Archive for category Farish Noor

Demonisation and the Politics of Banning : Why PAS Should Look To Its Own History

By Farish A. Noor

The recent general assembly of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS has left us with a rather mixed serving of results and outcomes, some of which will linger for a while and some of which may prove harder to digest than others. Despite the re-iteration of PAS’s stand vis a vis the UMNO party that was couched in oppositional terms, we are left with the question of PAS’s long-term orientation and objectives, and where the party will go from here. It is clear that the party remains divided over the question of dialogue and co-operation with UMNO, which has been its nemesis since its genesis in 1951.

But when it comes to the question of dialogue and engagement, PAS’s stand seems clearer with regards to other Islamic movements and NGOs in the country: While PAS has demonstrated its willingness to work with some of the more conservative Muslim groups in Malaysia, it has steadfastly refused to work with other groups, notably Muslim feminist organisations such as Sisters in Islam (SIS).

What has shocked many of us, however, was the call on the part of PAS to have SIS investigated by the religious authorities of the country on the grounds that it is a movement that has allegedly ‘misled’ Muslims and which has been tainted by liberal ideas. More worrying still was the call to have SIS banned if it is found to be somehow ‘anti-Islamic’ in its activities. Read the rest of this entry »


PAS finding its way still : Some Observations on the Speech by PAS President Ustaz Hadi Awang

By Farish A. Noor

The opening speech to the 55th Muktamar of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS should be read closely and given the consideration that is due to it, particularly as it comes from the party President himself, Ustaz Hadi Awang, and in some respects gives an accurate reflection of the state of the party and the mindset of its senior leadership. Having said that, the speech of Hadi Awang that was delivered during the opening session of the Muktamar was both rich and complex, and should be read closely by those of us who are interested in the political fortunes of PAS and the future of the party in Malaysia.

Perhaps the most salient feature of the speech was the straightforward declaration of PAS’s oppositional stand vis a vis UMNO, which was described by Hadi in his speech in rather negative terms. The tone of Ustaz Hadi’s speech would resonate with the members of PAS who were worried about any possible compromise on the part of their own Islamist party and the possibility of a PAS-UMNO tie-up in the near future. After describing UMNO as a party that was materialist, corrupt and a lackey to the British colonial powers in the past, one can safely assume that any notion of a PAS-UMNO marriage of convenience has been put on the shelf for the moment at least…
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Time for PAS to Demonstrate Its Ability to be a National Party

By Farish A Noor

This week will witness the fifty-fifth General Assembly of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), that has been on the political landscape of Malaysia since 1951, though its actual historical presence in Malaysia dates back even further, to the country’s first Islamic party Hizbul Muslimin, in 1948. Malaysia-watchers and analysts are looking very closely at PAS today, and there has been ample speculation about the fate and future of key PAS ideologues and leaders, notably the representatives of the two camps in the party otherwise known as the conservatives and progressives.

Distinctions such as ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ are not very useful in cases such as these however, for they tell us little about the goings-on in PAS and they lend the mistaken impression that the differences within the party can be essentially reduced to such simple binary opposites. Needless to say PAS’s opponents are likewise tempted to use such dichotomies in their own lame efforts to divide and weaken the party, and such divisive tactics are long familiar to those who have studied Malaysian politics over the past half a century or so…
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Nation-Building Cannot Begin from Irrational Premises

By Farish A. Noor

It has become ever-so-trendy of late to talk about nation-building in the most inclusive and open-ended of terms. After assuming office more than a month ago, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak began speaking at length about the notion of a ‘United Malaysia’ – which was in turn claimed by opposition parties in the country as their idea as well. In Thailand a slew of parties have claimed monopoly over the concept of a singular, united Thailand. While in Burma since the 1960s the aims of nation-building have been the same as they are now: to bring together the disparate array of ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups under the same banner of a singular Burmese identity.

