Race, Face, Disgrace

“We are all misfits livin’ in a world on fire!”

People Like Us, Kelly Clarkson

Mercredi, 31 juillet 2013:

I have exactly two months left before I officially rejoin the world of academia, and I find myself driven by the need to splurge as much as I can in this blog while time is still something I can afford. When I started devoting more time and attention to this blog earlier this month, I am bombarded by ideas from all sides, a healthy sign that my brain has resumed its thinking capabilities. I am constantly thinking of what to write next, which keeps me up at night as all these ideas and possibilities are floating in my mind like unsolved pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

My latest thoughts are largely concentrated on a recent scandal caused by two local Chinese sex bloggers which triggered a massive uproar throughout the country, particularly among the Muslim community. And all this began with what was probably intended to be a harmless prank.

Early on in the month of Ramadan the afore-mentioned duo posted a photo of them enjoying a meal of bak kut teh, which from my limited understanding of Chinese cuisine is some sort of pork rib soup, captioned with ‘Selamat berbuka puasa bersama bak kut teh’ — which translates into something along the lines of ‘Enjoy your break fast with bak kut teh.’ Moreover, the photo also included the official logo of the ‘Halal’ certification normally issued by the Department of Religious Affairs for halal food products.

Muslims who saw this photo found it troubling for two primary reasons: first, Islam clearly prohibits the consumption of pork in any form and under any circumstances, so to suggest a pork-based meal for iftar is insulting to say the least. And second, no matter how the pig was slaughtered, its meat will forever be non-halal and therefore off-limits. For these reasons, this photo and its creators were heavily bashed by Muslims throughout the country for its offensive, insensitive, and provocative nature.

I personally do not believe that this photo was designed in such a manner out of ignorance; in fact, every single detail on that photo was most likely put there intentionally, with full knowledge of of the Muslims’ religious customs and dietary prohibitions, but whether they were put there with malice intentions or simply as a joke, I can’t answer for sure.

Whatever their intentions were in the beginning, the consequences that ensued in the following weeks were nothing short of disastrous for the couple as they were faced with two legal charges: the first, under the Sedition Act 1948 for posting a provocative photo which might cause religious enmity between people of different faiths, and the second, under the Film Censorship Act 2002 for displaying (and distributing) pornographic pictures. The couple spent a few days in jail while court proceedings were in progress but were finally released upon the payment of a RM 30,000 bail each. In addition to this they were also ordered by the police to surrender their passports and were prohibited from participating in any social networking sites, which must be somewhat life-changing considering their previous part-time occupation as sex bloggers.

But my reason for bringing all this up is not merely to summarize what happened, but really to look at the wider debates sparked by this incident, particularly among the laypeople who seem the most vocal about their opposition to this photo. What seemed like a harmless joke ended up being a full-on crime, with serious legal action taken against the unsuspecting perpetrators. Why?

First, after hearing so much fuss from the Muslims about the photo the authorities were pressured into taking action because it was  causing religious enmity and animosity between people of different faiths and races. Now this I agree. The (co)existence of culturally and religiously different races in our diverse multiracial community makes racial equilibrium in this country an extremely delicate issue, and at any moment the balance can tip in either direction, wreaking havoc and chaos. Things were never smooth between the Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the indigenous population in this country but the least we can do is smooth things out the moment they start getting rough.

When Tun Mahathir was asked to comment on this issue, he immediately said, without beating about the bush, that their actions were “stupid” (“bodoh”). Tun Mahathir was clearly pissed off, perhaps because in his time no such nonsense would ever grace the pages of the newspapers and also because he pretty much spearheaded the development of this country, not only in terms of building its economy and infrastructure but also in terms of establishing and maintaining that racial stability between the different ethnic groups.

Second, after the photo was released a lot of people — Muslims in particular — called for the authorities to take action on the couple for insulting Islam (“menghina Islam”). This mobilized the relevant authorities into action to “save face”; the couple was summoned to the police headquarters to “facilitate investigation” and the Muslim community was assured that no one who insults Islam in this country will go unpunished.

But the question is, why are we so bothered by a practical joke done by two Chinese sex bloggers who probably have no knowledge of Islam? Why do we take offense from something that two very naive people who don’t represent Islam whatsoever did? Aren’t we better than this?

