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Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Name Game

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"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
(Shakespeare - Romeo & Juliet [Act 2, Scene 2])

So, what’s in a name?

For some, not a whole heck of a lot. For others, a big deal. And so, for those who consider it a big deal, what an organization names itself is important. Sometimes, that importance transcends the organization itself, in the eyes of the observer.

Image hosting by Photobucket Such is the case with the recent brouhaha over Sisters In Islam (SIS). It started (again) with the resolution passed during the recent PAS assembly, which called for the investigation of the organization, and for it’s banning if found to be “deviant”.

And as the discourse on this has progressed, part of the complaint is the use of the word “Islam” in the organization’s name. To Walski, SIS, which is an advocacy group, uses the word to denote the commonality of its membership, and promoting justice and equality for Muslim women.

And it is this that many find SIS at fault. Because of what the NGO’s detractors think “Islam” should be, and the detractors’ idea of what “justice” entails within Islam.

There is this idea that equality is not the basis of justice, and cannot be. In fact, they view equality as an injustice. This mindset is common among those who view SIS as a threat, and ironically, staunch ethno-nationalists as well.

Real justice” to them is that everyone has their rightful place, and that these people-in-their-places be treated differently according to their place. Which is, of course, contrary to the concept of equality.

For ethno-nationalists, for example, equality based on citizenship alone is a big no-no. It is simply not just, according to them. Instead, other criteria must be used as a basis to accord, or not, certain rights and privileges. In the case of the ethno-nationalists, it is race, and increasingly, religion.

But Walski digresses. Again.

When any organization uses the word Islam, the expectation of the justice-through-inequality lot is that the organization must speak for Islam. More importantly, an interpretation of Islam that jives with their own. All other interpretations verboten.

Nevermind that in the real world, Islam is the thesis of diversity in itself. 
(fair impositions, strange mindset, and more, in the full post)

But not in Malaysia, of course. Oh no, here in this blessed but soon-to-be-forsaken land, there can only be one interpretation. And that interpretation is the one that Islamic establishment/bureaucracy says is the one and only one. Here, any interpretation incongruent with the status quo is not only rejected, but subject to possible persecution.

And so it is the case with SIS – because they advocate justice AND equality (which are incompatible, apparently) for the womenfolk, they are seen to be anti-Islam.

Image from Wikipedia, hosting by Photobucket Earlier this week, blogger Art Harun wrote a thought-provoking piece (albeit humorous in an obtuse way) about why PAS, too, should be investigated and possibly banned. Because, according to Art (and Walski concurs), certain members of PAS have been going back against their words made many years ago.

PAS, incidentally is the acronym for Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (or Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party). And going back on your word is not what Walski considers to be very Islamic. Unless, of course, it pertains to your mortal enemies. But that is another long-drawn discussion, so Walski will leave it at that.

The point is, however, that PAS, lest we forget is a POLITICAL party. Not God’s appointed representatives on planet Malaysia. But that is exactly how some people have come to view PAS, and so whatever PAS says is therefore what Islam calls for. Whereas historically, PAS, an offshoot of UMNO, came into being as an anti-colonial, right-wingish political organization. Yes, they had Islam in their name from day one, but probably more because the concept of justice within Islam is actually universal – more universal than the PAS of today will want to admit to. Or at least their grassroots.

This is the sort of thinking that led to the idea, prevalent in the 80’s and early 90’s, that if you were Malay/Muslim, and did not support PAS, you were an infidel. All because PAS became more than it was, a POLITICAL party. Fortunately, that sort of thinking has lost its vogue of late, and PAS, in fact, has been trying to evolve into a more inclusive political party. The jury’s still out, however, on whether that inclusiveness is just a Trojan horse to conceal the bigger agenda of Islamic statehood, which the party’s supporters seem to still be clamoring for.

Or what about Jakim – the Malaysian government’s Department for Islamic Advancement. Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, if you prefer the Bahasa Malaysia version. It’s got the word Islam in it. One of the things Jakim does to “advance” Islam is to ban books that don’t jive with the status quo interpretation of Islam. Not a very progressive thing to do, Walski thinks. Nor is it a very Islamic thing to do, for that matter, because it prevents one from being able to consider all opinions, before choosing the best (Quran – Surah 39 Verse 18).

