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The prison of history

I TOOK a look at the New York Times this morning before setting off to work. I found myself very moved by Maureen Dowd’s op-ed article about Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama. Powell’s “Aha!” moment happened as a result of seeing a photograph of a mother hugging the tombstone of her son, a young American soldier killed in Iraq.

On the headstone was inscribed his name — Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan — and a crescent and star to show that he was Muslim. “Who could debate that this kid lying in Arlington with Christian and Jewish and nondenominational buddies was not a fine American?” says Powell.

Why would it even be a question that a Muslim could be a “fine American”?

Barak Obama with his wife, Michelle (© Luke Vargas)

The Republicans have been spreading rumours that Barack Obama is a Muslim. The Democrats have been spooked by these rumours and the damage they could cause Obama on polling day. They have kept Senator Obama as far away as possible from being seen on the campaign trail with anyone looking even vaguely Muslim.

That being a Muslim is regarded not just as a slur against one’s character and patriotism but also as an impediment to becoming the US president is an indication of the unthinking distrust of Islam among some Americans.

Powell asks: “Is something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?” Well, no, but given the degree of Islamophobia that has been whipped up in the US, I for one cannot believe it could happen in my lifetime.

Would it ever be possible for a non-Muslim to be prime minister of Malaysia? The Federal Constitution has nothing to say about the religion of the prime minister, so notionally it is possible.

But I am not holding my breath. Many people were shocked to discover, after the last general election, that certain states such as Perak have constitutional provisions requiring the menteri besar to be a Muslim. However, the Sultan still has the prerogative to appoint a non-Muslim. But he didn’t.

Colin Powell (Public domain)
The fact that the DAP won the largest number of seats in the state assembly should have made it a given, in any normal democratic state, that one of their number be appointed as menteri besar. There were no Muslims among the DAP state assembly representatives, and a PAS state assemblyperson was made menteri besar instead. It is difficult to see how this decision reflected that most basic of democratic principles, the will of the electorate.

Sacred texts

Constitutions are funny things. We tend to see them as sacred texts, guaranteeing rights and freedoms, granting protection to citizens, and limiting the state’s powers. Religious people can tend to get a little silly and lose all powers of rationality, common sense, and even compassion when discussing the sacred texts of their faiths. One can get just as air-headed about constitutions.

In their recent press statement, the Conference of Rulers seemed to say that certain people were “disputing and questioning” issues that should be above dispute and question, namely the special position of the Malay rulers, the safeguarding of Islam, Malay as the national language, and the genuine interests of the other communities in Malaysia.

They then caution Malaysians not to question “the provisions in the Federal Constitution which are known as the social contract.” They blame the questioning of the social contract on “the cursory knowledge of those concerned regarding the historical background.”

The rulers say there is a reason “as to why these provisions were enshrined in the Federal Constitution”, and they chide those who “implicate the principles of impartiality and justice without regard for the historical background and social condition of this country.”

There are some who think that the so-called social contract is nothing more than a shibboleth for those who want to retain the dominance of Malays in the economic and political spheres. Let us leave aside for the present the vexed question of whether any such social contract ever existed. It should, however, be noted that the term appears neither in the Federal Constitution nor in any of the political documents in the years leading up to 1957.

The US Constutition (Public domain)
I do wonder about the idea that the issues at hand should never be questioned, or, as the rulers say, be subject “to a review or a change because it is the primary basis of the formation of Malaysia.”

The issues in question, because they are characterised as the so-called social contract, presumably have to do with the special position of the Malays, and its subsequent incarnation in the New Economic Policy (NEP) and in other provisions.

Learning from history

In the first presidential elections in the US, only 6% of the population were eligible to vote: by and large these were white-male property-owners. By 1828, nearly all white men could vote, but African Americans and women had a long way more to go before democratic rights were extended to them.

The Constitution of the US as well as the Declaration of Independence are regarded by many as models of liberality and freedom. Yet, these documents enabled horrendous evils such as slavery, genocide against native Americans, and discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, to flourish for generations.

