Tuesday, March 28, 2006


What’s the hottest news in the papers currently? No, it’s not about the National Automative Policy, but about tudung (head scarf).

Recently, the Inspector-General of Police said that all policewomen must wear headscarves during official functions. The reason is according to him, “was for the sake of uniformity.”

This blogger put it succinctly, when he said:
Since when has the need for uniformity in police parades over-ridden the individual right to freedom of religion?

The tudung is a Muslim headdress; it is worn by Muslim women who believe that covering the head, with the exception of the face, is required by their religion.

Let me ask this question: If there are fewer tudung-wearing policewomen in a particular parade than those not wearing the tudung, which of the two groups are not "uniformly dressed"?

The answer is, girls and boys, the group wearing the tudung.

For the past few months, issues after issues have emerged, mostly about religion encroaching on civil liberties. And quite often, common sense too.

A professor of law in UTM has called it the “'silent re-writing' of the Constitution.”

Malaysia is gradually turning into an Islamic state in practice, even though “a Federal Court decision of 1988 which considered Article 3 of the Federal Constitution and emphatically declared that this (Malaysia) is a secular nation.”

Even in the United States, more and more people are becoming insular in religion, as the world becomes wider as borders fall and globalization marches on. But at least there is a healthy debate and that many believe that separation of state and religion is what a democracy should be.

The writer of the New York Times bestseller “The World is Flat”, Thomas Friedman has his own ideas about why the Islamic world is getting more reactionary and easily provoked over things religious.

Today's world has become so wired together, so flattened, that you can't avoid seeing just where you stand on the planet -- just where the caravan is and just how far ahead or behind you are. In this flat world you get your humiliation fiber-optically, at 56K or via broadband, whether you're in the Muslim suburbs of Paris or Kabul. Today, Muslim youth are enraged by cartoons in Denmark. Earlier, it was a Newsweek story about a desecrated Quran. Why? When you're already feeling left behind, even the tiniest insult from afar goes to the very core of your being -- because your skin is so thin.

India is the second-largest Muslim country in the world, but the cartoon protests here, unlike those in Pakistan, have been largely peaceful. One reason for the difference is surely that Indian Muslims are empowered and live in a flourishing democracy. India's richest man is a Muslim software entrepreneur.
But so many young Arabs and Muslims live in nations that have deprived them of any chance to realize their full potential.

The Middle East Media Research Institute, called MEMRI, just published an analysis of the latest employment figures issued by the U.N.'s International Labor Office. The ILO study, MEMRI reported, found that "the Middle East and North Africa stand out as the region with the highest rate of unemployment in the world": 13.2 percent. That is worse than in sub-Saharan Africa. [ See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series - No. 265 - February 10, 2006 Unemployment in the Middle East – Causes and Consequences]

No wonder so many young people in this part of the world are unprepared, and therefore easily enraged, as they encounter modernity. And no wonder backward religious leaders and dictators in places like Syria and Iran -- who have miserably failed their youth -- are so quick to turn their young people's anger against an insulting cartoon and away from themselves and the rot they have wrought.

Is Islamisation of Malaysia a response to modernity, which to a lot people here, is always taken to mean the Western world and loose morals? That the current moral decay of society, what with higher incidences of murder and rape, the supposedly prevalence of homosexuality, prostitution, etc can be overcome with going back to rigid and dogmatic practices?

I am not saying that religion won't help. But they are looking at the wrong things. The way people dress is not correlated with how religious they are. Someone who dresses skimpily may be a deeply God-fearing person whereas someone else who prays five times a day may be accepting bribes.

It's the way religion is thought, the people, the environment. If kids are thought to only memorise lines, if the people around them do not practise what they preach, if they see injustice done and still they can get away with it; these are the things that matter.

And things that matter, the root of the problem, are always the hardest to dig up and to throw away. To start all over.

When people fear something, they turn to the only things they know. Or feel is the only certain thing in the world - God’s words.

Or rather, their interpretation of his words.

I think Alex Au captures it best.