I thought the photo that this duo uploaded on their Facebook, while insulting to a minimal extent, was also harmless because at least it made no attempt at attacking the theological foundation of our faith, namely our Prophet (peace be upon him) and God. I didn’t even take much offense from it because it was without a doubt the work of fools, but when too many people started paying attention to it and turned this molehill into a mountain — now that’s when shit started hitting the fan.

What frustrates me the most about this issue is that we are so preoccupied with punishing people who insult Islam that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that those of us who do practice this religion in this country aren’t that perfect too. We make mistakes, huge ones, that have done much more damage to the Muslim community than what these sex bloggers ever did. What I think we crucially need at this point is to focus on real issues affecting Muslims (that are usually caused by Muslims too): divorce, polygamy, protecting the family institution, drugs, education, criminalizing black magic, anything other than getting offended by two naive Chinese youngsters who just wanted to get a laugh out of something (but unfortunately clearly picked the wrong thing to mess around with).

I think living in a Muslim-majority country, we Malays have gotten too comfortable, too pampered, and perhaps we feel a sort of immunity that comes with being part of the majority; just a little tease from two twenty-something Chinese kids has sent us running off to the authorities in tears, when in truth this is something that we could man up to and face with quiet dignity. The intervention of the authorities in this matter, while necessary to a certain extent in order to restore racial stability, could also possibly backfire on us, but what’s more dangerous is all that fuss. For a while after the photo was uploaded on Facebook, my homepage too was filled with reposts of this photo accompanied by angry captions. These people were simply sharing it out of emotional rage and probably gave little thought to how that ‘Share’ button could mobilize hostile sentiments among Muslims, an outcome that will in the end be detrimental to us.

Muslims in this country seem unaware of what a blessing it is to have such extensive religious freedom guaranteed to us in the Constitution, which means that we can pray, dress, eat, live, and study the ‘Islamic’ way freely, with no laïcité laws intervening, and other races are permitted to practice their own religions too. This sort of environment has allowed us to slip into that dangerous and illusory comfort zone, which leaves us unprepared to deal with attacks against Islam such as this unfortunately. In truth, this offensive photo is too insignificant, too inconsequential to even be considered as ‘Islamophobia’, for what’s really ‘Islamophobic’ is things like the anti-veil laws in France, or the prohibition to read or pray in Arabic in the period of time following Attaturk’s movement towards turning Turkey into a secular country, or labeling anyone with the name ‘Muhammad’ or ‘Abdullah’ as terrorists.

My point is that there are bigger issues at hand to think about, and worse things that could have happened that have happened to Muslims in other countries, but the disappointing way in which we have responded to such a small issue like the publication of this controversial photo worries me. Are we prepared to face the Big World out there, where Muslims are the minority and Islamophobic attacks in the streets are just part of daily life? Where there is no Islamic bureaucracy to take our back and the legal system could be more partial to the non-Muslim party? Where we constantly have to stand up for our religion, not necessarily by returning insult with insult, but through patience, forgiveness, and dignity?

To conclude: I do not condone what this couple has done and I never will. In fact I condemn the photo that they published for its insensitivity, and clearly not much thought has been put into how this could aggravate relations between people of different religion and ethnicity in this country, particularly in the holy month of Ramadan when the religious hype is heightened to a large extent. Legal action taken against them was perhaps a necessary caution to deter any individual or groups from committing the same error in the near or far future, so that we accompany our actions with serious consideration of their possible consequences on all parties.

At the same time however, we Muslims should also perhaps stop being obsessed with ‘protecting’ Islam from external threat but think of how we can protect our religion by being better Muslims ourselves instead — a  note to self, above all. Islam is in fact untouchable, for it is divine in nature and above human intervention, but it is Muslims who are so weak sometimes, so easily offended, and so easy to scare.

With the issue of a public apology video from the afore-mentioned couple recently, I and many others in this country consider this case to be closed. You have done us (some) harm, apologized for your mistakes, and we forgive you. But maybe we needed this wake-up call to keep us on our toes. And to learn that the best way to deal with Islamophobia in this day and age is really not by fussing over it uselessly and mobilizing feelings of hatred and animosity, but by returning these insults with kindness, forgiveness, and tea and biscuits, as taught by our much more experienced counterparts in England.

"The world is our only home. Be tolerant."

“The world is our only home. Be tolerant.”

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