‘Un-Islamic’ book trial opens in Malaysia
By Rizwan Khatik - Fri Aug 10, 11:17 am
It was a quiet Wednesday evening towards the end of May when Malaysia’s religious authorities paid a surprise visit to the Borders bookshop in one of Kuala Lumpur’s more upscale shopping malls.
The three officers from the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department, better known by its Malay language acronym JAWI, were courteous but brought with them 20 other men. They milled around the shop, browsing the shelves and taking pictures on their mobile phones. The officers asked the employees whether the shop was selling Allah, Liberty and Love, the newly released book by New York-based Canadian academic Irshad Manji.
Understandably, the staff, dealing with a raid by the religious authorities for the first time, was nervous. They lead the men to the shelf where the offending book was on display. After confiscating a couple of copies, the officials asked for the manager.
Stephen Fung, a Malaysian Chinese and non-Muslim, who buys the books and distributes them to the six Borders branches in and around the capital, was the first to speak to the men. But then they asked to see the most senior Muslim member of staff. The store manager, Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, a 36-year-old Malay woman planning for her wedding and in the midst of a marriage course at her local mosque, happened to be on shift.
“They singled out the Malay women and asked them if they were married,” Borders Books’ Chief Operating Officer Yau Su Peng told Al Jazeera. “Those who said they were single were then accused of being a lesbian. Some were in tears.”
Nik Raina and Fung were then ordered to appear at JAWI’s offices the next day. When they did so, Nik Raina’s lawyer was turned away, denying her a right to counsel that’s enshrined in Malaysia’s constitution.
All this happened even though at the time, on May 23, Allah, Liberty and Love wasn’t actually banned.
Some groups had expressed disquiet about the book and Borders had been forced to cancel a “meet-the-author” session with Manji earlier in the month following threats of violence, but no fatwa had been issued. Borders said it had been given no indication that there was a problem with selling the book. Indeed, it was on sale at other shops in the same shopping complex.
With its Muslim Malay majority and large communities of non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and indigenous people, Malaysia has long prided itself on its ethnic diversity and religious tolerance. For decades, Shariah courts, with jurisdiction over the personal lives of the country’s Muslims, have operated alongside the civil system with the Federal Constitution as the country’s supreme legal document. But as Islam has become increasingly politicised and the religious authorities more assertive, the system has come under increasing strain.
The case “is symptomatic of an alarming trend in which religious authorities have become increasing emboldened by the lack of proper oversight and a secular ‘leash’”, Azrul Mohd Khalib, who writes a column for the online newspaper the Malaysian Insider and works on HIV/AIDS issues, told Al Jazeera.
Nik Raina is charged with distributing a book that’s offensive to Islam, even though her job doesn’t involve choosing the books for the store or stacking the shelves. Due in court on Tuesday, she faces not only the prospect of a 3,000 ringgit fine ($1,000) and a two-year jail term, but a criminal record. “There was no fatwa, no communication, not even so much as a phone call,” Yau said. “Nik Raina is being persecuted because she’s a Muslim.”
The Borders raid took place nearly three weeks before the Home Ministry’s Publication and Quranic Text Control Division published the ban, declaring the book “prejudicial to morality and public order”. JAWI, which ultimately reports to the Prime Minister’s Office, says it doesn’t need a court order to raid a bookshop like Borders if it suspects it’s selling “un-Islamic” material. It’s a view that’s echoed by Jamil Khir Baharom, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and the man responsible for Islamic affairs in the government.
Lawyers acknowledge that laws governing the religious authorities in individual states are quite broad. But there is scepticism about the charges that have been brought.
“It seems the religious authorities have had to find someone who is a Muslim within the Borders organisation to be charged,” said lawyer Andrew Khoo, the co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee. “The question is whether the appropriate person has been charged or whether she’s the unwitting scapegoat of people trying to enforce the unenforceable.” As a company Borders can’t be charged, and neither can Fung. JAWI’s officers admitted as much as they handed Fung a summons.
After Nik Raina had been charged and a date set for the Shariah hearing, Borders learned it had secured a judicial review to challenge the raid in the civil court. The hearing was set for a couple of weeks before the Shariah case. But then JAWI asked to have its hearing brought forward, a move it said was in the public interest. JAWI did not respond to emails or phone calls requesting comment on the raid and its aftermath.
Source: Al Jazeera