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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Square Root of Evil

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Walski’s very delayed post apology forenote: This post was started almost 2 weeks ago, when the topic was still piping hot. Although no longer boiling, the brew still has some simmer in it, and still worth a look see… and a gulp or three.
Pick up a dictionary, and you’ll find several meanings for the word evil – depending, of course, on which dictionary. One of the meanings you’ll find is: "causing harm"
At least according to Mirriam-Webster, among other dictionaries. The Oxford Dictionary lists the above as one of the possible meaning, as well. It is this pernicious context of evil that Walski has in mind, and not the supernatural context of the word.
Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, lodged in a cave buried underneath a landslide, you’ll know that the news last week has all but been dominated by the harassment that former Perlis Mufti Dr. Mohamad Asri Zainal Abidin (better known as Dr. Maza) has been getting from the religious authorities and some NGOs. And for the purpose of this post, the evil that Walski refers to is in this context – the harmful way that these so-called Malaysian authorities of Islam have behaved. 
But before we go further, a quick recap of what’s transpired. For a more complete catchment of related articles, Minda Tajdid, Dr. Maza’s blog, has compiled links to related articles (in Bahasa Malaysia and English).
It all started with a memorandum from PGSM – the Syariah Lawyers Association of Malaysia (Persatuan PeGuam Syarie Malaysia) – to the Yang Di Pertuan Agong (Malaysia’s ceremonial King).
PGSM’s English acronym, quite coincidentally, spells SLAM. Coincidental, because slam Asri is exactly what PGSM did in that memorandum. 
(conservatism and the square root of evil, in the full post)
The PGSM memorandum was dated October 12, 2009, and for a short while was published on PGSM’s website, but taken down for reasons only known to the association. National language web news portal mStar Online picked up the memorandum and published it on their news site, and if you read BM, you can take a gander at it here.
PGSM, it seems wasn’t the least bit thrilled that Dr. Asri had been offered to head YADIM, a Malaysian federal government Islamic propagation agency. And in the process of voicing their protestations to the Agong, they made some pretty serious accusations, which, of course, were refuted by Dr. Asri in a press conference held on October 31st, 2009 – you can view it (via YouTube) in three parts, here, here, and here.
And not surprisingly, PGSM weren’t pleased with Dr. Asri coming out into the open refuting the claims and accusations made in the memorandum. They issued a press release the very next day.
Not long after the press conference, Dr. Asri was arrested by the Selangor State Religious Department (JAIS), assisted by the police no less (over 30 persons in total, just to arrest one ex-Mufti). But when he showed up at the courts the next day, as he’d been instructed to, confusion reigned as no one seemed to know what to charge the fella with.
In the end, though, it appears that Dr. Asri will now be charged with proselytizing without the necessary JAIS permits and credentials. An ex-Mufti, mind you. Walski wonders if all those wandering tabligh fellers you see wandering from mosque to mosque (even in Selagor) have the necessary credentials from the state religious agency.
Well, Walski could delve much deeper into the divide between SLAM PGSM, JAIS and Dr. Maza, but that would be pointless, since many have already done so by now. Instead, let’s look a little bit deeper, as to why such a thing could happen.
Now would probably be a good time to clue you in on what Walski means by Square Root of Evil in the post title. It has little to do wit mathematics, by the way, but has much to do with the word “Square”. No, not the 4-sided polygon meaning of the word, but the slang meaning of it: “regarded as dull, rigidly conventional, and out of touch with current trends(via Urban Dictionary).
In other words, conservative.
Earlier, in this post, Walski had theorized about what he calls The Third Power Column – the collusion between various individuals within the political parties, government agencies, and NGOs. Their common currency? “Mainstream” Islamic Conservatism.
Their goal, ultimately, is to steer this country to becoming an Islamic state. Or, at least that’s what Walski thinks.