Modernity and reason as threat
The world has been globalising for the last few hundred years, but one player has had a huge advantage -- the West. Modernity as we know it first developed there; European societies and their offshoots have had the most time to adjust to its demands and reap its benefits.

Other societies, e.g. in the Arab world, India and China, have tended to experience modernity as invasive, disruptive and alien. Not surprisingly, the response is a circling of the wagons, a heightened sense of identity being under siege.

There is a natural instinct to recall past glories to bolster the argument against the invasion of modernity, which is often cast as Westernisation. What past glories are recalled naturally depends on what past civilisational glories there are. In China we see a resort to nationalism, since its political achievements have been a near-continuous thread through its history. Across the Arab world, most of today's states are recent inventions, so nationalism doesn't have the same resonance. Instead the past glory that is most available for comfort is that of the early caliphates.
That explains why Islamic identity seems more easily roused than national identity.

In the last 2 decades or so, the rhetoric of Islamic identity has bubbled over from the Arab states into other Muslim-majority countries, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. In the latter two, we have seen how Malay and Javanese identity is now being pre-empted by Islamic identity.

Female dressing has become more conformist, occasionally more Arab-like. Vigilante mobs go around enforcing Islamic precepts against co-mingling of sexes and entertainment. In Indonesia, there is currently a push to pass an "anti-pornography" law, but which may contain criminal sanctions against un-Islamic dressing, the mixing of men and women and the mildest allusions to the erotic. In Malaysia, a bill to make apostasy a criminal offence has been proposed. In fact, no Muslim in Malaysia has any practical way of renouncing his religion. He is bound by Islamic Sharia law whether he likes it or not.

Beyond technology, reason too leads to a rethink of the way society is structured. Why do kings claim a "divine right" to rule? Why should some men be more equal than others? Why shouldn't women be the equal of men? Why is one religion considered "true" and others not? What constitutes reliable evidence in a trial? Why should certain opinions be punishable?

It then led to steady improvement in civic life.

A few weeks backs, a headmistress in Penang withdraw her netball team when she saw them playing without head scarves. The girls said that it was uncomfortable wearing them while playing in the afternoon sun.

It’s utterly perplexing that logic and reason still lose to some other “logic”, in this day and age.


Alex said...

Well written.
We have seen a lot of elements of Malay culture been rejected/suppressed for being "un-Islamic". Such a loss to wonderful culture.... slowly being eroded and replaced by suffocating extreme interpretation of Islam.
But who are we to question? We are the non-Muslims. The problem is even majority of Muslims themselves dare not question - it is perceived that questioning the imams and mullahs is equivalent as questioning the religion itself.
Rationality is being replaced by fanaticism, open inquiry is replaced by silent obedience and the living are no better than the dead. In such climate of anti-intellectualism, there is no way for progress and upholding of human rights. That is a dangerous time... as seen in the European Dark Ages and in the Taliban's Afghanistan.
Thus, the separation of politics and religion is the only way. A state must remain secular. No compromise on that.

"Religion is the opiate of the masses" Karl Marx.

Will said...

This was a very well written entry and I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about Malysian society, of which I know very little. The Islamic influence in Indonesia is well known but until recently I knew little of the role of Islam in Malaysia, so thank you for adding to my understanding.

The way religion is being used to divert attention away from problems of unemployment, etc., is very similar to the way racism was used in the US (and still is). Many whites who were poor, either because they did not have opportunities or because they were lazy, could feel better about themselves if they thought their problems were caused by blacks. We still see this, unfortunately, especially directed at Latinos. The new trend in religion in the US is for Christians who are well off -- they have money, education, power -- to portray themselves as "victims," to portray their religion as "under attack." I think, in this case, rather than diverting attention away from problems, they are people who have a taste of power and still want more, and are unhappy to see any challenge to that power.

Religion causes so many problems. How come people cannot just believe whatever they need to believe to get through the day, without trying to force others to believe/act the same way?

hrugaar said...

One man's security is another man's oppression.

AJ said...