If the “historical background and social condition” of the US at the time of its independence were allowed to dictate its political organisation today, only white-male property-owners would be voting on 4 Nov 2008. Why then should the historical background and social condition of Malaya in 1957 dictate the political structures and rights in Malaysia in 2008?

“No review and no change” is the argument of reactionaries, people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo at all costs. If Nepal had followed the same principle, it would not have been able in 2008 to rid itself of its monarchy, an institution that had lost all credibility and legitimacy through its venality and corruption. Indonesia would still have discriminatory policies towards its Chinese citizens and all those not regarded as “pribumi”. The Japanese would still regard their emperor as a god.

Former King’s palace in Ghorkha, Nepal (© Adrian Sulc)

It is revealing that the rulers single out “the principles of impartiality and justice” as the reasons for questioning the social contract by some people. There is a tacit admission that the historical and social conditions half a century ago did not allow for impartiality and justice to be fully enshrined in the constitution.

The attitude of some Malays in the 1950s was that the Chinese and Indian minorities were mere immigrants, and should only be granted citizenship on certain conditions. Most people thought of themselves in ethnic terms first: the idea of citizenship was novel, and untried. The world was a different place then.

The rulers have drawn our attention to our nation’s history. Those of us who want change do know our history. Unlike some, we want to learn from that history, and not be imprisoned by it.

See also: Deconstructing the social contract
The social-contract/constitution equivalency

Aloysious Mowe, SJ, was born after Merdeka and considers himself Malaysian by birthright and not by anyone’s concession. The last time he checked his passport, it says he was born in Malaysia, not Tanah Melayu.

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6 Responses to “The prison of history”

  1. Irra Core says:

    Mr. Mowe,

    A very fine article indeed but I must take umbrage with your assertions on the US elections process with regards to Senator Obama and issues regarding his Muslim faith, as so implied by the NY Times.

    Firstly, it should be pointed out that the NY Times is a partisan organisation which has publicly endorsed Senator Obama’s candidacy and has been prominent in their criticisms of Senator McCain.

    Secondly, the Republican party has never taken any issue with Senator Obama’s faith, whatever that may be. There are many, many Muslims who are proud conservatives and their contribution to the conservatism movement in America is immeasurable.

    The main issues that Republicans, and indeed a large swath of Democrats, specifically those who were supporting Senator Clinton during her candidacy, have with Senator Obama is a) his lack of experience in the legislative branch (he has spent less than 200 days in the Senate and in the executive branch (of which he has none) b) his close associations with known, unrepentant (in his own words) former domestic terrorists (e.g. Ayers) c) his stand on policy issues that tend to veer towards socialism, largely due to him being part of the New Socialist Party and advocating their agenda during the early part of his political career.

    Questions about Senator Obama’s patriotism as you mention in your article are completely unrelated to his personal faith but more to do with the fact that he was a parishioner and a close friend for over 20 years with a pastor that has been very vocal with his anti-American statements. Naturally, his right to those opinions is protected under the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution and so are the rights of the average American in questioning the Senator’s judgment or lack thereof with regards to who he chooses to associate with.

    I understand that your assertions about the alleged intolerance of conservatives towards people of Muslim faith in America were just to preface your very fine article. However, I have to point out that your assertions are, at best, unfounded and at worst, race baiting.

    I currently reside in Southern California, am an avid political junkie, and would certainly welcome any comments and/or queries. Thank you.

    Irra Core, Ph.D.

  2. Aloysious Mowe says:

    1. Anyone with access to the media will have been able to make up their own minds about the alleged “close associations” between Senator Obama and “former domestic terrorists”. For the record, William Ayers and Senator Obama were both members of a charitable organisation, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which was founded by a life-long Republican. Many of the most prominent members of Illinois society were also members of that foundation. Mr Ayers has long been a respected and politically active member of the area in Chicago where Senator Obama also lived. Senator Obama attended one reception in his honour in Mr Ayers’ house. He also happened to be 8-years-old when Mr Ayers was plotting to bomb the Pentagon as a protest against the war in Vietnam.

