonial kerises were regarded as sacred objects that should not be defiled by blood or other impure elements, which would necessarily preclude the possibility of it being used against another human being. Fourthly many ceremonial kerises were also ornately decorated and thus regarded as status and luxury objects, and here again it would be illogical that such objects would be put to use in common warfare.

“Amok” Season Again: How We Perpetuate The Myths of Empire

Friday, November 17th, 2006

[Personal note:  I apologise for the temporary disruption on this website last weekend (November 11 and12).  Services were disrupted because of the high number of “spammers.”  Attempts at installing “plug ins” to discourage them caused further delays.  We hope to have overcome the problem for now at least.  If you think I have accidentally deleted your posting, please alert me. MBM]

 

‘Amok’ Season Again: How We Perpetuate The Myths Of Empire

Farish A. Noor

Ho hum… Another day, another amok.

Perhaps it is no longer possible for us to wish for an UMNO General Assembly where the delegates would refrain from uttering the same lamentable slogan of ‘Malays in danger’.  Perhaps it is too late for us to imagine of an UMNO assembly where the keris would not be unsheathed in public, accompanied by the familiar rhetoric of blood and belonging.  Perhaps it is too late for us to hope that one day the leaders of UMNO would grow up and leave behind the colonial construction of the Malays of the past.

The recent UMNO General Assembly proved to be the predictable letdown that many had expected it to be.  Despite the appeals of the leader of the party, and his reminder that Malaysia’s struggle for independence was a collective effort on the part of all communities, the baying echoes of the Malay heartland resonated time and again.  The keris was unsheathed and stabbed heavenwards; and all talk was of insidious ‘threats’ and ‘conspiracies’ against the Malay race.

Forgotten was the simple fact that the category of Malayness itself was a colonial construct in the first place.  And likewise forgotten was the fact that the racialised politics of exclusive communitarianism dates back to the bad old days of Empire.  ‘Melayu mudah lupa’ was the old adage, though how true the saying is, is questionable considering how some Malays have never forgotten how to play to the gallery whenever it suits them.

In the midst of this, the reproduction of the Malay archetype goes on in earnest.  As the UMNO delegates bemoaned the fate of the Malays, every conceivable stereotype and cliché was brought out of the closet and put to work.  Our former colonial masters would have been proud:  After a century of colonial indoctrination, the Malays (of UMNO at least) have finally internalised the myth of the irrational, backward and lazy Malay as never before.  One is reminded of the words of Frank Swettenham who described this as the land of the amok.  In his words:

“Malaya, land of the pirate and the amok, your secrets have been well guarded, but the enemy has at last passed your gate, and soon the irresistible juggernaut of Progress will have penetrated to your remotest fastness, ‘civilised’ your people, and stamped them with the seal of a higher morality.”(1)

Former UMNO leader Mohamad Rahmat was among the first off the starting post when he uttered the dreaded A-word:  “Don’t test the Malays, they know ‘amok’”. Melaka delegate Hasnoor Sidang Hussein added more blood to the feast when he bluntly stated, “UMNO is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood in defence of race and religion.”  UMNO Youth Exco member Azimi Daim added, “When tension rises, the blood of Malay warriors will run in our veins,”  (Prompting the obvious question:  What happens when there is no tension?  Whose blood is running in their veins then?)  But the first prize for grandstanding has to go to Perlis delegate Hashim Suboh who directed his question to UMNO leader Hishamuddin Onn: “Datuk Hisham has unsheathed his keris, waved his keris, kissed his keris.  We want to ask Datuk Hisham: when is he going to use it?”

The threat of going keris-waving bloody amok has become so commonplace by now that we have grown accustomed to it.  Ranked alongside other familiar threats like the recurrence of ‘May 13’ or yet another ‘Operasi Lalang’, the ever-present threat of the Malays going amok is now seen as part and parcel of the political vocabulary of Malaysia and Malaysian politicians in particular.  Blood and violence have become part of our political language.

Yet how many of these great ‘defenders’ of the race, who are willing to spill blood (whose blood, one wonders?) in defence of their race, are aware of the long-term implications of their words and deeds?  How many of these great communitarians are aware of the simple fact that with every reiteration of the threat of amok, the stereotype of the irrational Malay is being sedimented and hegemonised?  During cheerless times such as these it would pay to take a trip back down memory lane and look at how the ideology of racialised politics and racial stereotypes were first introduced to the Malaysian imagery.

The phenomenon of amok is and has been seen as something particular and specific to the peoples of the Malay Archipelago.  Indeed, writings on the phenomenon date back to the 16th century, beginning with the first European encounters with the peoples of the region.  From the start, it was argued by many an Orientalist scholar, the Malay people were essentially an irrational, emotional and highly-strung race.  The introduction of the pseudo-scientific concept of ‘Race’ (a crucial tool in the ideological construction of the colonised “Other” which justified the divisive and hierarchical politics of Empire) was made possible with the attribution of certain essentialist traits to the colonised subjects themselves.  In the case of the Malays, the phenomenon of amok was seized upon as that all-important debilitating factor that subsequently justified paternalistic colonisation of this weaker, irrational and emotional ‘race’ of human beings…

During the British colonial era, colonial functionaries and administrators in Malaya conducted their affairs with the Malays according to their own decidedly jaundiced understanding of Malay culture, politics and history.(2)  To further reinforce the general observations made about the Malays, the colonial authorities also relied upon pseudo-scientific instruments like ethnographic studies and the population census which were employed to help locate and identify the different native groupings and rank them according to the violent hierarchy of colonial discourse.  Alongside the claims of the governors and architects of Empire, the Eurocentric theories of racial scientists and social Darwinists added scientific credibility and justification to the policies of divide et impera that were being implemented in the colonies and were translated into political realities through the creation of a racially segregated and stratified plural society.

