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A couple of days ago, I put up a post with the title “Thirteen Countries Execute Atheists.” I put a link up to my source, a UK site, Channel 4, although I saw the number in several places when I was looking it up. I used that particular source because the list was easy to find on the page and gave a quick and convenient summary beneath a graph. In my post, I put a caveat regarding Nigeria being on the list, but I didn’t put any notes about any of the others. There were a couple of comments, so I thought I would take some time to elaborate about Malaysia. From the site itself:

Every Malaysian citizen over the age of 12 must carry an identification card, a “MyKad”, which must state the bearer’s religion.

According to Sharia law within most Malaysian states, apostasy or conversion is a punishable offence, either with a fine, a jail sentence or the death penalty.

I’ve had a slight interest in Malaysia for many years partly because one of my close friends from college was born there, although she grew up in Brooklyn. However, I have never been there. The friend in question often referred to herself as “indigenous Malaysian” and told me that she followed the indigenous religion. Her description of it made it sound polytheistic or animist, with nature spirits. There is an interesting article I came across some time ago, “Native Religion in Malaysia: An Introduction.”

It is a comprehensive system of beliefs closely connected to nature and the earth. Elements of nature are often included in its rituals and symbols. In general, nature is often regarded as the base of life, as the earth where the soil, rivers, trees, rocks and animals are seen to possess a form of “life” that is similar to human beings. Nature is even regarded to have its own language that only the followers of the native religion can understand, even though this “language” is not verbally communicated in words of human understanding. The practitioners of native religions believe that nature is moved by a very powerful cosmic energy. Humans cannot live without nature but nature will endure even without humans.

My friend told me that she learned about the native religion from her grandparents when her mother sent her back to live with them for a time because her mother was afraid she was becoming too Americanized. Although she usually referred to herself as indigenous Malaysian, her father, it should be noted, was ethnic Chinese. Her parents came over here in 1969 during a period of political upheaval and inter-ethnic violence.

One of the things that makes Malaysia interesting in regards to the rise of political Islam (Islamism) and the increasing conservatism of Islam more generally, is that Malaysia is an multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

Graphic: Ethnic Groups - Malay 50.1, Chinese 22.6, Indigenous 11.8, Indian 6.7, Other .7, Non-Citizens 8.2; Religions - Muslim 61.3, Buddhist 19.8, Christian 9.2, Hindu 6.3, Other Chinese 1.3, Other .4, None .8, Unspecified 1.

Source: Graph created from information found on CIA World Factbook

Malaysia was part of the British Empire until 1957 when the country gained its independence. The Constitution written at this time, guaranteed that Malay political power would have a special privileged position. It should be noted that the Malay ethnic group is a different group than those considered “indigenous Malaysian,” who are also multiple groups. Malays and the indigenous Malaysians are all considered “Bumiputera,” or “Sons of the Land.”

In the 1970s, the Malaysian government implemented policies which The Economist called “racially discriminatory” designed to favour bumiputras (including affirmative action in public education) to create opportunities, and to defuse inter-ethnic tensions following the extended violence against Chinese Malaysians in the 13 May Incident in 1969.

Religion mostly coincides with ethnic groups. It should be considered that the demographic numbers hide the existence of mixed-race individuals. I was looking for some information and came across this interesting video on YouTube:

Until September 2001, Malaysia was generally considered a secular country. On the Wikipedia page about Secular states, Malaysia is in the category labeled “ambiguous.”

In Article 3 of the Constitution of Malaysia, Islam is stated as the official religion of the country: “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” In 1956, the Alliance party submitted a memorandum to the Reid Commission, which was responsible for drafting the Malayan constitution. The memorandum quoted: “The religion of Malaya shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religion and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.” … This suggestion was later carried forward in the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals 1957 (White Paper), specifically quoting in paragraph 57: “There has been included in the proposed Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State….” The Cobbold Commission also made another similar quote in 1962: “….we are agreed that Islam should be the national religion for the Federation. We are satisfied that the proposal in no way jeopardises freedom of religion in the Federation, which in effect would be secular.” In December 1987, the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas described Malaysia as a country governed by “secular law” in a court ruling. In the early 1980s, the Malaysian government led by Mahathir Mohammad implemented an official programme of Islamization, which was manifested in the form of introducing Islamic values and principles into the bureaucracy, substantial financial support to the development of Islamic religious education, places of worship and the development of Islamic banking. The Malaysian government also made efforts to expand the powers of Islamic-based state statutory bodies such as the Tabung Haji, JAKIM (Department of Islamic development Malaysia) and National Fatwa Council. There has been much debate in public and political circles on Malaysia’s status as a secular or Islamic state in recent years. (Emphasis mine.)

