Malaysian tales of love and loathing

We dare call ourselves a religion that practices equality and peace, do we?

By Mariam Mokhtar

If there ever was a time when Malaysians should speak up on behalf of people, whose rights are being curtailed, that time is now.

But last Friday (12 March), a new twist was added to this freedom of expression when khutbahs, or sermons, throughout mosques in Selangor addressed the congregation, with the chilling message that the Muslim women’s NGO, Sisters in Islam, was insulting the religion.

And to make it personal, the SIS Director, Dr. Hamidah Marican, was singled out for condemnation.

Maybe it comes as no surprise that none of the religious officials was censured for making this abhorrent speech. If Islam is the religion of peace, how is it possible that an inflammatory sermon such as this was allowed to be delivered? True to fashion, when it comes to prosecution, some groups are allowed leniency whereas others are not allowed any leeway.

This is Muslim against Muslim, but the only difference here is that a woman’s organisation was involved. And yet it was a women’s NGO which dared to condemn the harsh and degrading treatment against a fellow Muslim, albeit a woman.

The irony is that the three defenseless women, who were caned, were given a voice by SIS. But, when the religious officials addressed an assembled audience and preached hate against SIS, this NGO was unable to defend itself nor reach out in a similar public manner. Who will speak up for SIS, if not us?

We dare call ourselves a religion that practices equality and peace, do we? It is the people who issued the khutbahs who are the ones who have desecrated the good name of the religion with their incendiary talk.

According to the JAIS representative, Mohd Hidayat Abd. Rani, the contents of their sermons are factual and focused on current issues that affect the Muslim community. He confirmed that sermons were scrutinized by a committee before they were distributed throughout Selangor.

It is shocking, inappropriate and irresponsible that a sermon such as this was even authorised. The roots of this arose when three Muslim women were surreptitiously caned in early February by the authorities. 

Sisters in Islam (SIS) swiftly issued a press statement condemning this unjust and degrading treatment. An article by P. Gunasegaram, the Managing Editor of The Star, called ‘Persuasion not Compulsion’ soon followed.

SIS and Gunasegaram were like the several thousand people, from within and outside Malaysia, who protested about these humiliating and degrading acts. It was a serious matter; Civil law precludes women from whipping and another case involving a woman to be whipped, had to be resolved first. (Her punishment was for drinking beer).

Many people are probably aware that police reports have now been made against SIS and also P. Gunasegaram. Most right minded people also realise that they were only exercising their rights as a citizen or civil society organisation, to speak publicly about injustices.

The police have already begun an investigation under Section 298(A) of the Penal Code for “causing, etc., disharmony, disunity, or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will, or prejudicing, etc., the maintenance of harmony or unity, on grounds of religion”.

But why are the police investigating a legitimate action by a civil society organisation, such as SIS? 

Does that mean to say that inciting hate from a pulpit, does not contravene Section 298(A)? Why the double standards? And why are religious preachers not spreading the message of peace, goodwill, cooperation and love for your fellow man?

Events in history have warned us of what can happen when people do not come to the defense of others whose civil liberties have been taken away.  

Sadly, in Malaysia, those who dare speak up are themselves seized upon by the authorities. And uppermost in everybody’s mind is the hypocrisy and extreme sexism that exists.

Speaking-out against an injustice does not equate with insulting the religion. But speaking out about syariah legislation that has been poorly drafted or inadequately scrutinized, and which then causes perverse outcomes, is absolutely necessary.

The religious authorities, JAIS and other relevant bodies must end the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust. It is detrimental to both Muslims and non-Muslims. It is apparent that it is not just the legislation that needs amending, but their whole culture and attitude that requires a complete rethink.

And for starters, Dr. Hamidah Marican, P. Gunasegaram and the respective organisations they represent, deserve an unconditional apology.