Now there is nothing wrong with nation-building per se (for indeed one cannot imagine any form of governance without some semblance of a nation-building project accompanying it), and there is nothing wrong with wanting to bring different communities together. What has to be questioned critically, however, is this: What is the final aim of such nation-building projects; what are the premises upon which they are based; and can such projects ever get to their appointed destinations if the premises upon which they are laid are somehow faulty themselves? Read the rest of this entry »


Back to the People

by Farish A. Noor

With the High Court deciding that Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin was and is, after all, the rightful Chief Minister of Perak we seem to have returned to square one all over again. Obviously it is too soon to tell whether the imbroglio in Perak will now wind down to a stagnant non-issue, or whether the Barisan Nasional will not allow the matter to rest and take the issue to the Federal Court next. Perakians – like most Malaysians – are a trifle tired of the ongoing drama but at the same time no-one can afford to relent at this stage due to the stakes in the contest.

To underscore this fact, one simply has to take a peek at the video clips that are on the internet at the moment and witness the unseemly spectacle of Speaker Sivakumar being unceremoniously manhandled and dragged out of the State Assembly. No, my friends, this was not a scene from ‘The Last King of Scotland’, the film about the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin Dada that brought Uganda to the level of primordial violent madness. This was closer to home, happening right here in Malaysia, ‘Truly Asia’… Read the rest of this entry »


MINDRAF: Does Malaysia Need Another Sectarian Political Party?

By Farish A. Noor

As if the political landscape of Malaysia wasn’t overcrowded already, there has come into the fray yet another sectarian community-based party, Mindraf (Malaysian Indian Democratic Action Front). Ostensibly set up by ‘good samaritans’ concerned about the plight of their community, Mindraf has announced its political ambitions with the aim of representing Malaysian citizens of South Asian origin.

Now allow me to be blunt here: In the opinion of this writer, Malaysia does not need another communitarian party that caters to the primary concerns of a particular ethnic or religious community. We are already forced to work on a contested landscape where there are too many parties that are based on ethnic and religious loyalties, and yet another sectarian party will hardly bring us any closer to realising the notion of a Malaysia where identity is based on universal citizenship and equal rights.

If anything, the tendency of such sectarian parties is to further add to the process of divide and rule and to further entrench sedimented notions of ethnic-racial differences. This comes at a time when a younger generation of Malaysians have demonstrated their ability to transcend the ethnic divisions that once haunted the generation of their parents. So while we hope and pray for a better, more united and colour-blind Malaysia, whose idea was it to create another ethnic-based party? Read the rest of this entry »


Indonesian Elections: Dreaming of Gajah Mada in a Modern Democracy

By Farish A. Noor

While doing fieldwork on the island of Madura last week, I stopped for a while to do one of those necessary things we all need to do sooner or later: get a haircut. My colleague and fellow academic Toharudin and I stopped by a small, somewhat forlorn barber’s shop in Sumenep and set down on the rickety chairs as we were shaved and made to look semi-civilised at least.

In due course, the conversation with the barber turned to politics and the recent elections of 9th April. Pak Sulis, the barber, opined thus: “I am happy that the Partai Demokrat (Democratic Party) won the highest number of votes for the Parliamentary elections, and I hope SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) will be elected as the President. He has done so much for the country: brought peace to Aceh, fought against corruption, and he needs another term to consolidate and build the country further. We need continuity now; the five years after the fall of Suharto were too traumatic for people like me.”

Pak Sulis’ opinion was matched by the electorate who gave the Partai Demokrat the highest number of votes and consequently seats at the recent elections. But what was interesting for me was how this man – who admitted that he was semi-literate and whose education stopped at the age of 11 – was more concerned about actual political results than empty rhetoric. Pak Sulis, like millions of ordinary Indonesians, want to see their democracy succeed. And to make their point the Indonesian people voted for the three main parties whose ideologies were secular, nationalist and development-oriented. All in all the sectarian nationalist parties and the Islamic parties that were seen as being religiously sectarian were ousted. Read the rest of this entry »


Malaysian Elections: A Case of Too Little, Too Late for the Government?

By Farish A. Noor

The by-elections in Malaysia this week have demonstrated in many ways the fact that Malaysia’s political landscape has changed very little over the past year: The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) that is dominated by the UMNO party won the by-election in East Malaysia, but lost both by-elections in the West Malaysian states of Perak and Kedah. In the case of the latter, the results of the elections have shown that the prevailing political mood in West Malaysia remains in favour of the opposition made up of the parties of the Peoples’ Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), which won a majority of the votes in the Peninsula during the general elections of March 2008.

