THE day Norani Othman found out her book was banned by the Malaysian government, she knew she had “arrived” as a scholarly writer.
The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia sociology professor had not expected that Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism — the book she contributed chapters to and edited — would be banned, but when it was finally confirmed by the media on 14 Aug 2008, she laughingly told The Nut Graph: “A few well-known people have called to congratulate me and tell me I’ve arrived.”
In an odd way, Norani, who is also a Sisters in Islam (SIS) co-founder, has reason to celebrate. She joins the ranks of other internationally respected scholars and well-known writers such as Karen Armstrong, John Esposito and Salman Rushdie, all of whom have been banned by the Malaysian government.
Norani’s book, published in 2005 by SIS, was banned together with another book by Abdul Rahman Mohamed titled Pelik Tapi Benar Dalam Solat. On 14 Aug 2008, Bernama quoted the Home Ministry’s Publications and Quranic Texts Control Division principal assistant secretary Abdul Razak Abdul Latif as saying the two books were banned because they contained “twisted facts on Islam that can undermine the faith of Muslims.”
Several attempts by The Nut Graph to reach the division’s secretary Che Din Yusoh for further clarification proved futile.
More banned books
Both Norani’s and Abdul Rahman’s books were banned under Section 7(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984 (PPPA).
The titles add to an already long list of books that have been banned under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration.
Between 1971 and mid-2007, the government banned 1,446 books. Of that figure, 279 have been banned since Abdullah came to power in 2003.
Data collated from the ministry’s list of banned books that were compiled for a 2007 art exhibition by local artist Sharon Chin and analysed by EH Koh show that in Abdullah’s first term as premier, the number of banned books increased annually by 43%.
The average number of banned books between 1971 and 2007 is 39 per year. But between 2003 and 2007, the number rose to 56 per year.
This runs contrary to the once-popular premier’s promise for greater openness, transparency and freedom of expression. The statistics also bear testimony to the fact that despite the push for Islam Hadhari under the Abdullah administration, the number of banned religious books has risen since 2003. Islam Hadhari or civilisational Islam is based on a set of 10 principles that includes, among others, advancing knowledge in society.
Chin took a sample of 827 books from the total of 1,446 that had been banned between 1971 and 2007, and arbitrarily categorised them into five groups — sexuality, religion, bukan budaya kita, race and politics. Her findings revealed a spike in the banning of religion- and sexuality-related books during Abdullah’s first term:
Even PAS working committee member and Kota Raja Member of Parliament Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud disagrees with book banning, saying the government should open up religious discourse.
She said readers should not be deprived of reading SIS’s scholarly book because it is “the jihad, or thirst, for knowledge that is important.”
“Critical reading is not encouraged in this country because it is easier to ban uncomfortable ideas,” Siti Mariah told The Nut Graph. “We should open up religious discourse. I don’t agree with any sort of book banning. When SIS comes up with books like this, other scholars can write books to rebut SIS if [they] disagree.”
Censorship in Malaysia is undoubtedly an arbitrary decision that is entrusted in the hands of a few civil servants.
For example, in 2005, the government banned John Esposito’s book What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, and Karen Armstrong’s books History of God, The Battle for God, and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet because the books were considered detrimental to national peace and harmony.
However, both authors are highly regarded scholars who are known to be sympathetic to Islam and Muslims worldwide. In fact, their books are used as reference in courses on Islam in universities in both the East and West.
And when History of God and Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet were banned, the government claimed the books would wreak havoc in Malaysia. The truth is, A History of God was sold in local bookstores when it was first published in 1993 until it was prohibited. And no social, political or economic catastrophe occurred in Malaysia as a result of the book being sold and read here.
In yet another demonstration of how arbitrary the decision to ban or not ban is, the government removed the ban on The History of God and What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam in May 2008, three years after they were banned. No reasons were given.
In Norani’s case, neither she nor the publisher was informed that her book would be banned.
SIS senior programme manager Maria Chin Abdullah said SIS, as the book publisher, was not told of the ban until it was gazetted and reported in the media. Only by request did SIS receive a letter from the ministry confirming the book was banned. However, the ministry did not explain how the book, or parts of it, violated any law or how it was a threat.
In a press conference in Petaling Jaya on 18 Aug 2008, Maria said this created the impression that the authorities are either pandering to prejudice, or simply that they have not read the book. “Not giving a full explanation will only place a blot on democracy,” Maria said.
By most accounts, the SIS book is neither threatening nor distorted. The book is based on a three-year collaborative research project conceptualised by SIS in 2003. Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the book features eight essays that explain the experiences of women’s groups in challenging Islamic extremism. The essays were originally research papers prepared by women’s groups from 15 countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa for an international roundtable held in Bellagio, Italy.
Norani said the book has been used as academic texts in a number of universities, including the Humboldt University in Berlin and the National University of Singapore. “I am sad by the ban because it is anti-intellectualism and anti-open discussion,” she told The Nut Graph.
“This book contains intellectual and rational discussion based on the experience of women’s groups. It is an evaluation of the issues Muslim women face, such as how their public and private roles have been affected by the politicisation of Islam and Islamic extremism,” she said.
How books are banned
The prohibition of books is also not always unilaterally enforced, hence demonstrating yet again how capriciously decisions are made on behalf of the public.
The Home Minister has the absolute authority to ban books, according to National Human Rights Society secretary-general and lawyer Sharmila Sekaran. When a book is banned, the minister publishes a government gazette announcing the ban. The gazette also outlines the conditions and guidelines for the prohibition to take place.
But the Johor Customs Department and the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) have been known to issue lists of banned books that may contradict the government gazette. This not only exacerbates the arbitrariness of book banning, but also allows for books to be insidiously banned without the public’s knowledge.
Sharmila said that is because the PPPA’s broad provisions allow any authorised senior government official to confiscate at their personal discretion publications they deem offensive or threatening to public morality.
“It is also possible that if an authorised officer comes across something they think should be banned — even though it is not on the ministry’s list — they can, under the PPPA, temporarily seize the product pending the minister’s approval,” she said in a phone interview.
In a 15 Aug 2008 joint statement, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) and the Writers’ Alliance for Media Independence (Wami) said the authorities should expose and rebut false or misleading information in any book instead of banning them outright.
“The authorities must have the courage to engage in public debate and win the battle of public opinion. Banning books that one cannot rebut or debunk is the height of cowardice for the intellectually inferior,” the release said.
CIJ and Wami said the banning of Norani’s and Abdul Rahman’s books further confirms the need for media reform. Both organisations have teamed up with SIS to fully launch an anti-book-banning campaign by 25 Nov 2008. A postcard campaign addressed to the Home Minister has already been launched. However, only 500 signatures have been collected since the postcards were distributed on 1 May 2008.
Maria said SIS planned to popularise the campaign by seeking assistance from civil society groups and the media. “We might also do an online petition, and hopefully we’ll get more than 3,000 signatures,” she said.
In the meantime, SIS has written to the Home Ministry seeking clarification over the banning of Norani’s book.
“I believe we have to wait 14 days for a reply. We will not take legal action,” SIS director Jamilah Ibrahim said. “It’s a bit early for us to act now, and we don’t want to pre-empt any action. But we have our legal advisors on standby.”