    Republican state representative Diana Nelson has labeled the Republican party’s guilt by association attacks on Senator Obama as “ridiculous”, and said on National Public Radio: “There is no reason at all to smear Barack Obama with this association. It’s nonsensical, and it just makes me crazy. It’s so silly.”

    2. I have no opinion on the links between Senator Obama and the New Socialist Party. Americans who have a fear of socialism, and see it as an un-American ideology, may regard membership of the New Socialist party as a cause for concern. Not everyone sees socialism and the American way of life as being mutually exclusive. I am a little surprised, however, that Senator Obama’s detractors seem unconcerned at the links between Governor Sarah Palin and the Alaskan Independence Party.

    3. It is disingenuous to claim that the Republican Party has had no hand to play in the rumours about Senator Obama’s religious affiliations. Here is a small selection:

    The Clark County, Washington, Republican Party put the following on its website:

    “Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.

    “It is reported that Obama swore his oath of office using the Koran and pictures have shown him standing for the Pledge but not reciting it and holding his hands to his side while others place their hands over their hearts.

    “This is chilling information about a candidate for the highest office in the country especially given the radical Muslim claims that they will destroy America from ‘the inside’.”

    The website of the National Black Republican Association featured an article analysing “Obama’s Muslim Connections”:

    “While not denying the basic facts about his Muslim connections, Obama and his defenders parse words, Clintonesque style, in a blatant attempt to discredit anyone who raises the issue. It’s important to scrutinise Obama’s Muslim background to determine if his Islamic past influences his decisions and actions toward America, including his decision to select an anti-American pastor as his spiritual advisor…

    “To more fully understand the extent of Obama’s Muslim experiences and how this connection influences his attitude about America, we need to examine some basic, undisputed facts.

    “Obama was born on August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii, and his full name is Barack Hussein Obama. He is named after his father who was born on the shores of Lake Victoria in Alego, Kenya. Obama’s father was raised as a Muslim and married a white American woman, Anna Dunham of Wichita, Kansas while both were students at the University of Hawaii. Obama’s parents divorced when he was two years old, and when he was six years old, his mother married an Indonesian oil company executive named Lolo Soetoro, who was also a Muslim and who introduced Obama to Islam.

    “The family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, where they lived for five years from 1968 through 1973. Obama first attended a Catholic school for three years. In that school’s documents, Obama is listed under the name Barry Soetoro as an Indonesian citizen, and his religion is listed as Islam. Later, Obama attended a Muslim school where he received Islamic religious training before he was sent back to America to live with his maternal grandmother while his mother and his half-sister, Maya, stayed in Indonesia.

    “Obama’s half brothers and sisters in Nairobi, Kenya are Muslims. His step-grandmother, Sarah Hussein Obama, is a lifelong Muslim who said: ‘I am a strong believer of the Islamic faith.’ In an April 30, 2007 New York Times interview, Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng who now lives in Hawaii, said: ‘My whole family was Muslim, and most of the people I knew were Muslim.’

    “Obama, while describing his 1992 wedding, admitted that he was proud of his brother, Roy, who chose Islam over Christianity. ‘The person who made me proudest of all,’ Obama wrote, ‘was Roy. Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years ago he decided to reassert his African heritage. He converted to Islam, and has sworn off pork and tobacco and alcohol.’

    “If Obama were not a Muslim from the time his religion was recorded in Indonesia as Islam until he ‘converted’ to Christianity, then what was he for 27 years? We, as citizens, have a right to know this information about the man who wants to be our next president.”

    Marcia Stirman, chairman of Otero County Republican Women in New Mexico, said of Senator Obama in a letter to the local newspaper, The Alamogordo Daily News: “He’s a Muslim socialist.”