Political commentators and analysts will now set about dissecting the results of these elections and engage in the arcane art of political predictions: Not least for the simple reason that the by-election results will be seen as the peoples’ verdict on the standing and popularity of the country’s new Prime Minister, Datuk Najib Razak.

Sworn in as the country’s sixth Prime Minister less than a week ago, Najib Razak hails from one of the oldest elite families that have dominated the internal politics of UMNO – and by extension Malaysia – for more than half a century now. Son of the country’s second Prime Minister and connected to several of the aristocratic families of the country, Najib ironically cuts a curious figure in the context of Malaysia’s new and increasingly complex politics. In the 1950s and 60s he would have been seen as a prime candidate for the office of Prime Minister thanks to his elite background and Western education. But today Malaysia is witnessing the emergence of a new society that is infinitely more complex compared to the Malaysia of the 1950s. Read the rest of this entry »


Politics in an Age of Unreason

By Farish A. Noor

So now the bomohs (witch doctors) rule the roost it would seem. The news that a magic charm or spell was found hidden surreptitiously under the desk of none other than the Prime Minister of Malaysia does not bode well for the future of this country of ours. It may make the headlines under the ‘Strange but True’ column of foreign papers, but this historian has grown somewhat jaded by now by such ridiculousness dressed in the garment of wonderment and fantasy. No, this was no laughing matter (and if we did laugh, it was a pitiable laugh at best).

One recalls the blanket order issued by some political parties last year just before the general elections of March 2008, to the effect that politicians should refrain from calling upon the services of such practitioners of the ‘black arts’. That political parties have to issue such warnings in the first place speaks volumes about the state of Malaysian politics today, a primordial politics that is being enacted in an age of unreason.

As a scholar in Britain in the 1990s I remember reading a report about a Latin American country that had fallen into an economic tailspin of unprecedented proportions. As inflation rose to the level of more than a thousand percent, the hapless citizens of that unfortunate country wondered aloud about how their country’s economy could have fallen apart in so short a space of time. Read the rest of this entry »


Elizabeth Wong and Our Hope for a New Politics in Malaysia

By Farish A. Noor

As someone who has known Ms Elizabeth Wong, former ADUN and Exco member of the Selangor state government, for almost ten years, I am profoundly distressed by the treatment that has been meted out to her by the mainstream and tabloid press over the revelation of photos that have compromised her. There are no words adequate enough to describe my feelings of disgust and anger over how this capable and committed activist-politician has been slandered and abused recently.

The facts surrounding the case are well known by now and one need not dwell upon them here. Suffice to say that one of the brightest, capable and efficient politicians of our land has been discredited via a malicious campaign to tarnish her reputation, that reeks of hypocrisy and conspiracy of the highest order.

What needs to be emphasised in the midst of this media hullabaloo is this: That the private lives of politicians are as sacrosanct as the right of any other citizen, and that politicians deserve the same degree of respect as anyone else. This is what we are fighting for; and this is what the elections of March 2008 were all about: Our earnest wish to see a new kind of politics in Malaysia, a new politics that would reflect and mirror the new Malaysian society that we live in today. Read the rest of this entry »


Patriotism and Hate-Speeches are Different Things

By Farish A. Noor

Nothing stirs the humbug soup better than spurious talk of patriotism and loyalty. The saddest thing of all is that more often than not whenever there is the rallying call to demonstrate one’s patriotism and to show one’s love for the nation, it comes from the most narrow-minded, chauvinistic and intolerant quarters of society.

This was demonstrated in Malaysia recently when political differences between the ruling National Front coalition led by the UMNO party and the opposition People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) spilled out onto the streets. In the wake of the take-over of the state assembly of the state of Perak by the National Front, several politicians of the People’s Alliance – including veteran opposition politicians like Karpal Singh of the Democratic Action Party and the former Chief Minister of the state Nizar Jamaluddin – cried foul over the means that were used to wrestle control of the state assembly from their hands. Complicating matters was the role of the Sultan of Perak who chose not to dissolve the Perak Assembly but instead allow for a new National Front-led state government in a matter of days.

