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!)

12 comments:

johnevans said...

I sent you my memories of Rushdie but since then you appear to have blocked all my messages! Was I that abusive??

bookseller said...

Hey Sharon,
You missed out on Gayathry's appeal to willing (and able) citizens to pitch in for the legal action they are planning on (RM20K to cover court fees if they lose, lawyers doing it FOC, right?). I think that sounds like a really solid way to get some rise out of them fellas in putrajaya, who probably buy their books (banned and permitted) abroad while on 'study tours'.

I wish the forum was in a bigger place, had more time and publicity. I took a stack of the cards with me to get my fellow booksellers to sign. As expected some of them were afraid of repercussions... I mean how are we to move forward if we live in fear of even putting our name to what we know is not acceptable, to what is sheer injustice and infringement of the right to knowledge and growth? Sigh... This is a long and painful journey but one that we must, must embark and march onwards...

bibliobibuli said...

john - i have blocked nothing and no-one. maybe someone else complained about you and blogger blocked you? you could try commenting as anonymous and just add your name.

bookseller - you were there? and you didn't say hello? thanks for plugging a gap. good on you for taking cards but how sad that people didn't want to sign them.

bibliobibuli said...

duh. john how could you have left the message above if you were blocked? dunno where my head is. i enjoyed your rushdie comment and in fact wanted more, remember?

blogger sometimes eats comments. i try to remember to copy to clipboard before posting just in case.

Anonymous said...

Surprised Amina was miffed that you said her book was banned..

ain't nothing faster to make Malaysians rush out and buy a book because of rumours (or not) that it will be banned..

John Evans said...

Thanks, Sharon. It was when I tried to email you at streamyx that the message was flung right back in my face! It would not surprise me if someone has complained...I do tend to send 'robust' messages when I am deep in my cups....

bibliobibuli said...

john - email me at sharonbakar@yahoo.com. someone sabotaged my streamyx account.

as for the robust comments ... well a mutual friend was a bit upset when i saw her the other day ...

John Evans said...

oh dear, so you know....well, 'The truth is rarely pure, and never simple' (Oscar Wilde)...I always regret sending robust comments in the cold sober light of the following day(s)....

bibliobibuli said...

tut tut ...

hope anyway that things are okay with you otherwise and look forward to hearing more rushdie at school stories

Anonymous said...

John, I never send robust comments. I've always been honest, every post of mine is backed with solid proof :)

Anyway, anyone have any proof of Patrick's t-shirt seizures and what the wordings were ?

bibliobibuli said...

dunno what t-shirts got seized. it was just something mentioned in passing. will try to find out though as am a patrick saw fan as my husband going around in a t-shirt showing lawyers depeicted as sharks, can attest. (his "lingam was talking to me" t-shirt is in the wash but out-of-date now anyway!)

Anonymous said...

Does he have a "Happy Vaisakhi to all Bengalis !" t-shirt ? that would be a riot. Unfortunately the mob at any HINDRAF gathering would probably still beat you up, despite the fact that you're theoretically on their side on this one :)