In “The Threat To Secular Democracy In Malaysia,”  Farish A. Noor begins with “As far as complex plural societies go, Malaysia has to be one of the most complex and plural societies in the world at the moment. There are few countries with a racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious mix like Malaysia’s…” He goes on to note,

there is the emergence of an increasingly vocal, visible and powerful parallel civil society that operates along the basis of particularist religio-communitarian demands and which advocates the concerns of their specific targeted constituencies only.

With the rise of religious-based consumer groups, workers groups, professional groups, etc. it would seem that the space of secular civil society seems to be shrinking on all fronts. Issues such as workers rights, gender equality, environmentalism et al. that were once neutral issues in a secular public domain have now been “claimed” by exclusive religious groups instead…

He observes that “sectarian politics that was initially race-based and now increasingly religion-based” and wonders “what will happen to the very idea and ideal of a universal Malaysian citizenship.”

He concludes with a statement whose relevancy extends well beyond Malaysia:

The challenge that stands before any government of a society as plural as ours is to develop a national politics that is inclusive and accommodating to all, giving every citizen a space and a place in the national narrative and national identity. The safeguard that ensures that such a politics of universal representation can take place is a secular democratic system where the state remains the honest neutral broker between all communities, and does not favour one community over others.

Any attack on the very idea of secularism is therefore an attack on the value of universal equality itself, and those who condemn secularism as being “un-Godly” or corrupt are really the ones who wish to destroy the secular basis of a free and equal society where every citizen is accorded the respect that she or he is due. When the attacks against secularism come from the representatives of the majority ethnic-religious community (such as was the case with the rise of Hindutva supremacists in India, and Muslims communitarians here in Malaysia), what we face is nothing short of the rise of the tyranny of the majority.

For all its weaknesses, secularism remains the only safeguard we have to keep our country on a democratic track. And for that reason, the democrats among us must be prepared to defend our secular democratic and plural public domain at all costs, come what may.

I think it’s hard for those of us who live in most Western democracies, where, whether we are talking about Catholic emancipation in the U.K. or the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., equality under the law for all is seen as a hard won achievement and is widely enshrined as an ideal, to understand laws still exist that depend on the ethnic background or religion of an individual. Although we my argue about whether or not it is honored in practice, the ideal is usually assumed.

In Malaysia, ethnic Malays must legally be Muslim. According to Wikipedia:

Attempts by Muslims to convert to other religions are punished by state governments, with punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment. The federal government does not intervene in legal disputes over conversion, leaving it to the courts. The secular courts of Malaysia have ruled they do not have the authority to decide these cases, referring them to the Syariah courts. These Islamic courts have unanimously ruled that all ethnic Malays must remain Muslims. Even non-Malays who have converted to Islam are not allowed to leave Islam, and children born to Muslim parents are considered to be Muslims. A non-Muslim who wishes to marry a Muslim must first convert to Islam.

It should be noted that Malaysia is a federation and some laws vary among states. This Wikipedia entry might be slightly out of date because I found a mention that in 2015 the state of Kelantan would be enforcing Sharia Law, including, possibly, the death penalty for apostasy.

Anniesa Hussain, on Infidels Are Us, writes,

I am witness to the alarming rate at which Malaysia sways towards religious oppression of its non-Muslims.

She goes on to detail:

This Kelantan bill which was initially passed in 1993 but prevented from being implemented on the grounds of its unconstitutional nature, has been passed yet again and now being set in motion. The Bill is an amendment of the 1965 Syariah (Sharia) Courts Act which currently limits Sharia penalties to a fine of 3,000 Malaysian Ringgits ($800), 5 years imprisonment and 6 strokes of a cane.