Now from the wider perspective of world politics, the goings-on in the state of Perak somewhere in North Malaysia may not have even registered a blip on the international news radar. Indeed, years from now the historian may write on the episode and sum it up in one sentence, as an instance of power changing hands in a controversial manner.

But what is alarming was the reaction of the Youth Wing of the UMNO party that reacted to the protests of the opposition party leaders by condemning them for having the temerity to question the process and the role of the Sultan in the debacle. Read the rest of this entry »


Blind Loyalty? Re-Reading the Taj-us Salatin of Buchara al-Jauhari

By Farish A. Noor

As if it was not bad enough that Malaysia has been overrun by an outbreak of frogs – like a scene from some Biblical catastrophe – we now have to stomach the spectacle of humbug heroes and demagogues as well.

One is deeply distressed to read reports of conservative politicians and their followers crying for revenge against those whom they accuse of having offended the fragile sensibilities of the monarchs. According to one such report, Umno deputy Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin had asked his followers, referring to Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, “In the old days, what did we do to those who commit treason?”

The crowd replied, “Kill him!”

Khairy then said they should only ask for Nizar “to be banished”.

Not being a legal expert, I am uncertain of the gravity of the actions of the abovementioned individual. From my own untutored perspective it appeared more like an invitation to violence than anything else. But being a historian myself I am struck by the first part of Khairy’s question, i.e. the phrase: “In the old days …” Read the rest of this entry »


How Indonesia’s Islamic Universities Are Different

By Farish A Noor

Regardless of where you stand on the question of whether we are living in the age of Islamism, neo-Islamism or Post-Islamism, the fact remains that there is pretty much Islam all over the place at the moment; and much of this Islam is also going all over the place…

From the late 1970s onwards many a Muslim-majority state with a Muslim-majority government embarked on a host of projects intended to inculcate Islamic values, norms and standards in the daily lives of their people. In some cases, such as that of Malaysia, this inculcation of Islamic norms was at times at the expense of other faith communities and cultural minorities as well. From Morocco to Pakistan to Malaysia we witnessed the sudden surge of growth in the Islamic public sector: Shariah courts were raised to a level on par with secular civil courts; Islamic finance and banking was experimented with and implemented with gusto; Islamic think tanks, research centres and universities were funded lavishly and built all over the place. In time a network of Islamic universities and colleges was created worldwide, creating hundreds of thousands of graduates who later entered the public domain with the expectation that they will be given jobs.

The one country that resisted this headlong rush towards Islamisation was Indonesia, though that was partly due to the somewhat Islamophobic tendencies of its then leader Suharto and his coterie of Generals and business elite cronies.

Indonesia’s Islamic universities developed at their own pace, often under close state supervision but also under careful tutelage of Islamic intellectuals like Mukti Ali who was the Minister for Religious Affairs. Under the guidance of men like Mukti Ali, Indonesia developed Islamic universities where Islam was not taught, but rather researched. This was singularly unique in the Muslim world because the Indonesian government actually encouraged Muslim scholars to think objectively and critically about Islam and religion in general. In other words, rather than produce Islamist ideologues, the Islamic universities of Indonesia produced a generation of Muslim scholars who could objectively study -critically – their own religion. Read the rest of this entry »


How Many Deaths Does it Take?

By Farish A. Noor

Commenting on the loss of credibility and legitimacy of the Burmese state security forces in the eyes of the Burmese people and the international community, the Burmese activist leader Aung San Su Kyi once said: “All they have left are their guns”.

Indeed, if the possession of a badge is the only thing that differentiates a law enforcement officer from the ordinary public or the criminal fraternity, then it can be said that the line between law enforcement and the absence of law and order is a fine one. It has become a truism worldwide that once that line is fatefully and fatally crossed, it would be next to impossible to redeem the reputation and standing of any law enforcement agency again. This was the case of the police in South Africa during the days of Apartheid, whose job it was not to protect all South African citizens but rather to prop up the Apartheid regime at the cost of the freedom of others. The same applies to the stained reputation of the security forces of many other developing countries, from Zimbabwe to Pakistan to Sri Lanka to the Philippines, whose job it seems is to protect the ruling parties and the political elite rather than to provide for the safety of the population at large.

