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Flowing ideas, porous borders

Indonesian Muslim scholar Dr Ulil Abshar Abdalla

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The participation of a banned Indonesian scholar in a KL human rights conference shows that through ICT, ideas can still flow across physical borders no matter the obstacles, writes Mustafa K Anuar.

Indonesian Muslim scholar Dr Ulil Abshar Abdalla
Indonesian Muslim scholar Dr Ulil Abshar Abdalla

The controversial Indonesian Muslim scholar, Dr Ulil Abshar Abdalla, cautioned Malaysian authorities who banned him recently from entering Malaysia that progressive ideas in the modern world could not be blocked or banned.

He was blacklisted because of his “liberal” views of Islam that were feared by such people as Jakim and other Muslim leaders.

Although forbidden from speaking at a scheduled 18 October roundtable on the threat of religious fundamentalism organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) in Kuala Lumpur, Ulil made good his caution when he used Skype to participate in the Third International Conference on Human Rights and Peace and Conflict in Southeast Asia held in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Much has already been said by critics about the banning of Ulil by the Malaysian government. But suffice to say here that it is indeed sad, if not shameful, that government leaders and religious authorities in the country chose to shy away from an intellectual discourse in a manner that could be misconstrued by some as Islam disallowing or discouraging its adherents from involving themselves in civilised dialogue and discussion.

Worse, this act of banning may be wrongly taken by some as an indication that Muslims in general are incapable of having intellectual engagement and instead resort to some undemocratic and uncivilised behaviour, thereby reinforcing the horrific media imagery of Muslims running amok, burning properties, issuing threats of violence, or killing people whom they disagree with and consider ‘heretic’.

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As if to further strengthen this unfortunate and negative stereotype, a Cabinet minister recently said that it was okay for Perkasa chief Ibrahim Ali to threaten to burn Malay-language Bibles as he meant well, i.e. to purportedly defend Islam. Threaten to defile someone else’s holy book in order to protect one’s own religion?

Defenders of this warped logic should know where it can lead to: some people may argue, for instance, that it is fine for American pastor Terry Jones to threaten to burn some 2,998 copies of the Quran in late 2013 as a form of protest against ‘violent’ and ‘evil’ Islam especially in the aftermath of the 9-11 tragedy. There is no end to this belligerent approach to faith and social issues.

Indeed, ideas must be fought with ideas, not by burying our heads in the sand in the hope that those unwanted thoughts would somehow go away. In this contemporary world, where advancement in information and communications technology (ICT) facilitates easier and faster communication, it is crucial that we become well equipped to engage ourselves in intellectual exchanges.

The fact that Ulil could still ‘participate’ in the KL human rights conference shows that through ICT, ideas, no matter how controversial they can be, can still flow, transgressing physical borders and stubborn denial.

And just as Ulil could communicate his ideas beyond the shores of his home country, so can others whose intention of sharing their thoughts may be nebulous and even crafty. It was reported, for example, that the menacing Islamic State in West Asia had succeeded in recruiting so-called jihadists into their fold even among our local youths via social media.

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This is, of course, not to recommend – as a panacea – a knee-jerk reaction of banning social media or a cavalier use of the Sedition Act for that matter.

To close avenues for discussion and dialogue would only induce secret or underground activities especially among restless youths, which can be more insidious. On the other hand, providing a platform for intellectual encounters at the very least could help the authorities detect a problem area in society that needs to be addressed in a persuasive and clever way.

But there is a prerequisite to confronting ideas in an intelligent fashion: it is crucial that one has a mindset that appreciates and respects differences of opinion in society so that at the end of the day one can at least agree to disagree without having to resort to violence.

Diversity of opinions on many things in life is a reality one cannot ignore or protest against. After all, diversity is indeed a reflection of the greatness of the Divine. In this regard, we are reminded of a message in the Qur’an: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” (Surah 49:13).

Hence, in a multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious setting such as Malaysia’s, diversity must be seen as a valuable asset to society as a whole. The diversity of ideas and opinions available in society ought to be harnessed or tapped for the common good of the Malaysian people. Diverse people should also strive to know and appreciate each other – which would go a long way towards promoting inter-ethnic understanding, respect and harmony.

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Sure, we encounter ‘good’ ideas and ‘bad’ in our daily lives. But Malaysians, especially those who have been exposed to various shades of opinion and diverse ideas, are to a large extent able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Besides, they are not easily confused as certain politicians and religious leaders often would condescendingly claim and like us to believe.

Otherwise, many Malaysians would have gone bonkers every time certain politicians spew out inane remarks e.g. Malaysia received a poor world press ranking because of a certain opposition party’s action (and not because of our bad media-related laws etc.); the very rich are not heavily taxed for fear of them migrating away from Malaysia (which is tantamount to creating a tax haven for the well-endowed); critics of the (anachronistic) Sedition Act should be dealt with by using the very law itself (a no-brainer); and business people should emulate cendol sellers who reduced their cendol price after a recent petrol price hike (as if cendol is a basic necessity).

It is the democratic right of Malaysians to receive (and also transmit) information and ideas and at the same time it is also their right to appraise and respond to them in an informed and civilised manner.

Source: themalaymailonline.com

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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8 Nov 2014 8.33am

Please ensure the entire world to know what the dorky and schmucks are doing at the immigration. These immigrations would allow millions of foreign unskilled labourers into the country yet they can refuse one individual to enter the country to speak at a forum. Does that not confirm that the millions of illegals were allowed in with their eyes closed or blind folded ?

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