As Alatas (1977) and Winzeler (1990) have shown, colonial studies of Malay characteristics and cultural practices were often used to justify paternalistic attitude towards the colonised Malay subjects.  Malay cultural traits such as amok, latah and others were superficially studied and documented, with undue emphasis on the more sensational aspects of the phenomenon.(3)  Such studies were also used to further consolidate the belief that the Malays as a people were culturally and genetically inferior to their Western rulers due to their (Malays) weak character.  The stereotype of the child-like, unstable and unreliable Malay was thus developed on all possible levels and in all possible spheres:  from orientalist literature to ‘serious’ academic studies, from the field of health and welfare to public housing and town planning.  So pervasive and influential were the beliefs regarding the culturally and environmentally-determined defects of the Malays that they would endure even up to the postcolonial era in the perceptions of Europeans and Asians alike.(4)

So when UMNO leaders of today reach for their kerises and mouth their slogans of blood and defiance, are they aware of the fact that their very rhetoric bears the stains of a colonial anthropology and ethnology which were part and parcel of the colonial construction of the Malays?

Having accepted the simplified colonial construction of the Malays as a fixed, static, essentialised ‘race’, are these leaders prepared to perpetuate these colonial fictions just a while longer?  It is ironic, to say the least, that the very party that claims the right to wear the mantle of anti-colonialism in Malaysia should be the one that protects and preserves the colonial heritage the longest.  Every time a Malay leader utters the threat of yet another bloody amok in the streets, one cannot help but hear the scornful laughter of the colonial administrators of the past, trailing away in the distance, harping back to the days when the Malays were cast as that irrational race, going amok at the drop of a hat….

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. Visit his website at www.othermalaysia.org

Endnotes:

(1)   See: Frank A Swettenham:  ‘Malay Sketches’. The Bodley Head, London. 1895.

(2)   See: : S. H. Alatas, ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th century and Its Function in Colonial Capitalism’, Frank Cass Publishers, London, 1977.

(3)   See: Alatas (1977) and Robert Winzeler, ‘Malayan Amok and Latah as ‘History Bound’ syndromes’, in ‘The Underside of Malaysian History : Pullers, Prostitutes, Plantation Workers’, Edited by Peter J. Rimmer & Lisa M. Allen 1990.

(4)   As late as the year 1960, European social scientists and academics would still be lamenting the fate of the ‘disabled’ Malays.  In his survey for the Fabian Society, the socialist leader John Lowe described the Malays as ‘an unsophisticated, technically underdeveloped rural people’ (pg. 1) As far as the Malay race was concerned, Lowe’s condemnation of them was a blanket one: ‘The mass of the Malay peasantry are traditionalist, suspicious and often superstitious, offering formidable resistance to change’ (pg. 22). [See: John Lowe, ‘The Malayan Experiment’. Fabian International and Commonwealth Bureau. Research Series no. 213. The Fabian Society, London. 1960.]

 

There Can Only Be A ‘Pivotal’ Malaysian Nation

Friday, November 10th, 2006

There Can Only Be A ‘Pivotal’ Malaysian Nation

By Farish A. Noor

With the UMNO General Assembly just around the corner, it is clear that the race for leverage and pole position within the party has already begun. UMNO being what it is – an ethno-nationalist party with a political agenda based primarily on a race-based form of communitarian politics – it would hardly be a surprise to us by now if some of the more vocal leaders of the party were to play to the gallery yet again. We have already been treated to the sordid spectacle of UMNO leaders reaching for the keris and brandishing it in public for the sake of making a statement. Likewise we have been reminded of where UMNO’s true loyalties lie by the proclamations uttered by some of its leaders on thorny issues such as the New Economic Policy (NEP), the privileged status of the Malays, and the place of Malay identity in the constellation of Malaysian politics.

Now, yet again, we have been reminded of the inherent sectarianism and parochialism of the party thanks to the statements uttered by some of its leaders, notably Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, chief of UMNO Johor. While delivering his policy speech in the state of Johor recently, Datuk Ghani bluntly stated that there should be less talk of ‘bangsa Malaysia’ (the Malaysian nation) as such talk would only lead to confusion and political uncertainty. He insisted that the concept of an abstract Malaysian nation would merely lead to a ‘mish-mashing’ of the different racial identities and groupings in Malaysia, and that there was no justification for some parties to call for the creation of a Malaysian nation in the first place. Datuk Ghani’s qualifying remark was one that seemed to sum up the mind-set of many an UMNO leader today: “Even if the term bangsa Malaysia were to be used,” he argued, “it must only be applied in the context of all the peoples of Malaysia, and with the Malays as the pivotal race.”

