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Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Right To Read

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Image taken from Karin's Book Nook, hosting by Photobucket Ever had a “Black Marker Experience”? That’s what Walski calls the disgust he feels when he thumbs through a magazine (usually) and finds that certain portions of it have been blacked-out using a black indelible-ink marker pen. A really crude method of censorship is what it boils down to.

But censorship, in any other less crude way, in this day and age, is really counterproductive. At best, you’ll end up with a whole load of people really pissed off at the government for being so condescending. The bottom line is, however, censorship doesn’t work.

Malaysia has been actively censoring books, films, and other media, for ages – almost as long as Walski can remember. These days, even the Internet is censored, by blocking (or attempting to) certain sites deemed undesirable. And don’t let them tell you otherwise – censorship of the Internet is being done, albeit not on the scale of what certain other countries do.

When it comes to books, censorship is accomplished by banning certain titles, which the powers that be deem to be “dangerous”. Especially when it comes to religion, and more specifically, Islam. The Quranic Text Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs is the party that decides what we mere-mortal Malaysians can or cannot read.

Curious about what books have been banned in Malaysia recently? Here’s a sampling, based on a database maintained by the Ministry of Home Affairs:

Apart from Islam, books deemed sexual in nature or on the supernatural (particularly those written in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia) are also frequently banned. And to protect what, exactly?

Reading, as far as Walski is concerned, is a right. A fundamental right, in fact. And it’s entirely up to him, not some Malaysian government flunkie, to decide what he wants to, or doesn’t want to, read. One could argue that in this day and age, reading and open access to information, can be seen as a basic human right.

And it is partly upon this premise that Walski would like to draw your attention to an important event taking place at KL’s Central Market – The Right To Read Festival – happening today and tomorrow (October 10 & 11). 
(about the festival, and more, in the full post)

Jointly organized by Sisters In Islam (SIS) and the Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ), the festival aims at promoting creativity and independent thought, through the celebration of freedom of expression and the right to information.

There are a whole list of activities scheduled for the two day event, for folks of all ages. This morning, for example, two children’s programs are ongoing at Central Market, even as this post goes live.

The Right to Read Festival will officially kick off this afternoon at 2pm, in Gallery 2 of the KL Central Market Annex (Gallery 2 is located on the 3rd floor), and will feature Wayang Buku, a performance by local actor director Fahmi Fadzil, and Walski’s friend in the arts, singer songwriter Azmyl Yunor. There’s also supposed to be a special mystery guest – you’ll just have to turn up to find out who, ‘cause Walski sure as heck doesn’t know.

You can get the full details of the 2-day event, either via the event pages at the CIJ or SIS websites.

Now, one can understand the involvement of CIJ in this. But what interest does Sisters In Islam have in the promotion of the fundamental right to read?

Now, it’s no big secret that part of the agenda behind book-banning in this country is to curtail any thoughts or ideas contrary to a conservative view of Islam. Alternative views are often shunned by the Malaysian Islamic bureaucracy (who play a very active role in book-banning).

As you may have noticed in the short listing of banned books above, one of the titles is by Dr. Norani Othman, who is a fellow at UKM’s Institute of Malaysian & International Studies (IKMAS). She also happens to be one of the founding members of SIS.

What’s strange about the banning of her book is that the ban was put into effect in 2008, 3 years after its publication in 2005 (via The Chronicle of Higher Education). SIS, in a press statement issued shortly after the announcement of the ban in August last year, had this to say (emphasis by myAsylum).

The issues raised in the banned book evolved around the lived experiences and realities of Muslim women around the world, the impact of fundamentalist Muslim movements on women's rights, the role of the state in managing the process of Islamisation, and the alternative strategies used by various women's movement in their attempts to build bridges when confronting global politics, growth of religious fundamentalism in modern day society. This book explored and discussed how women's groups, not only for Muslims but people from other faiths, can come together to identify the different areas of their lives, where network, cooperation, and solidarity can be strengthen and built upon as contemporary women stake their claims for their rights, justice and equality, principles that are pivotal in the Quran.

In pursuit of our commitment to open more spaces for intellectual debate and discourses, SIS had specially invited the editor of the book Professor Norani Othman to provide us all with an overview and analysis of the challenges facing us today. Here, we must also stress that the banning of the SIS book is not our first experience - it is our third book. “Fiqh Wanita: Pendangan Ulama Terhadap Wacana Agama dan Gender”, written by KH Husein Muhammad was banned in 2007. Another book which SIS helped to distribute “Qur'an and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text From A Woman's Perspective“ by Amina Wadud (Oxford University Press, New York), was banned in 2008.

Other similar books by esteemed authors, which could enrich the Islamic discourse on Islam were also banned, such as “What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam” by John L Esposito; “The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam”, and “Muhamad: A Biography of the Prophet”, both by Karen Armstrong; “Women and Islam” by Fatima Mernissi; and many more.

(source: SIS Website)

So, what exactly are we being protected from by the banning of books – a wider world view than the religious establishment would like, perhaps?

Thinking about it, though, the mind of the ignorant is probably easier to control. And that, in Walski’s view, is the real agenda – control. He feels that controlling what we read, vis-à-vis religion, allows only for the officially “approved” religious worldview to be heard and read. Is it just Walski, or does this sound a little fascist?

In any case, The Right To Read Festival will officially kick off in about an hour’s time, and Walski hopes that you can spare some time to pay a visit and support this important event.

Important, because reading is a means of overcoming ignorance. And overcoming ignorance is one of the things that can really set you free.

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