Distorting the past endangers the present

By Farish Noor, NST

Those who look up to Ibrahim Libya, who died in the Memali violence, exhibit a lack of knowledge.

LAST week, a curious news item caught my attention. It was reported that some activists wanted to organise a convoy to the village of Memali in Kedah, presumably to visit the site where the fiery orator, Ibrahim Libya, was killed in November 1985.

Though I am not certain of whether this convoy was a success, I was, nonetheless, amazed that more than two decades later, there are still some who regard the man as a hero of sorts. Perhaps the reason for this lies partly in their lack of knowledge of who the man was, and what he was fighting for then.

Memali was the scene of what is probably the worst instance of state versus opposition violence in recent Malaysian history. Charok Puteh/Memali was then a small, poor village. A majority of its inhabitants were Malay farmers and rubber smallholders.

Like many other small rural communities whose income depended on the world rubber price, the people of Charok Puteh and Memali were hard hit by the drop in commodity prices and high levels of inflation during the 1970s. It was here that ustaz Ibrahim Mahmood  settled and built his madrasah.

Ibrahim was a well-known ulama in Kedah who had studied at various madrasah and seminaries such as the Dar’ul ‘Ulum Deoband in India and al-Azhar University in Cairo.

He had also studied at the University of Tripoli (hence his nickname, Ibrahim Libya).

Upon his return to Malaysia, Ibrahim worked as an official in the dakwah department of Pusat Islam in Kuala Lumpur. He was expected to help rationalise many of the government’s policies on Islam and Muslim concerns.

 One of his  tasks was to persuade the young Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia  leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was detained at the Kamunting detention camp, to support the government. (This was later documented in C.N. al-Afghani’s 1998 book, Rakyat Makin Mantang, Baling: Corak Memali.)

Ibrahim Libya grew more determined to propagate his understanding of Islam, which was not entirely compatible with Pusat Islam’s  interpretation.

He  quit the capital and returned to his village of Charok Puteh. He-re, Ibrahim opened his own school,  Madrasah Islahiah Diniyyah. He became an active Pas member, in particular  Dewan Pemuda Pas Kedah.  In time, he gained a large following and his madrasah became a centre for political activities as well as Islamic teaching.

The ustaz was well known for his fiery rhetoric and strict code of discipline: on several occasions, he punished (by caning) not only his younger students, but also the older ones (who happened to be married men).

He was invited to speak on Islamic matters on national television, and also engaged in  discussions with state ulama and religious functionaries.

However, his own defence of Islamist politics and Pas was soon articulated through oppositional dialectics that drew a dividing line between “authentic” Muslims and the non-authentic Islam of the munafikin (hypocrites).

Ibrahim lamented the fact that  Islamists in Malaysia were not willing to engage in an all-out jihad against the government.

In 1984, the government  decided to act against Ibrahim.

An arrest warrant was issued and he was to be detained along with other Pas leaders, including ustaz Abu Bakar Chik and ustaz Bunyamin Yaacob for allegedly advocating the use of violence.  He refused to accept the charges and condemned the Internal Security Act as un-Islamic and oppressive.

Unlike the other Pas leaders who were caught and detained, Ibrahim escaped with the help of his students. The stalemate continued for more than a year, until his death in 1985.

Notwithstanding the circumstances of his death, it ought to be noted that Ibrahim was hardly a moderate by anyone’s standards then, even those of Pas.

His speeches called on his supporters to oppose the state, citing examples from Iran and Pakistan.

 He also reminded his followers that should they die in the cause of his struggle, they would all die as martyrs, though. in his own case, he initially refused to accept the terms of his arrest, and promptly ran into hiding.

I raise this issue now only because of the recent debates about Malaysian history and the fact that so many scholars have bemoaned our lack of knowledge of the past. It is difficult enough to stomach claims that we were never colonised, or that national heroes could be seen as criminals, and vice-versa.

In the case of Ibrahim Libya, the testimonies and speeches of the man himself were well documented, and are available.

His own words tell us what the man was like, and it was hardly surprising that, during his own time, he was shunned by many of his peers and friends for taking things too far.

My only advice to the younger generation of activists today would be this: while a thorough and critical reading of our past is always welcomed, and forever needed, let us also be cautious not to distort the past for the needs of the present.

Ibrahim Libya was the man who once asked: “Di Malaysia kenapa tidak boleh wujud angkatan yang berani mati?” (Why is it that in Malaysia, there is none who is   willing to die?).

In the end, it was Ibrahim himself who paid the price for his overheated rhetoric, but not without taking some of his unfortunate followers to the grave with him, too.