Accompanying this remark was a train of essentialised notions about the traits and characteristics of the Malay people, as well as ‘the Malay way’ of doing things; which may presumably include not questioning the status of the Malays as the ‘pivotal race’ of Malaysia.

At a time when the nation should be thinking of new ways of re-imagining itself and its place in the world, it is sad – nay, pathetic – that such narrow-mindedness should prevail among some of its political elite. While the younger generation of New Malaysians are looking for ways and means to bridge the divisions of race, ethnicity, language and religion, the old guard are still harping on about the good old days and the good old ways when this land was referred to as ‘Tanah Melayu’ (Land of the Malays). So once again we are brought back to the homespun colonial fictions of the not-too-pleasant colonial past.

It is ironic, to say the least, that the very same party that claims the right to wear the mantle of anti-colonialism would be the first to reiterate the manifold contradictions of colonial historiography and colonial anthropology and ethnology. Part and parcel of the British colonial enterprise in Malaya (then later, Malaysia) was the systematic re-writing of its history to privilege one ethnic-racial group over others. By the mid-20th century when it became patently obvious to all that the colonial enterprise was about to reach its agonizing climax, Britain (like the other European colonial powers of the time) sought an effective exit strategy from its colonies east of Suez; and in the Malaysian case came up with the blueprint for what would eventually be known as the inter-racial elite compromise between the elites of the various ethnic-racial communities.

Yet was it ever the case that there was such a thing as a ‘Malay’ race per se, understood in purely essentialist terms? If one were to revisit the colonial census of the 19th century, it is clear that the very idea of ‘Malayness’ was not only vague (a ‘mish-mash, as Datuk Ghani might put it) but also far from essentialised.

It is clear, both from the colonial census and the historical records of the many community-based associations that sprung up during that period that the people of Malaya did not see themselves as fixed ethnic blocs or racial groups. In fact up to the early 20th century the category of ‘Malay’ was just one sub-category in a wider group of ethnic identities. Alongside those who called themselves ‘Malay’ were other groups summarily labeled as Javanese, Bugis, Makasarese, Sumatrans (ranked as Minangs, Acehnese, Lampungs, and others), Jawi Peranakans, Arab Peranakans, Indian Peranakans, Chinese Peranakans, and so on. Nowhere was the concept of Malayness presented as a given, static, essentialised fact. If anything, territorial loyalties were paramount and the people of the land referred to themselves as ‘Johorese’, ‘Kelantanese’, ‘Kedahans’ first and foremost. One might add here that the categories of ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ were likewise nowhere as simplified, as the communities that would eventually be grouped under these general headings were then defined as Hokkiens, Cantonese, Hakka, etc; and Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils, Ceylonese, etc.

It was with the passage of time and the development of the colonial state that the various communities were lumped together into neat and homogenous blocs, conflating differences and reducing the communities to essentialised categories like ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’. Seen from this critical perspective, the invention of the ‘Malay race’ was in fact a by-product of Western colonialism and imperialism in Malaysia!

Yet since 1957 this nation of ours has labored under the oppressive fiction that there exists such a thing as a homogenous, fixed and essentialised ‘Malay race’, which can only be defined artificially via the legal instrument of a constitutional definition.

It is upon such instrumental fictions that the Malayan (and later Malaysian) nation-state was built, though it has to be remembered that once this elaborate political fiction is placed in a broader historical context the Malaysian political experiment is seen as a relatively short episode. For centuries the peoples who have lived in this land have seen themselves as mixed, each being a multifarious nation and an assembly of ‘races’ on his/her own. A cursory reading of the complex biographies of the ‘great Malaysians’ of the past (before the very idea of Malaya/Malaysia was even mooted) would show that most of them recognized, and even valorized, their hybrid identities. Consider the biography of Munshi Abdullah for instance, regarded as the father of the Modern vernacular Malay novel, who was of mixed Peranakan heritage himself. Likewise the same could be said of men like Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin, Ibrahim Yaakob and others. All of them were of mixed parentage and all of them were and remain true Malaysians.

Yet today when the fundamental contradictions of racialised capitalism in Malaysia are coming to the surface and when it has become clear that the fiction of racial difference can no longer be sustained, it is precisely the most sectarian, conservative communitarians in our midst who clamor for a return to the politics of racial difference and ethnic compartmentalism, solely for the sake of preserving the status quo.

How long can this fragile balance be maintained before the very socio-cultural fabric of Malaysia rips itself asunder? Faced with the realities of a globalizing world where parochialism of any form – be it religious or ethnic-racial – would be detrimental to the health and future of a nation-in-making, the falsehood that is at the heart of Malaysia’s racialised political culture has to be exposed for what it is.

Ethno-nationalist politicians will undoubtedly find it hard to change their spots and stop themselves from playing to the gallery. The clarion call of ‘the Malays in danger’ rings sweet in the ears of those conservative ethno-nationalists for whom the keris is a potent symbol of power and hegemony. But Malaysian society today is more complex, plural and hybrid than ever; and it is the complexity of Malaysia that may well save it in the long run, opening up cultural and historical bridges to other countries (not to mention the rising Asian economies of India and China) in turn.

