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Speaking to the mob

“SEE you in Hell!” shouted a member of the “mob” as I walked past the dispersed protesters, now gathering their thoughts by their cars or sipping tea at a nearby mamak.

I smiled, but not without effort. It had been a long morning of tense smiles.

“He will have to be in Hell as well if he wants to see you there,” said the journalist next to me. We laughed.

He was with the Islamic press, and ours was a casual relationship of peers. This time, however, I was not a journalist but a volunteer with the Article 11 forum held at a hotel in Johor Baru. It was the middle of 2006. Tasked with videotaping an anticipated protest, I found myself in the midst of the “mob” for the entire morning.

Speaking to the mob
Even children were present at the protest against the Article 11 forum in Johor Baru in July 2006
My encounter had begun the day before, as we made our way south from Kuala Lumpur. Fellow activists had educated me on the issues at stake as well as people they expected to encounter the next day. We had, with some differences, a general sketch of our antagonists.

It was assumed that opposition to the forum, first generated when the Article 11 Coalition held a similar session in Penang, and gaining momentum with every public declaration and gag order thereafter, would draw a large number of the faithful: a thousand, perhaps three.

This proved to be a gross overestimation, although it accurately reflected the fears of the forum activists; fears affirmed by the large police presence that morning. It was difficult to determine the identities of officers without uniforms, though it would become clearer as the day progressed.

What remained unclear was the identities, and affiliations, of the protesters.

The battle line

I first encountered a small group of men, somewhat geeky with their crocodile T-shirts tucked neatly into their pants. One turned to me and recorded me recording them. It broke the ice and we exchanged greetings.

They introduced themselves as members of the Islamic youth movement, Abim. I explained I was a volunteer. We disagreed about the necessity of the forum, speaking in the kind of shorthand one resorts to when one is certain one understands fully the other’s position. But when I asked why it was necessary to oppose the forum with threats of a protest, I could tell they were uncomfortable. Why this was so, I can’t say; our encounter was too brief.

I next spied a contingent of well-nourished men sitting by the road, unrolling their manila-card placards. One read, written in marker pen: Islam tidak boleh diganggu gugat oleh sesiapa. This was the battle line they sought to draw: the inviolable position of their religion, with them as defenders against their antagonists. Later they unfurled the Umno flag, revealing just who they were. By the end of the morning, their contingent consisted, at its most coherent, of four men, three Umno flags and five placards.

Rather dramatically came the sound of chanting, and I turned my lens towards the top of the slope of the road, 200m away. It was an impressive sight. The protesters stood across both lanes and advanced with banners and chants well coordinated. Eventually they gave way to traffic and took up only one lane. From a distance it looked like it could be a group of 3,000. By the time they reached the hotel, it was clear they numbered around 300: men, women and, at a tangent from the general tone, children.

A bilingual banner (perhaps to ease the burden for audiences of the foreign media) led the way: Islam is the way of life. Do not disturb our religion. These printed placards echoed Umno’s handwritten ones: We are ready to make sacrifices for Islam. Don’t touch on the sensitivities of Muslims. Dont challenge us. Disband Article 11.

The police allowed the crowd to make their way to the front of the hotel, blocking the main entrance. It was quite the political tableau: the state intervening to keep peace between competing forces in civil society under the surveillance of the media, in the face of the seeming divide between the vociferous and potentially violent forces on the street and the civil, rational debate conducted in the hotel.

(Illustration by Nick Choo)

Multiple motives

I’m well aware the street has often been a theatre for progressive movements, and the decorous settings of government are vulnerable to violence and aggressive reaction. So while I was on the side of the “good guys”, I ran into some unexpected encounters.

Present were two leading Parti Rakyat Malaysia leaders known for their “progressive” politics. One was circumspect about the more inflammatory elements in the protesters’ flyers — for instance, attributing a racist comment to an Article 11 associate — but was nevertheless suspicious of the motives of some individuals behind the forum.

Joining us in conversation was a protester who had found his way to the hall where the talk was being held. He concluded that the forum had nothing to do with the Inter-Faith Council. It was a waste of time, he said. His voice was hoarse, probably from the “Destroy the IFC” chant an hour earlier.

Then there was the icon of the Bloody Sunday protests, whose bald, bloody pate and muscled body symbolised police brutality. Now it looked like he was on the other, and decidedly anti-democratic, side of the “barricades”.

Of course, there were those who seemed much clearer in their intentions: create antagonism, draw clear battle lines, and erase the middle ground. If stares could kill, I would have died a couple of hideous deaths that morning, my Article 11 tag firmly glued to my chest for easy identification.

My fears climaxed when it was put out that someone had spat from the floor above where some of the forum participants or hotel staff had perched to observe the street-level dramatics. The anger, before it receded, was palpable.

The morning was full of such peaks and troughs, with references from as far afield as Palestine to plumb the emotional debts of the faithful. I came away feeling that the “mob” was animated by multiple, even contradictory, motives. Perhaps this was also true of those who sat in air-conditioned comfort upstairs in support of Article 11’s agenda. End of Article

Sharaad Kuttan is a freelance journalist, sometime teacher, former human rights activist and budding amateur historian.

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