LET’S assume that in a democracy, the purpose of journalism is to provide the public with accurate and reliable information to function as individuals and members of society. By this definition, Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia should then be an accurate and reliable provider of public interest information to Malay-speaking readers across the nation.
During the period of the recently concluded Hulu Selangor by-election, one could conclude that Malay-speaking Malaysians were preoccupied with morality. Or to be more specific, they were concerned with Parti Keadilan Rakyat candidate Datuk Zaid Ibrahim‘s “Islamic morals”. On 19 April 2010, the paper front-paged some bloggers’ threats to “prove” that Zaid was an “alcoholic“. On 21 April, the paper again front-paged Zaid’s admission that he not only drank, but also owned a racehorse.
Headlines of Utusan Malaysia on 19 and 21 April respectively
Throughout the week, Utusan‘s inside pages were filled with commentaries and news articles discrediting Zaid in this manner. In fact, on 23 April, the paper even highlighted several bloggers’ criticisms of Zaid. This included Dr Siddiq Azani, who asked why the Islamic authorities had not arrested and punished Zaid for consuming alcohol.
It is thus curious that the paper buried on page 16 its 21 April report on Umno’s Kinabatangan Member of Parliament Datuk Bung Moktar Radin‘s self-confessed illegal polygamous marriage. After all, isn’t this also a serious breach of “Islamic morals” — by a federal legislator from the ruling coalition, no less?
The news report on 21 April
Political calculation only?
The lack of proportionality in this coverage on politicians’ “morality” could have been the result of a simple political calculation. Hulu Selangor was a high-stakes parliamentary by-election. It is therefore unsurprising that an Umno-owned newspaper would train its sights on a senior politician who was not only sacked from the party, but was now a rival candidate.
But it is also highly likely that Utusan‘s political calculation was embedded in the larger public discourse on what constitutes “morality”, and by extension “public interest”. What Bung Moktar and actress Zizie Izette did was certainly illegal according to Selangor’s Islamic Family Law Enactment. But it appears, from Utusan‘s coverage, that Bung Moktar and Zizie were just being naughty, whereas Zaid’s personal history was downright scandalous and punishable.
After all, the news report on Bung Moktar and Zizie, a popular actor, closed with this paragraph: “Before leaving the [syariah] court grounds separately, Zizie Izette was asked a naughty question, which was whether she had a ‘bun in the oven’ already … she merely responded by smiling.”
Utusan‘s numerous news reports on Zaid did not close with reporters asking him naughtily whether he preferred Australian or French wine, or whether his racehorse was really a thoroughbred.
(Pic by winterdove / sxc.hu)
Evolution of Muslim societies
It seems then that Utusan‘s Islamic moral compass points the opposite way from that of other Islamic experts, scholars and legislators. Prominent Islamic scholars and ulama have argued that while drinking alcohol is a personal sin in Islam, it should not be punishable as a crime against the state. These scholars include New York-based imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Melbourne-based academic Prof Abdullah Saeed, and Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic jurisprudence expert Prof Mohammad Hashim Kamali.
On the other hand, illegal polygamy is being treated more seriously under the law in several Muslim-majority countries. Article 40 of Morocco‘s extensively reformed Islamic family law says, “Polygamy is forbidden when there is the risk of inequity between the wives.” In fact, a wife can add in her marriage contract that her husband shall not engage in polygamy. If the husband violates the contract, the wife can apply for divorce.
In Tunisia, any man who contracts a polygamous marriage can be jailed for a year. A woman who knowingly enters a polygamous marriage is also liable to the same punishment. These countries limit polygamy based on an interpretation of the Quran — verses 3 and 129 in Surah An-Nisa — that the fear of injustice between co-wives is prevalent in almost all cases of polygamy.
And so, in some parts of the Muslim world, the pattern is that the abuse of polygamy is increasingly viewed as damaging to women’s rights and the public good. Private matters, such as alcohol consumption, are increasingly viewed as personal sins only between the believer and God, and should not be punishable by the state.
Malaysia, though, seems to be immune to this evolution in Islamic thought and practice. The idea of “morality”, as defined by media outlets such as Utusan Malaysia, is very much tied to personal conformity or non-conformity to religious tenets. And these personal sins are deemed to be public interest issues because, well, the public appears to be very interested in Muslims’ private lives.
Before and after: Whiskey bottle superimposed onto a Nut Graph photo of Zaid,
as featured on an anti-PKR blog
The larger environment
And so, Utusan‘s coverage obscures the difference between Zaid’s “offence” and the offence committed by Bung Moktar and Zizie. Apart from being a personal sin in Islam, Zaid’s drinking did not harm any other human being. If he did cause or potentially cause harm — such as by driving under the influence — then he should be held accountable for harming or potentially harming others. If he did not harm anyone else, then as a Muslim, Zaid’s only reckoning should be with his God.
Illegal polygamous marriages, however, are not merely a “private” and “personal” matter. There are lives that can be ruined or traumatised when a husband takes a second, or third, or fourth wife. Will the other co-wives be accorded the same security, respect and dignity in the marriage? Will the children be spared emotional harm, financial negligence and public humiliation? Can the existing wives opt for a just and fair divorce if they do not agree to the polygamous marriage? These are real issues that could affect vast numbers of people.
But the larger environment in Malaysia does not seem to encourage this sort of discussion. Perhaps the larger environment in Malaysia is best captured by a story run by Mingguan Malaysia on 25 April, Pelajar maut tergelincir ketika elak diserbu JAIS.
A male student tried to escape in fear and accidentally fell to his death when Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) officers snooped on him and his girlfriend at 1:40am on 24 April. Jais has since denied that its officers were involved in the raid. But the repercussions are there — Malaysian Muslims themselves are increasingly terrified of the intensifying moral policing here.
And yet, it is Zaid’s drinking and gambling that made the front pages of Utusan Malaysia during the week of 19 to 25 April. Perhaps the newspaper’s editors believed that this really was the most important piece of information the public needed in order to function effectively as individuals and as a society. No matter — what a shame that a personal sin was deemed to be more problematic for the ummah than a transgression that clearly impacts on Muslim women and children.
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