It was a quiet Wednesday evening towards the end of May when Malaysia’s religious authorities paid a surprise visit to the Borders bookshop in one of Kuala Lumpur’s more upscale shopping malls.
The three officers from the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department, better known by its Malay language acronym JAWI, were courteous but brought with them 20 other men. They milled around the shop, browsing the shelves and taking pictures on their mobile phones. The officers asked the employees whether the shop was selling Allah, Liberty and Love, the newly released book by New York-based Canadian academic Irshad Manji.
Understandably, the staff, dealing with a raid by the religious authorities for the first time, was nervous. They lead the men to the shelf where the offending book was on display. After confiscating a couple of copies, the officials asked for the manager.
Stephen Fung, a Malaysian Chinese and non-Muslim, who buys the books and distributes them to the six Borders branches in and around the capital, was the first to speak to the men. But then they asked to see the most senior Muslim member of staff. The store manager, Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, a 36-year-old Malay woman planning for her wedding and in the midst of a marriage course at her local mosque, happened to be on shift.
“There was no fatwa, no communication, not even so much as a phone call. Nik Raina is being persecuted because she’s a Muslim.“
– Yau Su Peng
“They singled out the Malay women and asked them if they were married,” Borders Books’ Chief Operating Officer Yau Su Peng told Al Jazeera. “Those who said they were single were then accused of being a lesbian. Some were in tears.”
Nik Raina and Fung were then ordered to appear at JAWI’s offices the next day. When they did so, Nik Raina’s lawyer was turned away, denying her a right to counsel that’s enshrined in Malaysia’s constitution.
All this happened even though at the time, on May 23, Allah, Liberty and Love wasn’t actually banned.
Some groups had expressed disquiet about the book and Borders had been forced to cancel a “meet-the-author” session with Manji earlier in the month following threats of violence, but no fatwa had been issued. Borders said it had been given no indication that there was a problem with selling the book. Indeed, it was on sale at other shops in the same shopping complex.
With its Muslim Malay majority and large communities of non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and indigenous people, Malaysia has long prided itself on its ethnic diversity and religious tolerance. For decades, Shariah courts, with jurisdiction over the personal lives of the country’s Muslims, have operated alongside the civil system with the Federal Constitution as the country’s supreme legal document. But as Islam has become increasingly politicised and the religious authorities more assertive, the system has come under increasing strain.
Religious authorities ’emboldened’
The case “is symptomatic of an alarming trend in which religious authorities have become increasing emboldened by the lack of proper oversight and a secular ‘leash'”, Azrul Mohd Khalib, who writes a column for the online newspaper the Malaysian Insider and works on HIV/AIDS issues, told Al Jazeera.
Nik Raina is charged with distributing a book that’s offensive to Islam, even though her job doesn’t involve choosing the books for the store or stacking the shelves. Due in court on Tuesday, she faces not only the prospect of a 3,000 ringgit fine ($1,000) and a two-year jail term, but a criminal record. “There was no fatwa, no communication, not even so much as a phone call,” Yau said. “Nik Raina is being persecuted because she’s a Muslim.”
The Borders raid took place nearly three weeks before the Home Ministry’s Publication and Quranic Text Control Division published the ban, declaring the book “prejudicial to morality and public order”. JAWI, which ultimately reports to the Prime Minister’s Office, says it doesn’t need a court order to raid a bookshop like Borders if it suspects it’s selling “un-Islamic” material. It’s a view that’s echoed by Jamil Khir Baharom, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and the man responsible for Islamic affairs in the government.
Lawyers acknowledge that laws governing the religious authorities in individual states are quite broad. But there is scepticism about the charges that have been brought.
“It seems the religious authorities have had to find someone who is a Muslim within the Borders organisation to be charged,” said lawyer Andrew Khoo, the co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee. “The question is whether the appropriate person has been charged or whether she’s the unwitting scapegoat of people trying to enforce the unenforceable.” As a company Borders can’t be charged, and neither can Fung. JAWI’s officers admitted as much as they handed Fung a summons.
Irshad Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love is the fifth to be added to the list this year. Peter Mayle’s sex education book Where did I come from? was removed from bookshops in February and banned the following month. The book, designed to help parents tell their children the facts of life, has sold more than two million copies around the world since it was first published nearly 40 years ago.
Text Control Division secretary Abdul Aziz Nor says his team usually acts following a complaint from the public, which was apparently the case with Mayle’s book. But they also monitor imports at key entry points, including the Kuala Lumpur International Airport where 20 officers are stationed.
“We cannot read every book that comes into Malaysia so we look at the topic,” Abdul Aziz told Al Jazeera. “We may pick up one or two based on that.”