Those who call for the protection of the Malays as the ‘pivotal race’ of Malaysia fail to note these political realities and the historical subtleties that render such ideological over-simplification useless and futile. Yet in the weeks and months to come, as Malaysia heads slowly towards a political crisis that seems to be on the cards for all, it is imperative that we remind ourselves that the only thing that can still keep this country together is the abstract idea of a universal Malaysian citizenship, premised on the belief and conviction that there is, and has always been, a complex and hybrid Malaysian nation after all: despite what the history books and keris-wielding politicians may tell you.

Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. Visit his site at www.othermalaysia.org

Malaysia A Police State? Is Mahathir Serious?

Friday, October 27th, 2006

Malaysia A Police State? Is Mahathir Serious?

By Farish A. Noor

Political scientists have to play the role of politician-watchers, observing the behavioral norms of this strange breed of creatures who bear an uncanny resemblance to the more numerous species of Homo sapiens, but who nonetheless have characteristics and capabilities unique to themselves. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that politicians are like ordinary human beings. Just because they drive cars, scratch their noses and use hand-phones like the rest of us does not mean that we belong to the same species.

Politicians have several unique character traits, and among them is the curious ability to invent and re-invent themselves in a chameleon-like manner. Another trait that many of them possess is to have a selective memory that allows them to remember only the facts that they are most comfortable with, and conversely, to forget whatever is inconvenient to them. As an ardent political scientist, I have been studying this species for more than a decade now, and have come across some outstanding specimens worthy of the best anthropological museums. I have come across hardcore religiously-inclined communitarian politicians who can wear the snappiest suits and yell “the Taliban are our Brothers” at the same time. I have also come across politicians who can alter their shape and form from sectarian ethno-nationalist bigot one day to world-wise pro-American client the next.

The recent comments made by the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, demonstrates the characteristics of many a politician in many respects. During a press conference held shortly after a meeting with the current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mahathir lashed out at his chosen successor. Malaysia-watchers have sensed for some time now that the relations between the two men have been anything but rosy. For a start, the former PM feels that many of his complaints (some legitimate, mind you) against the conduct of the government have not been taken at heart and have not been given a public hearing. Neutral observers of the political game in Malaysia may be inclined to agree with this observation, as it is the case that the former Prime Minister of Malaysia has not exactly been given his share of time and space to make his feelings clear to all on issues such as the management of the national car company Proton and the (cancelled) construction of the bridge between Malaysia and Singapore.

But it was in during the same press conference that Mahathir aired the following complaint: “I consider this a police state. I also consider that my civic rights have been taken away.” During the same press conference Mahathir also added that “the habit of asking the police to frighten people should be stopped.” Here was homo politicus in its environment.

It is ironic that Mahathir should lash out against the Badawi administration in such a way, and on such terms. Malaysia remains far from a secular democracy by any stretch of the imagination, but for him to label the state as a police state beggars belief. For a start, the human rights fraternity in Malaysia and abroad would be the first to point out that it was during his tenure that the fundamental rights of Malaysians were most hastily and decisively trampled upon. Mahathir governed the country from 1981 to 2003, and during this period Malaysia witnessed numerous police operations against the country’s opposition parties, civil society and NGOs. t was during Mahathir’s time that notorious police crackdowns such as Operation Lalang (1987), Operation Kenari (1988), the crackdown on the Darul Arqam movement (1993-94) took place, sending hundreds of opposition leaders, journalists, academics, activists, union leaders and members of the public to jail, many to be put under detention without trial. Mahathir now laments the fact that he has been denied the right to speak, and that his civil rights have been taken away. It is curious that the same moral outrage was not demonstrated during the 1980s and 1990s, when many other Malaysians were sent to jail or detained without trial and denied their right to speak and have their voices heard.

It was also during the Mahathir era that the country witnessed the judicial crisis that led to the crippling of the judiciary; the muzzling of the press; the growing conflict between the state and the Islamist opposition; and the tightening of controls over the university campuses of the land. If anything, the spectacular development that took place during the 1980s and 1990s were underwritten by two factors: foreign direct investment and an increasingly authoritarian political culture in Malaysia itself.

How then can the former Prime Minister of Malaysia complain about the state of the country he left behind, when it was he who presided over the period that saw the erosion of fundamental human rights and liberties? It is this curious ability to reinvent the past and to forget their own role in the political process that allows politicians to stand out from the rest, as a breed apart.

Today Malaysia is poised on the brink of a national crisis. The stalemate between the Prime Minister and the former PM shows no signs of improving or correcting itself. Worse still is the fact that in the midst of this uncertainty there are no clear signs of leadership and direction that may deliver the country from the present impasse. Having lived under more than two decades of authoritarian rule, Malaysian society shows little sign of being able to adjust to a more open society governed by democratic norms. The rise of an increasingly communitarian, sectarian and religiously conservative middle class is just one of the indicators of all that is wrong in the land. But if Malaysians today do not know how to live in a democratic society and in a democratic manner, we have to look to its recent past to understand why that is so. The answer lies in the neo-feudal culture of centralized power that was personified and personalized in the form of Mahathir himself, who laid the foundations to the ‘police state’ he himself bemoans today.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. Visit his site at www.othermalaysia.org

Death Threats in France

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Death Threats in France: Idiocy in the Land of Voltaire

Farish A. Noor

It seems as if this is going to be a bumper harvest year for fatwas and death threats. The year 2006 kicked off with the Danish ‘Muhammad cartoon controversy’ that led to a series of explosive and spectacular demonstrations the world over; though at the time many wondered how and why so many Muslim movements could spend so much energy mobilizing their followers over an issue that was, in the final analysis, less important compared to the immediate cataclysm we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan where thousands of civilians were being killed. With hindsight however it is clear that the impact of the controversy was global and that Denmark was placed firmly on the world map for six months at least.