This PAS Bill states that Hudud can only affect the Muslim population of the state but it fundamentally strips away the right of anyone wishing to leave Islam for any other religion or quite possibly, to simply abandon it. …

It should be pointed out that this Hudud Bill is not unique to Kelantan alone, rather the state is just a latest example of the curtailing of religious freedom within Malaysia. Terengganu state for instance has also attempted to introduce similar legislation. I am still living in Malaysia until the summer and I can honestly say the country’s politics does not shy away from exclusively carving out a Muslim nation explicitly for the Malays and chipping away at non-Malay and non-Muslim freedoms.

As the original secular roots of Malaysia continues to be eroded and replaced with an ever-present, ever-pressing purer form of Islam, the nation continues to be plunged deeper into uncertainty for its religious minorities. Malaysia is becoming a country of increasing alarm, its politics increasingly embedded and infiltrated by hard-line Islamists. Personally speaking, it has become a country that has gained priority in my nations-to-watch list.

It has been for several years on my “nations-to-watch” list as well. Besides the laws, moderate or non-practicing Muslims have felt greater informal pressure to conform to the rules of strict Islam. However, I should note, that I have not yet found a case where anyone was actually executed, although people are imprisoned. In one case, a professing Hindu was forced to eat beef.

As far as what laws might affect atheists who are not ethnic Malays, did not have Muslim parents or did not convert, I have not been able to ascertain. Since non-Muslims are not allowed to proselytize to Muslims, I would assume there it would be illegal to try to convince a Muslim to become an atheist. Would simply talking about atheism be allowed? If not, what sort of laws would apply and what sort of punishment if they were broken? I have not been able to find out answers to those questions. It’s getting late and I’ll have to leave that for another time.

I think in the Western world, and possibly elsewhere as well, we are inclined to believe that there is a tendency towards progress, and that progress includes greater liberalization and secularization. Due to this, I think we often miss the fact that much of the Islamic world is becoming less liberal and less secular. Oddly, our own ethnocentrism leads us to the mistake of seeing as “traditional” developments that are in fact recent.

As far as traveling goes, it should be noted that Noel, as I mentioned, recently returned from Somalia safe and sound. I suspect, and perhaps he will tell us, that he did not engage in any public debates about the existence of deities while he was there. In all likelihood, I imagine in most places, if you don’t feel a need to talk about it, people will just assume that you follow one major world religion or another. That’s not exactly “freedom,” but one doesn’t usually presume that sort of freedom in another country. For those that live there, however, it must feel very different than it would as a traveler.

The situation in Malaysia is very complicated and I hope that I have done it at least some justice. I don’t think anyone should feel that it is dangerous to travel there on account of their beliefs and I’m sorry if my previous post gave that impression.

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Several times in the past I have linked to Maryam Namazie’s blog. She is, among other things, a spokesperson for the organization Fitnah, a women’s liberation organization with a particular interest in the liberation of women living in Islamic societies. From their website:

Fitnah is a protest movement demanding freedom, equality, and secularism and calling for an end to misogynist cultural, religious and moral laws and customs, compulsory veiling, sex apartheid, sex trafficking, and violence against women.

In their regular publication, Unveiled, this month they have an interview with Kenan Malik which I found particularly interesting. Elsewhere, I have written about how multiculturalism presented a challenge to the leftist political views with which I had grown up. The Salman Rushdie affair seemed to have played the role of catalyst in Malik’s political transformation that female genital mutilation played in my own.

In the interview, Malik addresses a subject that has been of much concern to me, that of freedom of speech. I have been disturbed by the call for censorship under the guise of limiting hate speech. As I see it, censorship is inevitably the prerogative of those who have power. Malik’s reasoning mirrors my own. From the interview:

Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged.  To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.

…. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but also to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance.  The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them.  And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged.

Malik’s most recent book, From Fatwah to Jihad, discusses the rise of a fundamentalist form of Islam that has arisen in UK against the backdrop of multicultural policies. I haven’t yet read this book, but it looks very interesting, especially in light of my interest in how multiculturalism, due to the fact that it considers the group to which an individual belongs as being more important than the individual himself, is inherently illiberal and dehumanizing.

