This article was originally published in Free Malaysia Today on September 28 in Bahasa Malaysia.
Confiscating, withholding, and the banning of works of art are all acts that rob the dignity and honour of humanity because the right to pass down an artistic product is denied.
The week of 24-30 September happens to be the international Banned Books Week.
One of the reasons why a book gets banned is because the ideas of a writer stuffed into that book are not pleasing to the authorities.
A true author will tease danger in his/her essays. Toni Morrison, American Nobel Prize Recipient, once said, “I want to remind us all that art is dangerous… You have to know it before you start, and do it under those circumstances, because it is one of the most important things that human beings do.”
In 2008, a Perlis mufti well-loved by certain parties for his “progressive” views, sent a message to the editor of Harian Metro, along with a copy to the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) and the Ministry of Home Affairs, that, among other complaints, my serial novel “Ketupat Cinta” had been associated with Shia beliefs.
Strangely, a string of authors which later joined in the accusatory game that the novel’s ideas were “wrong” included a group of ustazes who have been linked with Wahhabist values.
Simply because Wahhabism is being treated with such love and care, the accusation impacted all of my works; when in fact, those that have read Ketupat Cinta were only confronted with a jokes-filled political satire.
Many authors have included, even compromised, with the ideas of other schools of thought including Shia since a long time ago. But Wahhabism has never reigned over our homeland like right now.
Let’s take Professor Syed Naguib al-Attas as an example. In his writing titled “Preliminary Thoughts on the Nature of Knowledge and the Definition and Aims of Education”, as part of the book “Aims and Objectives of Islamic Education”, he advised that the Shia doctrine be taught positively in schools.
Or, the essay by Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmi, a PAS leader, in the book “Simposium Tasauf dan Tarikat” which stated that it was sensible to accept the school of thought.
But I have become a victim to the misuse of Islam to gain popularity in politics and proselytization as once mentioned by Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd from Universiti Utara Malaysia.
Art is very related to interpretation; it is a social activity. Because of this it is also a cultural component that can be inherited. Confiscating, withholding, and the banning of works of art are all acts that rob the dignity and honour of humanity because the right to pass down an artistic product is denied.
This denies the rights of both author and reader. This denies the right to interpret. Only the authorities who are in the business of banning feel that they are the only ones deserving to interpret a matter, and then force that interpretation onto works of art. Its purpose is to control minds, and it is an offense to human rights.
This is why Article 27 of the Human Rights Charter (UDHR 1948) and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) asserts that it is every person’s right to be involved in culture, to enjoy it, to apply it, and it is compulsory for state leaders to preserve the independence of artists and those who want to celebrate it.
Writers that play dumb
Pure literary works are the agents of change in society, and to restrict access to such agents of change is an act that directly victimizes culture. In 2013, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Denmark mentioned this in a guidebook regarding the protection of art, culture, and in my context, literature.
But Malaysia is not Denmark. Far from it. It goes without saying that I love Malaysia; it is my country.
When 6 works of mine were banned, not one person scrambled to defend those rights. There were no hordes of National Laureates, except for A. Samad Said (openly) and Shahnon Ahmad (privately), offering their support to me.
The right of an author to produce work, and the right of the reader to enjoy the work, have been shut down. I will carry with me the silence of other national laureates as a reminder in the hereafter later.
An artist’s idea that gets banned is a victimization of society as a whole. Take for example, when Za’aba’s (Zainal Abidin Ahmad) work was banned.
His writings in Pengasuh, Utusan Melayu, and Lembaga Melayu which heavily criticised the conspiring British and Malay aristocrats have incensed Raja Chulan, second prince to Sultan Abdullah of Perak.
Za’aba’s work was monitored, his position as an academic was limited in 1919, and even his salary was suspended. Za’aba’s work was prohibited. The prohibition victimised the entire community.
In the Lembaga Melayu, dated 28th May 1917, Za’aba wrote:
[P]eople of affluence (wealthy, important, smart) we sit comfortably in our castles with enjoyment and satisfaction, we have the heart and mind to watch our citizens become filled with contempt and fall to the ranks of those who are far behind the squatters of a state.
This was the criticism that infuriated Raja Chulan so much, which led the royalty to say:
It seems that Za’aba writes in newspapers, especially in Malay newspapers alleging that the leaders are doing things they shouldn’t do, or doing this and that. Let me remind you, if you [Za’aba], keep doing this, tomorrow the government will no longer treat you nicely. You won’t get to have a pay raise, or any job position. You might even be dismissed.
In his poem that was banned at that time, Za’aba criticised the religious leaders. I am putting down 3 stanzas of his poem that created enough heat to flare the nostrils of the ulama:
Right or wrong it doesn’t matter
It is all up to Islam’s orders!
Accept [,] no shaking of the head!
If there were wise men,
Knowledge and reason brings calamity,
With their eyes they cast judgment
Heresy becomes the charge
Assuming the role of judge and God
Reformist Ulama suspected to be false [gone astray]
The prohibition of books or works were always meant to satisfy the hearts of the elite. This is demonstrated like what was seen in Za’aba’s work above.
The elite want to control members of society so that only their version is heard. This is what endangers society the most and suppresses us into not thinking, a key value we should all be practising.
Our faculty ratio is blocked. This is what happens to works like Za’aba’s and mine.
Writers that are silent are conspiring agents. Ulamas like Asri and others are elites that seek to control. Strangely, he is still regarded as liberal and progressive by his friends.
Faisal Tehrani is the pen name of Dr Mohd Faizal Musa, a writer whose 6 books have been banned by the Malaysian government.