On that basis, Hitchens’ bestseller God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything really didn’t stand a chance. It was banned in 2009.
After Nik Raina had been charged and a date set for the Shariah hearing, Borders learned it had secured a judicial review to challenge the raid in the civil court. The hearing was set for a couple of weeks before the Shariah case. But then JAWI asked to have its hearing brought forward, a move it said was in the public interest. JAWI did not respond to emails or phone calls requesting comment on the raid and its aftermath.
It’s not only Borders, a company controlled by ethnic Chinese business tycoon Vincent Tan, which has turned to the civil courts. The publisher of the Malay language edition of the book, ZI Publications and its owner/director Ezra Zaid, also sought a judicial review. As with Borders, at least 20 people turned up at ZI’s offices looking to seize the book. “The concern for me, and especially for my staff, was the legal jurisdiction in which they were operating,” he said.
Raman Krishna has run Silverfish Books in a Kuala Lumpur suburb since 1999. It’s a small operation specialising in Malaysian books and the kind of writing that isn’t on the bestseller lists. JAWI visited Silverfish on June 1. While the two officers were polite and showed Raman the gazette of the soon-to-be published ban when he asked to see it, they warned him that if he had any Muslim staff on the payroll they would be at risk of prosecution if the book were discovered.
“The other part of this is censorship by harassment,” Raman said in an interview at his shop. “We have a name for it, ‘budaya samseng’ – a culture of gangsterism. It’s absurd. No civilised society would tolerate this. I don’t understand why Malaysians do.”
After JAWI’s visit, Borders wrote to the appropriate ministers to express their concern over the circumstances of the raid and the continued prosecution of Nik Raina. It’s not just Nik they’re concerned about.
The company, which bought the rights to the Borders’ name when the US parent company folded, employs 150 people, 77 per cent of them Muslim. It has yet to receive any response, although the consequence of Nik Raina being found guilty could have serious implications for all Malays simply trying to earn a living; whether an ethnic Malay crew member serving wine to a non-Muslim passenger on a Malaysia Airlines flight or a waiter serving food to non-Muslim Malaysians during Ramadan fasting hours.
“We have the government rhetoric of Malaysia being a progressive democracy and a centre for moderate Islam, but then you have the political action on the ground, the lack of political will to tackle issues like this and a backsliding into medieval times,” said Imtiaz Malik Sarwar, a constitutional expert and lawyer who’s representing ZI Publications and Ezra. “It’s very worrying.”
Change in focus
Borders’ attempt to delay Tuesday’s proceedings in the Shariah Court until the completion of the judicial review was unsuccessful. Citing the Constitution, High Court Judge Rohana Yusuf said the civil courts didn’t have the authority to intervene in a Shariah case. But she also noted a seeming “lack of good faith” on the part of JAWI and said she was confident the Shariah Court itself would grant a stay of proceedings.
“All we want to know is where our civil liberties end and where they begin. And, if I’m a Muslim, where does Syariah intercede. This really is a litmus test of the veracity of our legal system.“
– Ezra Zaid
A delay would help ease some of the unease surrounding the case and show the kind of legal co-operation that lawyers such as Khoo say is necessary for a dual system to work effectively. But the question of jurisdiction remains a difficult one. Where other countries have found a dual system unworkable, Malaysia has persevered, often by steering away from difficult debates over where jurisdiction ultimately lies.
A couple of decisions at the end of July, one of them backing an earlier ruling to lift a ban on a book about women and Islamic law, have raised hopes that the civil courts are becoming more assertive. What started off as a surprise raid by the religious authorities on an unsuspecting bookshop may finally force a discussion few have been willing to risk.
There “needs to be some acknowledgement of how the rule of law works in this country”, said Ezra. “There’s a lawlessness in which they are operating. All we want to know is where our civil liberties end and where they begin. And, if I’m a Muslim, where does Shariah intercede. This really is a litmus test of the veracity of our legal system.”
Irshad Manji is not the only writer to find her works banned in Malaysia. Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran, Booker Prize-winning novelist Salman Rushdie, polemicist Christopher Hitchens and Peter Mayle, a British writer best known for his tales of expatriate life in France, have all had books banned in the past four decades.
Since 1971, some 1,517 books and other publications have been added to Malaysia’s banned list. Along with magazines and newspapers, books are also monitored for content. Pictures are sometimes blackened out with marker pen or pages removed altogether.
Operating under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, the Publication and Quranic Text Control Division is in charge of the process. It decides which publications are allowed to be sold and which are deemed too dangerous for the Malaysian public to see. As Malaysia battled a Communist insurgency, early bans focused on Communism and politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the predictable bans on adult magazines, kung fu caught the censors’ attention. These days, sex and religion are the most sensitive subjects.