Then last week yet another controversy erupted when the French philosopher and academic, Professor Robert Redeker of Saint-Orens-de-Gameville, was forced to go into hiding and accept police protection after receiving death threats by email following a controversial article that he wrote for the newspaper Figaro. What Prof Redeker wrote was hardly new: In his column he merely reiterated the worn-out clichés of Islam being a religion of violence and Muslim history being one of bloodshed, war and conquest. Sadly, the reaction that it elicited was likewise predictable: First came the condemnations, then the death threats. As if the jaded masses were in need of further evidence that Muslims are the stereotypical irrational zealots that the media portrays them to be, a small yet vocal minority of Muslims in France began to call for the killing of the author.

Now that Prof Redeker has gone into hiding, the government of France has been forced to take a stand on the issue and to react. What is important for us here is to analyze the nature of the government’s reaction, and understand its implications.

Off the bat, most of France’s leading political figures condemned the death threats to the author on principle. But the principle in question here is not that of solidarity with the author or the ideas he put forth: On the contrary many of the leading political and academic figures of France were quick to note that the article written by Prof Redeker was shallow at best, and replete with caricatured stereotypes not worth being taken seriously at all.

But the principle in question is this: That no French citizen has the right to issue death threats to another citizen, and that whatever disputes that may arise as a result of differences of belief and political opinion, the political rules of the game must be followed by one and all. Prof Redeker’s comments were inflammatory and pejorative, yet in many a constitutional democracy the world over such views are uttered by citizens of all political backgrounds and persuasions. The law that grants people like Redeker the right to articulate his views on people of another religion happens to be the same law that allows Muslims in France to go out into the streets to demonstrate for or against concerns close to their heart.

But the law of public accountability and the norms of free speech in the public sphere dictate that while everyone has the right to speak, no one has the right to silence the other by force or the threat of violence. Here lies the element of transgression contained in the death threats issued against Prof. Redeker. France’s politicians have and do maintain that the issue here is not Islam or Muslims; and that their condemnation of the death threats and fatwas against Prof Redeker do not mean that they support the latter’s views. What it does mean is that no community – be they Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists have the right to issue death threats to any citizen of France. This is what secularism means in essence and practice: that it treats all religions on an equal basis and does not privilege one faith community over and above another. Another aspect of secularism that is often forgotten is that it also aims to ensure the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis the different ethnic, racial and linguistic communities of a country too.

Some Muslims will undoubtedly bemoan the fact that their complaints against the Professor have not been taken seriously, and would be doubly angered by the fact that thanks to the minority voice in their midst they are again being typecast as violent fanatics and extremists. But let us ponder the implications of the issue at hand in a different context. If a writer, academic or public figure were to condemn the caste system that is inherent in Hindu faith and praxis on the grounds that it was a form of normalized and institutionalized inequality, would it be right for a handful of conservative Hindus to accuse such a person of Hindu-bashing and retaliate by sending out hate mails and death threats? Or should we not insist that in such cases of radical divergence of opinions one has no choice but to learn to live with difference? The same would apply to those who have criticized and condemned the excesses of the Church and its conservative stand on issues like gender and the Church’s historical complicity with Western colonialism and imperialism. These are painful truths that need to be uttered, despite the fact that it may offend some.

Dialogue, therefore, is not always an easy or even pleasant process. There are times when the very act of engaging in dialogue entails risks and causes pain. There are times when we may be forced to hear things we do not want to hear; or say things we do not wish to say. But debate can only take place when we all agree to some simple ground rules; in the same way that daily conversations only get off the ground when both sides agree to let the other speak.

Silencing the voice of the other, no matter how critical and obnoxious it may be, does little to bring about understanding and certainly prevents the most basic form of communication from taking place. In this day and age when Muslims the world over feel misunderstood and yearn to have a voice of their own, they also need to learn to listen to the voices of others, no matter how critical they may be. We need to have some painful truths told to us in the face, in the same way that we need to dish it out at times to others. The option of silence is no longer with us, and in any case silence brought about by death threats and fatwas do nothing to curb the danger of prejudice and bigotry. If anything it is in the midst of such silence that the most virulent racism breeds best and fastest.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. Visit his site at www.othermalaysia.org

Between ‘Liberal’ Islam and ‘Liberation’ Islam

Friday, October 13th, 2006

Between ‘Liberal Islam’ and ‘Liberation Islam’
Farid Esack on the Need for Prophetic Mission

Farish A. Noor

Professor Farid Esack is no stranger to scholars of contemporary Islam. Based at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge and author of The Quran: Liberation and Pluralism, he is known to many as one of the most ardent and consistent spokesmen for progressive Islam the world over. Recently Prof. Esack was invited to Berlin for a conference focusing on how progressive ideas can and do develop within the context of contemporary Muslim societies. In the course of his keynote speech he once again outlined the need for a progressive outlook in the interpretation and praxis of Islam that confronts the very real challenges faced by Muslims in today’s rapidly globalising world.