Today Malaysia seems to be heading down the same path as more and more revelations of misdemeanours among the state security forces come to light. The most recent case being that of Kugan Ananthan, a 22-year old who was arrested by the Malaysian police on suspicion of being part of a luxury car-theft racket. Kugan was later found dead at the Subang Jaya police station, and the initial explanation for his death was ‘water in the lungs’. Read the rest of this entry »


Do the Batik Walk, Mr. Obama

By Farish A. Noor

With the hopes of the world apparently pinned upon his shoulders, Barrack Obama will have a lot of things on his mind in the months and years to come for certain. The news that the interrogations at Guantanamo Bay might be suspended for a period of 120 days already sends out the right signals that the man intends to deliver upon his promises, and that cannot be a bad thing for anyone for what was promised was a new America that should play a humbler, moderating role in world affairs.

But let us be somewhat circumspect and realistic in our expectations for now. While many of us would like to see the man succeed, Barrack Obama is just another American President who has – for now – served us a tantalising wish-list that as sweet as it is appealing to many.

But we have also had our share of American Presidents who spoke at length about the promotion of human rights and democracy across the world, only to have our hopes dashed on the hard rocks of realpolitik when it became painfully evident that their focus was more on the Soviet bloc and the enemies of the United States.

Jimmy Carter got the ball rolling after the Helsinki accord of 1975 when he spoke of America’s mission to rid the world of authoritarianism and despotic rule; but it was the same administration that did little to help the people of Indonesia and the Philippines as they lived under the heels of two of the most corrupt and authoritarian pro-American despots, Ferdinand Marcos and General Suharto.

So let us see whether Obama can actually deliver on what he has promised, and let us keep our fingers crossed that he will not turn into another froth-producing American leader who is long on rhetoric but pitifully short on substance. Read the rest of this entry »


Gaza and the Liberal Conscience- The realities of Colonialism (Part III)

By Farish A. Noor

Consider the following scenario: A band of thieves break into your home while you are out, and help themselves to your property. When you return you find them comfortably installed in your home and enjoying themselves. Just as you are about to do the logical thing by doing whatever is necessary to kick them out, they say to you: “No, don’t attack us. We want peace. We want peace because we want to watch your DVDs on the DVD player; we want peace because we want to enjoy the food in your kitchen; we want peace because we want to sleep in your bed tonight.” Then as soon as you lose your temper, you are accused of being a terrorist, terrorising their peace!

It may sound ridiculous, but that is precisely the ridiculousness we are hearing from illegal Israeli settlers and Zionist propagandists who are telling the world that Israel wants peace and is the victim of Palestinian terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »


Gaza and the Liberal Conscience- The Question of Parity (Part II)

By Farish A. Noor

As the death toll in Gaza mounts by the hour, there are still faint Liberal voices around us that bemoan the violence and deaths on both sides. We hear and read in the internet again and again about the violence of Hamas and the fact that there have been Israeli casualties in the fighting as well, as if the death of a dozen Israelis can be equated with the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians and the wounding and maiming of thousands. At times such as these, liberals tend to demonstrate an acute lack of understanding of mathematics and seem to have trouble counting…

The most common refrain that we get from the liberals comes in the form of the argument: “Yes, but doesn’t Hamas have weapons too and haven’t the Palestinians killed Israelis?”

Here the moral dilemma of the Liberal stems from a misunderstanding of power-relations and parity. It is based on the idea that killing is wrong (which many would find difficulty in arguing against) and the idea that no attack on civilians is ever justified. Due to the fact that Hamas and other Palestinian groups have attacked Israeli civilian settlements, the conclusion they come to is that all Palestinians are equally guilty.