    Conservative media – talk shows, blogs, etc – have repeatedly raised the issue of Senator Obama and Islam. To take just one of many examples, had an article called “Obama ‘Lying’ About Muslim Past, Expert Says.”

    4. As for my assertions about the intolerance of conservatives towards people of Muslim faith in America, I was merely citing the opinions of a conservative former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who expressed his disquiet about members of the Republican party.

  3. mohamad yusof says:

    This is what I believe what happens when people try to become gods. In this case, Malays try to act like gods of this land. It should be noted that in a true Muslim perspective this land is actually God’s land, and not some Malay, Chinese or Indian’s.

    Without God’s grace this land would not even exist and God awards this land towards humankind for a set amount of time for them to do good and justice. I am a Malay and I am a Muslim and I disagree with this whole social contract as it contradicts with the principles of my religion (Islam) in which everyone is equal in the eyes of God Almighty, and that their difference is not their colour or ethnicity but their iman and taqwa.

  4. Irra Core says:

    Mr. Mowe,
    I have to admit to a certain degree of incredulity about your naive regurgitating of the talking points from the American mainstream media. Allow me to pose some rebuttals:

    1. The “alleged” association as you eloquently pose is ridiculous. Senator Obama had more than just a passing acquaintance with Mr. Ayers, they served on 2 boards together, worked in the same building for years and Mr. Ayers threw a political launch party in his house for Mr. Obama. Regardless, the issue is not guilty by association, it is a question of the Senator’s judgment in choosing his friends. There is a saying, Mr. Mowe, we cannot choose our relatives but we can certainly choose our friends. As for Governor Palin, she merely gave a talk at one of their meetings, she hardly threw them a tea party.

    2. As for Senator Obama’s bent for socialism, you obviously have not been keeping up with history. Senator Obama was a member of the New Socialist Party in the early 1990’s and a firm advocate for their policies. Old video recordings of Senator Obama’s expositions on this topic and his desire for wealth redistribution or repartition by changing the basic tenets of the Constitution have surfaced and are currently being aired by several stations. And if you believe Americans think socialism (a strategy that has failed in every European nation that has chosen to try it) is preferable to capitalism, then I have a beach front property in Arizona to try and sell you.

    3. To be honest, I really do not care if the Senator is a Christian or a Muslim and I am well aware of his background, having read his books and being a native of that region, I certainly understand the strong support he has in the Asia Pacific region. There may be some republicans (as you have pointed out) including many African Americans who may have compelling reasons to vote based on the candidate’s religion, but that is certainly not the opinion of the Republican Party on a national level and certainly has never been put forth as an argument not to vote for Senator Obama by Senator McCain. In your main article, you put forth this “alleged” bias against Senator Obama as a preface to your argument for the unlikeliness of a non-Muslim as the PM of Malaysia. Why this comparison, I wonder? The Constitution of the US only requires a natural born American as a criteria for the highest office but the political structure in Malaysia as set up during Independence is inherently different and even the current social structure of the country is different. I am not implying that it is unfeasible for a non-Muslim to be the PM of Malaysia at some time in the future but the analogy in senseless. If America was truly a country filled with bigots, would a young African American politician, regardless of his religion, be standing the precipice of the Presidency? I think not.

    4. I am glad that you brought up the fact that you were merely citing former Secretary of State Powell’s comment. Mr. Powell is a private citizen now, certainly of some standing and has certainly earned his right to voice his opinion and endorsements. However, in the spirit of fairness, which I assume is the underlying thread of your article, you should have pointed out that four (4) former Secretaries of State have endorsed John McCain’s candidacy. Lastly, Newsmax is hardly a reputable conservative think tank and if you are truly interested in understanding conservative ideology, I would recommend The National Review and American Thinker for starters. As a fellow Catholic, I would certainly encourage you to also avail yourself to the many fine literature from the Church on the various propositions being put forth this election.

    I certainly appreciate the opportunity to further our discussions on this topic. Even we can agree to disagree, and I certainly enjoy reading your commentaries and respect your point of view.