And yet ANOTHER REASON why I feel like abandoning this country & moving to a place where I know If I don't list down my religion, it doesnt automatically become muslim.... Things are un-evolving all around us.

Spot said...

I think I might be in the minority here.

If it is decreed by the IGP that the attire for policewomen during official functions should include headscarves...I don't see a problem.

If IIU decides that headscarves are an integral part of their student uniform...I don't see a problem.

When female visitors to the Arab countries are required to cover up, even to the extent of having to wear the hijab...I don't see a problem.

What I WOULD have a problem with, is if the Govt declared it compulsory for all women in the country to wear the hijab.

As much as we accuse people of "religionising" (my vocab today very bad) issues, we fall into the same vice when we forget that in the "uniform" scenario, ultimately, the authority making the pronouncement actually has the right to decide what their uniform requirements are.

Derek said...

alex: Exactly.

When the book is said to contain words spoken directly from God, it is very difficult to argue with its contents, whatever its interpretation is.

What else can supercede that? Not even rationality.

will: Thanks and you're welcome.

To answer your question, one book says to spread the word, the other is concerned with things, mostly physical, that can lead to immorality.

When one believes that he has the backing of the divine, he thinks he is right and thus have the right to impose on others.

hrugaar: Erm, yeah.

aj: I understand how you feel. But if everybody is leaving, then cannot lar ...

spot: But I think in this case, Spot, the people in charge are really trying to impose their practices on other people.

And why would it only be a problem when it affects EVERYONE, but not when 0.1% of the people are affected?

Also, who's to say that is not going to happen? Small victories might lead them to bigger things.

Or maybe I am just paranoid. ;P

Musang said...

i really don't understand why such small issues like tudung could be very big and to be discussed in parliament. and as alex said, yes, i can see it too. that malay culture is slowly eroded and being replace.

i know that as a muslim, i'm bound to shariah law whether i like it or not. and bound to rules stated in Holy Quran and guidence by Prophet Muhammad. i'm a good muslim to be look in one way. but parts of me where it says that i'm gay... i'll be send straight to hell no matter how many good stuff i do. it's a big fuck and i hate it.

and why these people can't see that they can't bloody force anyone to wear tudung or anything because that's not their call. it's the person own choice. i've grown up to this saying, and i fucking well to hold on it until the day i die, "tiada paksaan dalam islam dan islam itu mudah."

so why the fuck are they making it issues in parliament and marching around forcing people to wear head scarf when all they supposed to do is to discuss problems regarding water issues with singapore and how to stop illegal land abusing in cameron highland.

for fuck sake... someone please tell them... to tell their bloody wives to wear tudung before they force it on other people!!

so i'm a bad muslim after all. let me be. i'm doing what i think is right for me to. let me deal with it. god know me better than all those fuckers who said you can't be gay and muslim at the same time. go preach to those ajaran sesat people first. i know my god, i know my prophet and i know my limit.

i hate people who bloody fanatics about islam and they themselves don't lead a muslim life after all. fuck you!!! *waving fist and showing the finger*

last but not least,

world peace. *wave ala miss universe*

(sorry derek for the cursing words here and there in this comment)

Wild Reeds said...

Excellent post, Derek...

Spot said...

Because when it's a matter of UNIFORM, it's inherent that the administration of the body you've joined (note that it's a choice whether or not to join) be entitled to decide what the rules governing the body are. On the face of it, the basis for the requirment is uniform. I understand however that the actual intent behind the ruling could possibly be something else entirely, but hey, if you CHOOSE to be a part of a body that is governed by rules, then that's how the cookie crumbles.

Why is it not ok for the govt to make such a requirement? Because then, it's a matter of CITIZENSHIP. You don't actually have a choice about citizenship (except for those who willingly apply). And uniform is not a requirement of citizenship.

Putting on a tudung doesn't make one a muslim. Westerners (women) in the Middle East wear it all the time when they're there on business. It doesnt make them Muslims.

It really just boils down to what we associate the tudung with, and our prejudice towards it.