Not long after the Asri hoo-ha, a well-known conservative state Mufti came out in support of the action taken by JAIS (from Berita Harian, via Tok Wan). Which Mufti? Harussani Zakaria, that’s who. Arguably, he’s perhaps the most influential cleric in Malaysia, and quite conservative in outlook. Even better, this guy can say just about anything and get away with it (remember the Silibin incident?). Other Islamic bureaucracy related persons and organizations also came out in support of the action by JAIS.
The conservatism that Walski speaks about has certain key characteristics that he’s surmised through observation. Among them:
  • That there is one, and only one TRUE interpretation vis-á-vis Islam – the mainstream conservative viewpoint. There’s also this prevalent view that “mainstream equals right/correct”, and any alternative minority opinions seen as bordering on heresy. This is partly exhibited by which books relating to Islam have been banned in Malaysia (apparently Harussani sits on the KDN’s Quranic Texts Department book review/censorship board).
  • Support of strict regulation on who can or cannot speak about Islam. And there are numerous inconsistencies relating to this – it appears as though conservative groups are “tolerated” (Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example).
  • The tendency to not want discussion done openly – this was exhibited quite clearly in how PGSM rebutted Dr. Maza’s rebuttal press conference. This aversion towards transparency gives the whole Third Power Column a sinister feel to it, rightly or wrongly perceived. Last Friday’s congregational prayer sermon (khutbah) at the Putrajaya mosque, authorized by Jakim, was clearly targeted at curtailing speech when it comes to discourse about Islam (see here for a transcription in Jawi)
  • Islam is constantly under threat – this scare tagline is used to put blame on everything else except the failure of the Islamic bureaucracy itself. And it’s always other sinister elements out to do Islam in. Introspection is superficial, and it’s always someone else’s fault (this is a common trait of conservatives the world over).
  • Obsessive protection of the predominantly conservative ulama (cleric) institution. No matter how skewed their opinions may be, these ulama are never in error. The more conservative the opinion the better, it seems.
This list is by no means exhaustive, by the way, but represent some of the characteristics that Walski has observed. The evil (read: harm) here is not only pervasive within the various government and non-government agencies, but also within the political parties themselves. So, on the one hand you have official government policy wanting to be more progressive and open, and on the other, almost in the same breath, forces within the government itself ensure that openness and progressivity grinds to a halt.
Remember the Executive Cabinet’s move to try to put a stop to child conversions some months back, how the council of Rulers had an unscheduled meeting soon after, and essentially put a stop to the Government’s idea?
Who called for the meeting? Hint: it wasn’t the Prime Minister, the one usually calling for unscheduled meetings by convention (or so Walski’s been told).
And that’s exactly how powerful the Third Power Column is – without mandate from the electorate, they can, have, and in the future, will, influence public policy.
Still think that the religious conservatives are a benign lot, who albeit loud, don’t have any real influence? Think again.
Sadly, Malaysian society today is ripe for the picking – Malay/Muslims grow up conditioned to NOT ever question authority, especially religious authority, coupled with a steadily declining education standard, and the ability to think critically. No matter what discipline one practices professionally, logic simply goes out the window when it comes to religious matters. Logic and reason are, in fact, shunned, claiming that religious matters transcend logic.
Another popular argument against opining about religion in the open: the doctor/mechanic analogy – the one where you wouldn’t go to just any Tom, Dick, or Harun to consult about medical matters. What this argument ignores is the fact that in the current situation, one is not allowed to seek a second opinion either. And the truth is that there are many opinions and viewpoints within the fold of Islam.
Well, today will see an acid test, of sorts, as to how pervasive the influence of the Third Power Column is – because later this morning, Dr. Asri will (finally) be charged in the Gombak Syariah Court. And for what? Enactments aside, the real reason is that Dr. Maza presents a problem to the conservatives.
The real purpose of charging him is to attempt to silence him, and the learned criticisms he makes about the conservative ulama class, and those who blindly support them.
Today will see whether rationality can overcome the influence of the real SQUARE root of evil…

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