Let us clear up this confusion by raising a few questions ourselves and pointing to a few facts: Read the rest of this entry »


Gaza and the Liberal Conscience: Why We Cannot be Confused by History (Part I)

By Farish A. Noor

The liberal conscience is a rather peculiar thing. Right now, as Gaza is being bombed to oblivion yet again, liberals the world over are wrestling with their own consciences instead. Faced with the reality of a colonial state that is bent on grabbing more land for itself and which has systematically aided and abetted the creation of illegal settlements all over the occupied territories, liberals are still unsure of what to do, what to say and what stand to take.

We see this happening around us all the time. In cyberspace one encounters the response of the liberals time and again: They say and write things like “Yes, we know that what the Israelis are doing is wrong, but doesn’t Hamas have rockets too?” or “Yes we know that Palestinians have been killed but haven’t Israelis too?” or “Yes, we know that Israel is expanding its territory more and more, but didn’t Israel exist in the past and haven’t the Israelis the right to rebuild their nation?”

Much of this confusion stems from a skewered and manipulated understanding of history and an misunderstanding about what history can and should do for you. So in an attempt to assuage the tender liberal conscience and to show just why these liberals need to take a stand now, let us revisit the history of the region and more importantly understand what the discourse of history is all about. Read the rest of this entry »


Gaza: Terrorising the Victims through the ‘War on Terror’

By Farish A. Noor

That the discourse of the ‘War on Terror’ is a terribly useful one for governments that wish to exteriorise, dehumanise and brutalise an enemy is a foregone conclusion for many of us by now. Since the day when the term was first coined by the administration of President Bush Junior, it has made its rounds all over the planet and has been seized upon with gusto and delight by many an authoritarian regime seeking a pretext to detain and eliminate their enemies. Til today we do not have a tally of the figures of those who have been summarily arrested, detained without trial, tortured and ‘disappeared’ as a result of this War on Terror which, as any linguist will tell you, doesn’t even signify anything meaningful in the first place.

The current onslaught on Gaza is proof of the utility of such a discourse when it falls into the hands of those currying favour with the Washington administration – and here it doesn’t really matter if the man sitting in the oval office is Bush Junior or Mr Obama. Israel’s relentless attacks on the Palestinians has been couched and justified as part of the global war effort against terrorism, and as a result the Palestinians have in toto been summarily labelled as terrorists who, by extension, deserve neither mercy nor understanding.

Even more worrying still is the manner in which the metanarrative of the war on terror has been appropriated by other countries and governments that are likewise in a bellicose mood and warlike demeanour. The mainstream media in India, for instance, have likewise hopped on to the anti-terror bandwagon and have taken to it like a duck to water. In the wake of the Mumbai attacks – which were indeed an instance of terrorism at work – the right-wing parties and political demagogues of India’s hard-right have upped the ante even further calling on the Indian government and armed forces to ‘do a Gaza’ on Pakistan next door. Read the rest of this entry »


A Fatwa Against Yoga? And How Would This Reflect on Muslims?

By Farish A. Noor

Since I became an activist at the age of nineteen, I have spent more than two decades of my life defending Muslims and the image of Islam. During my twenty-two years of living in Europe, I must have attended hundreds of conferences, seminars, public debates and lectures where I tried my best to dissuade people from the negative image of Islam that is so prevalent in the international media of late.

But there were moments when it seemed as if this was an uphill struggle where every battle won was soon followed by a string of defeats, thanks to the actions of Muslims who took it upon themselves to ‘defend Islam’ on their own parochial and short-sighted terms; and whose actions and words did untold damage to the image of Muslims. I recall one particularly bitter episode when I was asked to speak about the universalism of Islam – that took place just when the Taliban were occupied with the task of blowing up the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. It seemed pointless to continue then, and despair has been my lot for the past few years.

Now I find myself again in such a situation, after it was announced that the Fatwa Council of Malaysia has just issued a fatwa declaring that the practice of Yoga is haram and thus forbidden to Muslims. Overnight I was bombarded by emails and sms-es from my Islamist friends in Indonesia where I teach at two Islamic universities, who asked: “What is wrong with you Malaysian Muslims, and haven’t you got anything better to do?” How do I reply to such a question when I am forced to ask it myself? Read the rest of this entry »