Two daffodils illuminated by the setting sun.At the end of the hall on the second floor of our school was a classroom that was larger than the others and had tiered seating, more like a lecture room in a university than a classroom in a junior high school. One day, our social studies class was herded into the room where we met up with another social studies class. We were here to work together on group projects. “Group project” is a phrase that always strikes fear in my heart. I’m just not good with people.

I saw my friend A who was in the other class and sat down next to her close to the middle of the tiered seating. My friend L was also there.

We were going to do an ethnicity project, or so we were informed. There is only one thing I like less than group projects and that is discussing ethnicity. What do people mean when they ask about your “ethnicity?” There is actually an ethnicity listed on a paper given to my parents describing “Baby S.” It says that my biological mother’s “ethnic background” was “English, French and American Indian.” These are meaningless words to me. And I hate the American Indian part. It causes trouble no matter what I do. Normally, I hide it and I’m only mentioning it now because I’m trying to be as honest as possible while recounting relevant memories. That I get to decide what’s relevant and what’s not is enough of a distortion of reality.

The American Indian part is difficult because everyone seems to have an opinion on it. Frequently, when people ask about my ethnic background, I stretch the truth a bit and say “French.” It satisfies people and they usually have nothing else to add about it. If I say “English, French and American Indian” however, someone is bound to fixate on the “American Indian.” Conservatives usually tell me that I should be “proud of my heritage.” Liberals start telling me about how “real Native Americans” hate it when white people “claim” to be Native Americans. I’m not claiming anything. I’m repeating what was written on the piece of paper. I have no personal connection to any Native American tribe and the little factoid is without any deep meaning for me. Certainly, it’s no more significant than the French and the English. My interest in French culture is entirely acquired. There’s no “racial memory,” an idea I find ludicrous. I have little interest in English culture despite our shared language.

Needless to say, hearing that we were going to do a group project about ethnicity had me apprehensive and I clung more tightly to my friend A as the teachers asked us to get into groups with other people who shared our ethnic background. Since about a third of the class was Jewish, we were told that Jewish was not an ethnic group for the purposes of this project. People who were Jewish were to claim to be the ethnicity of whatever country their ancestors had been in before coming to the U.S. After all, you can’t have a multicultural exchange without a multitude of cultures. Now in retrospect I have to laugh at our naiveté. My friend L, who identified herself as Scotch-Irish, wound up in a group whose other members identified themselves as simply Irish, with little to no understanding of the differences between the groups.

My friend A was going through a spiritual rediscovery of Judaism at the time and was not thrilled to find Jewish nixed as an ethnicity and she complained loudly and articulately. However, the authority of the teachers over ruled any logical arguments she could make. Secretly, I was pleased. Her family had come to the Unites States from Poland and Russia at the turn of the century. So had my mother’s family. I could, with some justification, say that Polish and Russian were my adopted ethnicities. A was smart, ambitious, a good student and my closest friend. For a change, I would be able to have a successful group project.

In the end, we did an animated movie of a Polish folktale. I’d been dying to try to make an animated movie ever since I discovered that my father’s eight millimeter film camera had a single frame advance. As animation, it was crude, but it was a rousing success as a school project.

What stands out to me, in retrospect, is the incredible absurdity of this exercise. We were mostly as all American as you could be, living in our homogenous suburban culture. We were not a neighborhood of immigrants, or even the children of immigrants. My mother’s grandparents left Eastern Europe before the turn of the twentieth century. Most of us could claim multiple ethnicities. There was little to no emotional connection to the cultures. A well meaning attempt at cultural sharing was nothing more than a ridiculous charade, as fictional as our movie.

I came across this Atlantic article, The Lonely Existence of Mel Feit, Men’s-Rights Advocate, via Skepchick. Stephanie Fairyington describes her first meeting with a group from the National Center for Men:

My entrance is met with restrained courtesy—and a perceptible cloud of suspicion. Why, they must wonder, would I, a lesbian feminist, want to break bread at their masculinist table? As cautiously as I tread their terrain and as much as I disagree with most of their politics, I believe that some of their views are in the interest of feminism.

