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This letter was originally published in Malaysia Kini (Nov 7, 2001)


No options in sight
Farish A Noor

Firstly, I would like to thank SM Leong for his kind comments about me which were somewhat personal but appreciated nonetheless ('So, Farish, how's Pak Lah doing?' Nov 6). His letter comes at a time when I have been receiving quite a lot of mysterious e-mails from unknown characters who are convinced that I am bound for hell for the simple reason that I happen to oppose the creation of a religious state in this country.

In any case, to answer Leong's question this is what I have to say. As any Muslim scholar or student of Islamic law would tell you, detention without trial is wholly unacceptable in Islam. The one outstanding feature of Islamic legal practice is that it insists on total transparency and openness, and as such any law that calls for detention without trial (or even detention without an open trial) would be regarded as un-Islamic.

What saddens me most about the present state of affairs in the contemporary Muslim world today is the fact that there exists so many Muslim governments which claim that theirs is an 'Islamic' system of rule while maintaining outdated colonial legal practices such as the ones which we have in this part of the world.

To compound matters even further, their opponents fare hardly any better. While condemning their respective governments for their 'un-Islamic' laws and practices, many of the opposition Islamic movements in the world today have shown that they, too, are more than willing to use (and abuse) the same laws if and when they come to power.

A classic example can be found right here in Malaysia where a certain
Islamic opposition party has been condemning (rightly, I might add) laws such as the Internal Security Act on the grounds that they have no basis in Islamic jurisprudence. But - irony of ironies - these Islamist parties have hardly provided the Malaysian public with a credible alternative either.

An instance where such a U-turn was performed came up not too long ago when a Malay girl was alleged to have committed apostasy by converting to Christianity. Some of the leaders of the Islamist party then called for the girl in question to be detained under the ISA and argued that the ISA should be used to deter further conversions in the future.

Suddenly the ISA was no longer repulsive to these people who claimed that theirs was a struggle based on universal justice.What is more, the leaders of the same Islamic party also claimed that under their system of 'Islamic' government other laws would be introduced that were more just and humane in nature - one of which happened to be the death penalty for any Muslim who decided to choose another religion. Other gems of 'universal justice' included stoning adulterers to death, amputation for theft and denying non-Muslims the right to bear witness in trials.

One is reminded of the Iranian revolution that went disastrously wrong when the ulama were allowed to take over. The very same religious leaders who condemned the Shah's regime for its brutality and inhumanity proved to be even more brutal and inhuman in their treatment of the citizens. The Shah's government executed hundreds of opponents in dark and miserable prisons that were the nightmare of ordinary Iranians. The Mullahs improved on this by carrying out their executions in public, to the point of introducing mobile gallows that were used to display the hanging bodies of their victims in the streets. (In case any of you may doubt this, please have a look at the book by Darius Rejali entitled Torture and modernity for the relevant photographs).

To sum up: Yes, the Muslim world (like the rest of the developing world) is still burdened with repressive and unjust laws that date back to the colonial era and which should have lost their relevance for us long ago. But the bigger tragedy is that everywhere in the developing world. Democracy's struggle has been held back not only by the governments in power but also by the opposition themselves, many of which happen to be the worse option between the two. And if that is not a tragedy, I don't know what is.