    Irra Core, Ph.D.

  5. Aloysious Mowe says:

    1. It is ridiculous to make Senator Obama’s association with Mr Ayers into an issue about the Senator’s judgment or character. The fact that they worked on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and the Woods Fund does not make them “friends”. No one has yet to prove that their working together on educational and charitable projects adds up to a close relationship. All we have been treated to is innuendo and, yes, I repeat, guilt by association. The political launch party held in Mr Ayers’s house was one of many held for Senator Obama when he declared himself for the Illinois Senate in 1995. Mr Ayers may be a former terrorist, but he also happens now to be a respected figure in educational circles in Chicago, and a Distinguished Professor of education at the University of Illinois. Other members of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge board include David Kearns, former Deputy Secretary of Education under the first President Bush, who worked for Senator John McCain’s campaigns in 2000 and 2008. Walter Annenberg, the founder of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, who gave a massive grant to Mr Ayers, was a Republican, and his widow, Leonore, has donated money to the McCain campaign, and has been cited by the McCain campaign as one of 100 former ambassadors who endorse him. Should Senator McCain’s judgment be questioned on the basis of his links with known supporters and associates of Mr Ayers?

    2. If you think capitalism is so great, then I have some Lehman Brothers shares I’d like to try and sell you.

    But seriously, let’s have people make their own mind up about the Senator’s radio interview in 2001:

    “If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed people, so that now I would have the right to vote. I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be OK.

    “But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf.

    “And that hasn’t shifted and one of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court-focused I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.”

    3. At no point have I said that Senator McCain has urged people not to vote for Senator Obama on the basis of his alleged Muslim background. Neither have I said at any point that the USA is “a country filled with bigots”. All I have claimed is that there are Republicans who have accused Senator Obama of being a Muslim (or an Arab in some cases), and this lie has been widely repeated in conservative blogs and other media. I have watched countless interviews with supporters of the McCain-Palin ticket saying they do not trust Senator Obama because he is a Muslim. That some Americans believe that a Muslim should not be President of the USA is an incontrovertible fact. I believe that elements of the McCain campaign have cynically tolerated, and even tacitly encouraged, such slurs.

    4. I am well acquainted with the National Review. I was delighted to read Kathleen Parker’s article on Sarah Palin, in which she called on Governor Palin to withdraw from the ticket because she is so eminently unqualified for the office of vice president. I also mourn the departure of Christopher Buckley from the National Review. It was good to hear him, a conservative, and the son of the founder of the National Review, say that eight years of conservatism have brought the USA “a doubled national debt, ruinous expansion of entitlement programs, bridges to nowhere, poster boy Jack Abramoff and an ill-premised, ill-waged war conducted by politicians of breathtaking arrogance.”

    Since we seem to be recommending further reading, may I recommend, for Catholics who will be voting on 4 Nov, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”? The bishops say unequivocally that Catholics may vote for a pro-choice candidate, because:

    a. “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters.” (#42)
    b. A voter “should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. In the end, this is a decision to be made by each Catholic guided by a conscience formed by Catholic moral teaching.” (#37)
    c. “A Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position [on abortion] may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.” (#35)

  6. Zedeck says:

    Hello Irra:

    “I have to admit to a certain degree of incredulity about your naive regurgitating of the talking points from the American mainstream media.”

    This stood out for me, as someone with an interest in the subjectivity of the media — and by extension, due to selective reading habits / credulity, everyone’s individual, perceived realities.

    Just curious: who / what influences your conception of American politics, and your interpretation of the facts?

    (Recently, and perhaps unconnected-ly, I’ve been reading through the Conservapedia entry of Barack Obama, as well as its Talk page. It has been instructive, in various ways. Conservapedia is designed to be a “trustworthy” alternative to Wikipedia’s allegedly liberal bias. What strikes me is that both are consensus realities, but of different-sized samples.)

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