From the outset, he insisted on the distinction between what he labeled as ‘liberal’ Islam and ‘liberationist’ Islam. Speaking from his own experience as a Muslim activist who was directly involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, he noted that, “For those of us coming from the left, there is and has always been a clear distinction between the meaning of ‘liberal’ and ‘liberation’.”

The danger that so many Muslim activists face today is that the hegemonic outreach of international capital is so great that it is able to co-opt and domesticate all forces that oppose it. One such example is the case of so many Muslim leaders, activists and intellectuals who have been absorbed by the power structure of global capital, reducing them to comprador elites who merely mouth sentiments accepted and valorized by economic liberalists, without actually addressing the very real power differentials that continue to divide the world between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless.

Faced with this very real problem, he noted, “Progressive Muslims need to go beyond ad-hoc accommodation with power and to address the reality of power differentials in the first place. So often those described as ‘moderate’ Muslims merely say what is sexy and acceptable to the powers that be, without challenging the logic of power per se. They therefore end up adjusting their theology to suit the needs and demands of power, and this is what I call the theology of accommodation, as opposed to the theology of liberation.”

He continued, “But in reality we need to ask more pressing questions that address the immediate needs of the environment around us, on a local level. For instance, in the context of Africa today where millions of people are dying of diseases like HIV/AIDS, should we not direct our theological understanding to address the fundamental root causes of these problems, such as the lack of health care and a proper medical system? Root causes and issues such as poverty, powerlessness among the people, the collapse of the state – these are the real issues to be addressed. We cannot isolate and distance ourselves from the core questions of power and politics in such instances.”

Where, then, should the progressive Islamist project locate itself? For years now the relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds has been defined by a consensus between Western and Muslim elites, who already operate on a shared understanding predicated on terms of a global capital-driven discourse. So much effort has been invested into conferences, meetings, research projects on issues like capital-driven development; yet the results have been paltry in comparison: African and other Muslim countries continue to be exploited by powerful multinationals whose only understanding of liberalism amounts to the opening up of domestic markets and the exploitation of the resources of poorer countries.

It is for this reason that Prof Esack insists that any progressive project begins from the premise of questioning the workings of power and highlighting its negative impact on the margins of society: “The progressive Islamist project, if it is to be truly progressive, has to be Prophetic by nature. What I mean by that is that we need to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad, and all the other Prophets such as Jesus and Buddha, who located themselves at the margins of society. They spoke for the poor and the downtrodden, and based themselves not at the center but at the margins of society. Progressive Islam and progressive Muslims therefore have to identify themselves with the marginal constituencies of their respective societies, for progressive Islam is all about finding the voice of God at the margins of society: among the poor, the underprivileged, racial, ethnic and gender minorities, the politically weak, and the un-represented.”

To this end Prof Esack insisted that “to find the sacred in the marginal is to bring the marginal to the center, to make important what was deemed negligible and unimportant, like the poor and the weak.”

This prophetic mission is what Prof Esack identifies as the true transformative power of any progressive interpretation of religion. Following in the footsteps of liberation theologists who fought (and died) for the cause of the poor and the marginalized, he criticized those moderates and liberals whose political commitment stopped short at an auto-critique of their own attachment to wealth and power. “Prophetic religion is all about criticizing the abuses and accumulation of power at the hands of economic and political elites. I do not know of a single prophet in the history of humankind who began his project with the question ‘How do I adapt myself to the workings of power,’ but rather the opposite.

Religion, if it is to have any transformative potential and impact, has to oppose the centralization of power and always stand up for those who have been sidelined and even abused by it. And for progressive Muslims to be truly progressive they also have to be consistent. One cannot call oneself a progressive Muslim in political and economic terms, while being a racist or misogynist in one’s private life.”

Whether such progressive voices can emerge and be heard at all in these troubled times remains to be seen. What is evident, however, is the fact that in the wake of 9-11, the struggle to define and re-define Islam and Muslim norms and praxis has been waged in earnest. With more and more underdeveloped Muslim countries being forced to undergo ‘regime change’ at the point of a gun it is unclear if the new ‘moderate’ elites being promoted by the West will take into consideration the needs of their own people. But what is clear is that the need for a truly transformative and critical progressive project in Islam is greater than ever.

Dr Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He can be contacted via www.othermalaysia.org

And Now On To The Prayer Wars

Friday, September 29th, 2006

Friday selection: And Now On To The Prayer Wars
Farish A. Noor
www.othermalaysia.org

[Posted with permission]

The month of Ramadhan is said to be a blessed month for many, and for some it can promise even more than is usually expected. This year’s Ramadhan is witness to an event of considerable importance, albeit somewhat ludicrous at the same time. While tension and mistrust continue to tarnish the already embattled process of inter-religious dialogue, recent events such as Pope Benedict XVI’s speech in Germany have done little to calm the anger and frustration of Muslims all over the world. Now we have to brace ourselves for the latest nail to be hammered into the coffin of inter-religious dialogue: the prayer wars.