In Art Harun’s blog posting mentioned above, one anonymous commenter had this to say (edited for punctuation/spelling/grammar, and emphasis, by myAsylum):

[I]t is good if muslims have someone like you who is so passionate in upholding the(sic) Islam. [B]ut please be aware of certain rules and regulations in Islam. [T]here is no such thing as "Full Universal Rights" in Islam. [W]e are allowed to think but don’t think about what God forbid us to think.   [W]e are allowed to speak and hear but do not cross the border that Allah and our prophet have limited. [O]nce we have become Muslims, we have to be aware of the rules and regulation, restriction along with other things. [I]t is also haram to donate our body part because its not really ours.. it’s only being borrowed to us...
(source: ARTiculations)

Now, with all due respect, this “ideal” of Islam is what Walski calls the “check in your brain at the door” variety. It essentially entails that one can only think what the clerics (and their favorite dead scholars) say you can think, do, and what not. And Walski has no clue which sectarian branch of Islam prohibits organ donation. The Jehovah’s Witness variety, maybe.

But checking your brain at the door is not how all those fantastic scientific advancements attributed to Islam around a millennium ago came about. On the contrary, it was the freedom of inquiry and thought. It is no surprise, therefore, that when the freedom to think was curtailed, the decline in Islamic civilization began. And that decline is today still with us. Somehow, there is this idea that further restriction and curtailment will one day bring Islam to its romanticized historical glory. Good luck with that.

Quibbling over who has the right to use Islam, in truth, is a triviality that consumes unnecessary resources that are best utilized for other bigger, more important problems. All sectarian branches of religions will want to claim that theirs is the exclusively CORRECT version in the eyes of God. But more often than not, each branch usually ends up wanting to curtail the views of others, particularly when they are in the majority.

The Quran has something quite interesting to say on the subject of majoritarianism: “Wert thou to follow the common run of those on earth, they will lead thee away from the way of Allah. They follow nothing but conjecture: they do nothing but lie.(Quran, Surah 6, Verse 116 – Yusuf Ali translation)

This, incidentally, is the polar opposite of what is currently accepted by Muslims (at least the Sunnah Wal Jamaah flavor). Of course, there will be those who will crawl out of the woodworks to say that only those “trained” are allowed to quote scripture. More like, those brainwashed to quote scripture a certain way.

So, who’s got it right, and who’s gotten it wrong? That, however, is not for Walski to answer.

The point is this: Islam is not the homogenous bloc that the media sometimes makes it out to be. Diversity of opinion is very much part and parcel of the faith. But it is exactly this diversity that certain quarters would love very much to eliminate, for their own respective agendas.

And because there are so many divergent views as to what is Islam (apart from the status quo interpretation), perhaps the solution is to ban the use of any religious identifier from the names of ANY organizations (particularly political ones), just like what Indonesia imposes.

PAS, for example, could just as well promote their social change agenda if they called themselves Parti Malaysia Sejagat (PMS – pun not intended), just as some quarters are calling on SIS to change their name and drop Islam from their moniker.

And JAKIM could drop Islam and call itself Jabatan Kemajuan Ummah Negara (JAKUN – pun somewhat intended), and still be as effective (or otherwise) as they are today. And seriously, do stop with the book banning – the only “kemajuan” achievable with that is the maju-off-the-cliff-to-certain-death variety. Or is it really about control, not advancement?


But let’s be consistent – if you want to impose something, do it across the board. Leave no organization unscathed. Without fear, favor and prejudice.

Otherwise, leave things be. There are more important fish to fry, than to argue and threaten unnecessarily over the trivial. More importantly, everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how distasteful or stupid those opinions may be.

To impose on others that which you wouldn’t want yourself to be imposed upon is really being hypocritical. And we all know how much God loves the hypocrites.


So, really, what IS in a name?

Walski’s insensitivity faux pas apology footnote: He’s painfully aware that the word “Jakun” is used derogatorily for those whom are uncouth or uncultured, and it did fit the situation. He does not, however, mean this to disrespect the Jakun people and subgroups. Similarly, with PMS, as Walski knows damned well how painful that period of the month can be (and has been on the receiving end more than once). Humor, unfortunately, sometimes doesn’t discriminate its victims… and being politically correct all the time is simply no damned fun.