Monday, 16 November 2009

Speak Up and be Counted

Musings
By MARINA MA
HATHIR

Sometimes it takes an extreme act to wake us up to our rights and guard against extremism.

THERE was a flurry of excitement last week when the Selangor Islamic Department (Jais) arrested Datuk Dr Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin, the popular former mufti of Perlis, for supposedly teaching Islam without a licence.

Surrounded by some 40 policemen and then almost handcuffed like a common criminal, Dr Mohd Asri was taken to the police station but not charged. Nor was he charged in court the next day.

The fiasco may or may not have been related to a memorandum put up by the Syariah Lawyers’ Association and supposedly handed over to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The group then apologised, and in 24 hours withdrew it so the question of the arrest as well as other defamatory statements made by various individuals remain.

Presumably, none of the people out to get Dr Mohd Asri quite realised how popular the ex-mufti is.

To call a man who has written that Muslims should be nice to their non-Muslim friends, should ensure that women get justice in the courts and that we should treat animals kindly, an extremist defied all logic.

This must have been news to them: kind people are popular!

Indeed there were many statements condemning Jais’ actions. Politicians on both sides of the fence, as well as NGOs lent their support to Dr Mohd Asri.

One of the best statements came from the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF). In their statement, they said Dr Mohd Asri’s arrest was an affront to “the spirit of intellectual freedom in the history of Islam.”

They also reiterated that “every person has the right, guaranteed by the Quran, to freely follow and express his convictions, irrespective of whether he is right or wrong.”

And what’s more, they decried the tendency of various groups to resort to “labelling and branding Muslim scholars on the basis of their opinions, with a view to disparage the person instead of countering their opinions with proofs and arguments based on the Quran and Sunnah.

“By invoking the age-old argument of protecting the Muslim community in Malaysia from confusion, these groups have exposed their inability to grasp the spirit of Islam and have only created a hole for them to hide in every time they are intellectually challenged.”

The right to “freely follow and express his convictions” is not just a right in Islam but also enshrined in Article 10 of our Federal Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech and which can only be limited by Parliament. Obviously some of these “Muslim” NGOs and agencies like JAIS have never read the Constitution.

Otherwise they would not be writing endless memorandums or lodging police reports against people for expressing their opinion. As the MPF have pointed out so succinctly, not only do these acts violate the Federal Constitution, they violate Islam itself.

It is ironic that the very people who want to establish an Islamic state are violating an Islamic tenet. What’s more, they will no doubt hide behind that same “secular” Article 10 if need be, although given that some of their statements are in fact defamatory, they may not have even that defence.

In many ways, this incident has been a real boon for the Malaysian public because it brings into focus the issue of freedom of speech as never before. We now know that our Federal Constitution and Islam are completely in synch on the issue.

Even more interestingly, Islam does not specifically apply the right to free speech only to Muslims either, thus making us all equal, as we are under the Constitution. Amazing what a little education does to how we think about ourselves.

This is why we should encourage everyone to educate themselves about their religions, including the majority Muslim population in our country.

After all, if we rely totally on agencies like Jais, what happens when they do strange things like arrest highly qualified ulama like Dr Mohd Asri?

We also should educate ourselves on our Federal Constitution so we know our rights as citizens of this country. In fact, it should be a school subject, just as it is in Britain.

But to help everyone along, the Bar Council is organising a My Constitution campaign to educate the public about our Federal Constitution.

To be launched on Nov 13 (this Friday) by the Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk V.K. Liew, the campaign aims to get the public to understand, via simple booklets, videos and forums, what exactly is in the Constitution, and perhaps clear up some misinformation about what is not.

An educated citizenry is not just a more empowered citizenry, but also a more responsible one. That surely is a goal that nobody can argue with.

Perhaps it does take an extreme act for us to wake up and understand our rights. The right to speak on anything, including religion, is a right for all, not just some.

Note: No reproduction of this article is allowed without the author's consent.

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