Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Banned Books and Testicular Fortitude
Who, indeed, determines what you can read? Sisters of Islam were revving up their campaign against book banning at KLAB on Saturday with sandwich board ladies, t-shirts for sale, and snazzy paper bags to take them away in (below). And the postcards of course.
I am very happy to see SIS so actively involved. Most of the books which have been banned in Malaysia are about Islam, so it is necessary that an Islamic organisation can find the right counter-arguments.
The forum on Saturday afternoon brought together (from left, below) Astora Jabat (deputy editor of Al-Islam and columnist for Utusan Malaysia), V. Gayathry (Centre for Independent Journalism) and Norhayati Kaprawi (Sisters In Islam).
No-one from the Home Ministry (KDN) came. We aren't surprised.
Gayathry described a meeting that CIJ had had with the Ministry as ultimately depressing since there seems no will to change the way things are done. Most of the decisions about the books we can or cannot read are made by much less educated civil servants who may not even understand the books they are banning.
Most of the religious books that are banned are banned on the say so of JAKIM (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia - The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia) and often because a single individual has complained about them. Some think that people who are not Muslim have no right writing books about Islam, hence the ban on some of the seemingly innocuous titles about Islam and books that have, up to now, been freely available here, sometimes for decades.
Astora gave a historical overview of book banning in the Islamic world. It hadn't occured to me that the Malay translation of the word "banned", "haram", carries the full weight of religious disapproval because it is the same word used for prohibition in Malay translations of the Qu'ran, and this of course discourages protest of book banning from Malaysia's Moslems.
Astora also talked about free access to books that are banned via the internet, though I have no idea of the website(s) he was referring to and would be grateful if anyone can let us know.
There were some questions and comments from the audience. One woman told an unbelievable tale about trying to buy one of Karen Armstrong's still unbanned titles - the bookshop had it in stock but was afraid to sell it because they said they had "been strongly discouraged" (by whom? presumably KDN officers?) from selling it and other of Armstrong's books.
I was going to talk about the restricted books but since Raman was sitting right behind me, and since he is the one who had alerted the world to the issue, it was better that he spoke. He talked of arbitary bannings of Khalil Gibran and Rushdie's books.
Raman asks (rhetorically), does the new Minister, Syed Hamid Syed Albar, know what's going on, or actually have the will to change anything? Above all does he have (Raman's favourite phrase) the necessary "testicular fortitude" to put things right?
Perhaps there is some hope ... wasn't he the person who invited Karen Armstrong to speak in Malaysia though several of her books were banned?
KDN officers often just take matters into their own hands, prime examples being the restricted books issue, the seizure of bibles, and the seizure of Christian children's books. In each case, it appears that KDN officers acted unilaterally, and only after there was an outcry did the Ministry slap wrists and put things right. Each of these instances has made Malaysia look pretty silly from overseas.
Something else that was discussed - authors often not knowing that their books were banned and therefore running out of time to mount an appeal. I gave the instance of Amina Wudud (see comments here) who thought I was spreading baseless rumours about her book being banned.
(Amina (if at all you revisit my blog) it is more helpful to stand with us and fight bannings than to turn round and bite the blogger who broke the bad news, hoping you - and others whose books were banned would actually help us to fight.)
All in all it was a good meeting and the first real coming together of concerned parties from different organisations. I hope that it is the beginning of something much bigger. I hope too that everyone who is concerned about books being banned will protest not just the ban on the books which represent their own religious or social views but all banned books. On principle.
DAP MP Theresa Kok has, as far as I know, has been the only politician to ask a question in parliament about banned books, but she was asking only about Christian books. (And she got no answer, of course.)
(It appears it isn't just books that are banned ... apparently Patrick Saw had some of his t-shirts with irreverent messages on them seized from his stall in central market by KDN officers!)