A feminist like the writer, I, too, have some sympathy with the arguments put forth by  men’s rights groups. Perhaps I don’t have the instinctive negative reaction that some feminists do towards the men’s rights groups because I was first exposed to it at sixteen by an economics professor who was also vocally a feminist himself. Consequently, it was first presented to me in the context of a more general search for just and equitable treatment for both sexes. Many feminists have long maintained that gender equality would be beneficial for most men as well. Fairyington quotes Amanda Marcotte as saying, “There is already a movement for people of both genders who want to end stifling gender roles: It’s called feminism.” However, feminists, who have often been highly sensitive to the language we use and the implied meaning of words, should be able to see that, while feminism may imply a more liberating role for men, the word itself does not explicitly include them.

But I wonder if feminism’s assumption that being male necessarily situates men at an advantage makes it harder for feminism to address the struggles unique to men. By diminishing male-specific challenges, feminists fail to recognize that women’s progress hinges on understanding that antiquated standards of masculinity hurt both sexes and are linked to men’s unstable relationship with the family.

Although I’m highly aware of the fact that feminism addresses ways in which women are put at a disadvantage, there’s a tendency to ignore the implied corollary, that men therefore benefit from advantages. This dovetails somewhat into my discomfort with the use of the word privilege. (Although, let me be clear I have no problem with the concept.) Is the lack of a disadvantage necessarily an advantage?

A parking lot in a blizzard in New York City late at night.In the mid-eighties, I moved to New York City, the place I had wanted to be ever since I was a small child. At the time, the city was wracked by racial tension. It’s something that no longer seems to exist in the public imagination, sandwiched between the radical movements of the sixties and New York’s rehabilitation as a playground for the rich. New York just past its nadir, the city called “ungovernable” during Ed Koch‘s tenure as mayor, is vividly remembered by those who lived there, a period dramatically rendered by Tom Wolfe in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Robert David Jaffee summarized some of the incidents from that period. (h/t swilliamsjd )

New York City endured a spate of hate crimes in the 1980s, beginning with the case of Michael Stewart, the subway graffiti artist, who by most accounts died from asphyxiation after the police got him in a chokehold. Many other incidents followed, from the shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly black woman, suffering from health problems, who was killed by police in her Bronx apartment after she allegedly brandished a knife; to subway gunman Bernard Goetz’s clash with a group of black teens; to the rape and beating of a Central Park jogger; to Howard Beach, where several African-Americans, whose car had broken down, wandered into a white neighborhood before one was beaten senseless and another chased to his death on the Belt Parkway; to the Tawana Brawley hoax, in which a young black woman claimed that white men spread feces over her and raped her, though no evidence of penetration existed, and she had made up a similar story not long before. (links mine – fojap)

I remember well, all those incidents. At the time, I was living with a man who read the tabloids, The Post, The Daily News and Newsday. I read The Times. Between the two of us, our apartment was filled with newspapers. Shortly after leaving him, I remember clearly reading about the Crown Heights Riots and feeling conflicted.

The riots began on August 19, 1991, after the child of Guyanese immigrants was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile in the motorcade of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The riot unleashed simmering tensions of the Crown Heights’ black community against the Orthodox Jewish community. In its wake, several Jews were seriously injured; one Orthodox Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was killed; and a non-Jewish man, allegedly mistaken by rioters for a Jew, was killed by a group of African-American men. (Wikipedia: Crown Heights riot)

The local papers and conversations at work or among friends were filled with opinions. One theme seemed to come up again and again: Who had suffered more throughout history, African-Americans or Jews. I was neither African-American nor Jewish, yet I was a New Yorker. Something inside me rebelled at the thought that suffering should be compared in this way.  It stuck me as a perversion of a leftist vision of the world that puts so much emphasis on the oppressed and oppressors. Previously, I had heard conservatives sneer about “victimization.” I should be clear that I don’t accept their disdain of discussing oppression or injustice. The relief of injustice is a moral imperative. However, the Crown Heights Riot was the final incident that caused me to distance myself from a leftist perception of events. With two sets of victims, two sets of oppressors, the left had, at that time, nothing to offer to make sense of what was happening.

It would be another year before the word “kyriarchy” would be coined.

Returning to men’s rights, several of the men in the group Fairyington met, although it should be noted not Mel Feit himself, believe that feminists are their opponents. It would be nice if there was a men’s movement that did not have so many members who see themselves as in opposition to the women’s movement.