A recent media report has noted that all over North America this Ramadhan, Evangelical Christians will embark on a 30-day ‘Muslim Prayer Focus’. Supported by right-wing evangelical conservatives like the American National Association of Evangelicals and Youth With A Mission, evangelical Christian leaders all over the USA will ask their followers to spend the next 30 days praying for Muslims to see the light and to find a place for Jesus in their hearts. Prayer booklets, leaflets and posters have already been prepared and disseminated to help Muslims save themselves from themselves, and on the website of the National Association of Evangelicals it is stated that they wish for all other faiths to “understand and consider the grace of God incarnated in Jesus Christ.” One wonders how this message of goodwill will be interpreted in the mountains of Waziristan or the stronghold of the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan.

That evangelical Christians in the American Bible Belt would get up to such things is to be expected: After all, this is what all missionary faiths do, and Islam is likewise a missionary religion that seeks to convert others to its creed and way of life. The success of two of the three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity and Islam – has more to do with the missionary zeal of its followers than anything else, for it is them – the ordinary Christians and Muslims the world over – who have really supported the expansion of both religions all over the world, at the cost of other local faiths and belief systems at times.

But coming as it does now, at a time of heightened tension between the Western and Muslim worlds, the call for a mass evangelical prayer to convert Muslims to Christianity is about the most counter-productive thing that any faith community could conceive of. Its implications are wide and obvious: For a start it will fuel the already overheaded paranoia and conspiracy-theory machinery that animates many a radical Islamist group the world over, convicing many of their members that there is indeed a Christian conspiracy against Islam and Muslims. It will also add to the further isolation of the United States, which is increasingly seen as a superpower bent on imposing its military, political, economic, and now cultural-religious values, on every other community on this planet.

One is forced to brace onceself for the immediate logical response. Will we see counter-prayer initiatives by Muslims, praying that Christians see the light and convert to Islam en masse? Or has this all already happened and can things only deteriorate further from this point onwards?

Again a degree of calm, rational distance from the immediate phenomena of politics is necessary, if for no other reason than to preserve some semblance of common sense and rationality. It is important to note that the calls for prayer to convert Muslims to Christianity is emanating not from ever-so-secular Europe, but rather from the heartland of America. This reminds us again that the United States is a specific country with a specific relationship to religion. Contrary to appearances, America is not a secular country but rather a highly religious one where religion has penetrated deep into the social and political life of the nation; and has given birth to numerous politicians with a decidedly missionary outlook in their politics. Since the time of the Monroe doctrine, successive American politicians have spoken about America’s ‘right’ and ‘mission’ to civilise the world in terms that could only be seen as theological. No politician from post-War Western Europe would dream of talking in such terms, for fear of being dubbed a conservative looney and a candidate for a padded room in the asylum.

Another factor that has to be taken into account here is the fact that the brand of evangelical Christianity that is on the march in the United States is quite distinct from the more schools of Christian thought in Europe. Only among these American evangelicals do we hear talk of a missionary goal to convert the rest of humanity to their brand of Christianity (and while on that subject, it should be noted that these radical evangelicals also hold that some other Christians, notably the Catholics and members of the Eastern orthodox church, are borderline heretics too…).

While other schools of Christian thought have adapted themselves to the reality of living in a plural multi-religious world of different faiths, this sense of benighted tolerance for relativism is nowhere to be found among the legions of ultra-conservatives who support the current neo-Con establishment installed in the White House. Why, even the elders of the Vatican – following the discussions of the Vatican II council – have come to accept that the path to salvation does not lie through Christianity alone, and that other religions also have their inherent worth and truths as well, to be respected equally.

No, the lunacy of the current ‘prayer wars’ is of a distinctively American variety, and bears all the hallmarks of an America in deep spiritual crisis and in search of a direction. The irony is that while some right-wing evangelicals are happy to pray for the souls of other non-believers, they have spent considerably less time praying for the victims of America’s superpower politics and hegemonic dominance in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Where then is the process of inter-civiliational dialogue heading? Well, for a start the first criteria to be met in any dialogue process is respect: Respect for the identity of the other, even if we do not necessarily accept everything that they do or say in the name of their beliefs. In this confused and increasingly volatile world that we live in today, this element of mutual respect is sorely lacking. It would be the height of arrogance for American evangelicals to assume that people of other faiths need to be ‘saved’ from their beliefs, without at the same time taking some critical distance from their own faith and questioning their own motives. This smacks of the blind faith and fanaticism they are so wont to accuse others of. For dialogue to work, we must always begin with an internal dialogue with and within ourselves, and to gauge our own commitment and purpose against the litmus test of arrogance and hypocrisy. So before we embark on yet another round of missionary conquest, perhaps we should begin by looking at the hypocrisy and double-standards in our own practice of faith. And this applies to both Christians and Muslims, by the way…

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian, as well as a human rights activist. Visit his site at www.othermalaysia.org

Pope’s Speech: Slander Cannot Be Met With Slander

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Pope’s Speech: Slander Cannot Be Met With Slander
Farish A Noor

[Personal note: I am pleased to introduce a new column, “Selection,” in which I post articles written by guest commentators. I hope this to be a regular Friday feature. The essays are published with permission from the authors; I thank them for their contributions.

I am even more pleased that the inaugural essay is by Farish A Noor, whose prolific writings I have had enjoyed in the past. MBM]

Pope’s Speech: Slander Cannot Be Met with Slander

Farish A Noor

The repercussions following the statements made by Pope Benedict XVI are being felt till today, though by now the modalities of global Muslim protest have become evident and well known to close observers of political Islam. As expected, following the speech that was delivered while the Pope was in Germany recently, there have been hundreds of protests all over the Muslim world, calling on the Pope to apologize for what he had said and calling on the Western world to be sensitive to the concerns and sensibilities of Muslims the world over.

That such a reaction was forthcoming was to be expected: It has to be stated again that the choice of quotes used in the speech by the Pope was anything but enlightened, and that uttered by a man of his standing and delivered before such a public gathering, was bound to lead to a reaction on the scale that we have seen thus far. What is more, it should be noted that apart from the reaction from the Muslim world, there was little unease or disquiet about the Pope’s speech elsewhere. Proof, if any was needed, that there exists an unhealthy tolerance for abuse of Islam and Muslims in many parts of the non-Muslim world today.

Unholy Alliance

Furthermore, as it has been noted by the author Karen Armstrong, this pedestrian and common form of Islamophobia and prejudice towards Muslims has become so widespread that there now exists a common consensus between the conservatives behind the Pope and even secular Muslim-haters in the West. In her words: “Hatred of Islam is so ubiquitous and so deeply rooted in western culture that it brings together people who are usually at daggers drawn. Neither the Danish cartoonists, who published the offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad last February, nor the Christian fundamentalists who have called him a terrorist, would ordinarily make common cause with the Pope; yet on the subject of Islam they are in full agreement.”

But here it pays to take a degree of objective distance from the issue and look at the matter from a broader perspective. While the comments made by the Pope were morally questionable both in their content and intention, one also has to question the logic at work in the reaction of some Muslims to the event. It has also been reported that many an Islamist group had reacted to the speech of the Pope with calls for violence and retribution: A stupid and counter-productive reaction if any, for it simply reinforces the stereotypical view (repeated in the Pope’s speech) that Islam is a religion of the sword and that Muslims are fundamentally violent.

Consider the following statements that were issued by one radical Islamist group in Iraq, said to be linked to al-Qaeda. In its press statement the Mujahideen Shura Council stated bluntly that, “We shall break the cross and spill the wine. … God will (help) Muslims to conquer Rome. … God enable us to slit their throats, and make their money and descendants the bounty of the mujahideen.” In bellicose terms bordering on the hysterical the statement then proceeded to “tell the worshippers of the cross (the Pope) that you and the West will be defeated” and that “you will only see our swords until you go back to God’s true faith Islam.” If the Pope’s speech had done damage to inter-religious dialogue, then such a reaction was calculated to ensure that the final nail would be hammered into the coffin.

Tolerating the Extremists in Our Midst

It remains an oddity till today that many Islamist groups react to provocation at a drop of a hat, and that their reactions often follow the predictable path of rhetoric and pyrotechnics. Fiery speech may gain a group some precious minutes on the television screen, but in the long run they do untold damage to the understanding and image of Islam (both in the eyes of Muslims and other faith communities) that will take ages to heal.

It would also be hypocritical for some of these Islamist groups to demand an apology from the Pope while remaining blissfully oblivious to the venomous speeches and tirades that issue forth from their own ranks, be it in the form of mosque sermons, videos, pamphlets, recordings or death threats. Muslims cannot, and should not, demand respect for our faith as long as we are not prepared to show the same respect to the beliefs of others. Yet how many Muslims have criticized the extremists and conservatives in their midst, who continue to ply the crowd with sordid stories of “Christian conspiracies” against Muslims, or with lurid accounts of the alleged “decadent, immoral” lives and values of the so-called “infidels.”

To reiterate the main point of this article: We are indeed living at a time when Muslim-Western relations are at an all-time low. It is also a fact that the divide between the Western and Muslim worlds is not a neutral one, but rather one based on unequal and unjust divisions of power, wealth and privilege. However in order to redress this imbalance and injustice on a global scale, a global view of the world is needed which sees humanity as a singular community. Divisive speech on either side of the divide will do little to help the situation; and if anything it can only perpetuate the very differentials of difference and power that is at the root of this injustice.

Stupid, insulting and even destructive comments from either community should be met with a rational voice tempered with logic and morality, and not threats of violence couched in the flimsy rhetoric of victimhood. If Muslims felt insulted by the Pope’s comments, then we need to realize that many non-Muslims likewise feel insulted by the barbed accusations and slander that have come from some self-appointed spokesmen for Islam.

Where is the solution to this? Islam reminds us that logic and reason are universal qualities inherent in all creation. To abandon the way of rational, logical discourse at this stage would not only be an abdication of the responsibility to dialogue, but would also lead to a further marginalisation of Muslims on a global level. Above all, Muslims need to remember that in our reaction to abuse and slander we are nonetheless guided by a moral principle that is higher: One cannot react to slander with even more slander; anymore than one can react to racism with even more racism. If the moral compass had been lost by the Pope, our duty – as Muslims and non-Muslims alike – should be to restore this balance, and not to let the ship of humanity flounder even more.