Sarawak Newspaper Suspended over Cartoons

One of our two local daily papers, The Sarawak Tribune, reprinted the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad last Saturday. Within the last few days the editor on duty resigned, the Internal Security Department called in the heads of the paper to “show cause”, and yesterday it was announced that the license of the newspaper is suspended with immediate effect. The Sarawak Tribune is closed down.

Riots in Kuching? No, sorry to disappoint. Everyone I’ve talked to is short on rage; the most common reaction is a shaking of the head. What on earth could the editor have been thinking? Religious satire (if we can politely describe those cartoons as such) is so far beyond the limits of acceptable public speech here that it really is puzzling. There are three or four possibilities that I can see.

It could have been a complete oversight. The paper borrows heavily from news networks like Rueters and the Associated Press for its stories. A lot of copy-and-paste goes on – maybe the cartoons were included by accident.

Was it religious hostility, a desire to offend? That would be a pretty hasty conclusion. Religion is a delicate issue in Malaysia, far more than it is in the US. The US is funny that way. People in the States are far more touchy about race than religion. I think it has to do with the religious plurality of Malaysia. The US and Malaysia may both have a similar mix of ethnic minorities, but the largest ethnic minorities in the US, Blacks and Hispanics, are Christian. In Malaysia, ethnic minorities are also religious minorities (with the exception of Indian muslims and a smattering of converts). Maybe that’s not the whole picture, but I think it is part of the reason why religion is as taboo as race between communities. Religious issues are even more touchy here in Sarawak since it is the only Christian majority state in the country. Some may use the existence of tension and the fact that the editors involved were non-muslim to argue weakly for or be suspicious of religious prejudice behind the incident, but it doesn’t wash, because the cartoons were printed extremely small, too small for anybody to read and make sense out of what they were saying (assuming they made sense – I still haven’t read them).

The European papers that reprinted the cartoons have done so out of journalistic solidarity, to demonstrate their rights or what have you. Was the Sarawak Tribune challenging the government, testing the boundaries of free speech? It doesn’t seem likely. As I’ve mentioned before, the media in Malaysia is extremely docile. More so here in Sarawak, where leading government officials get glamour shots on the front page every other day, and reporting of any significant event is reduced to paraphrase of the relevant politician’s press release. If the Sarawak Tribune did want to push the limits of editorial freedom, why not publish on corruption, cronyism, bribery, abuse of power? Those things should be matters of immediate concern to every Sarawakian and reporting on them a far more vital service by the paper to its readership. Muslims and non-muslims alike may have supported bravery in journalism of that kind. As it is, this incident simply allows the government to flex its censorial muscles and enjoy popular support while doing so. So if this was an attempt to make a statement about or to push the bounds of free speech, as some commenters over at Screenshots seem to be arguing, it was a singularly misplaced one.

But I don’t think it was. The second article I linked mentioned that the Trib had actually been reprimanded three times already last year for publishing sensational images of sex and gore. I’ve often thought that the bloody car wreck photos and the like were a bit excessive, but I didn’t notice that it was the Sarawak Tribune exclusively publishing them. If the Trib has indeed been going further with salacious images to boost readership, then maybe publication of the cartoons was just a poorly considered attempt to do the same thing. That would also make the government’s reaction even more understandable. It wasn’t a one time event, it was a fourth offense.

Either way, things are chill here. Embassies are intact, streets are calm. The only unfortunate thing is that the citizens of Sarawak will have no choice but to siang their ikan on the Borneo Post from now on.

[More on Malaysian journalism from Jeff Ooi here]
[More on the suspension of the Sarawak Tribune]

Visit the Gulf

I’ve come across two weblogs by American muslim expats that are wonderful complements to each other, Nzingha’s Soapbox from Saudi Arabia, and Life in Exile from the Gulf nation of Qatar, best known as home to the indispensable Al-Jazeerah network. Side by side, they are a great introduction to a part of the world I haven’t been to yet but hope to visit one day, inshallah. They also show the significant differences that exist amongst the gulf nations, which I might have assumed to be more or less the same before now.

Life in Exile shows life in Qatar to be a pretty enjoyable experience. The country is modernizing in its own way and diversifying its economy as best it can. Dervish of Life in Exile explains why he doesn’t dwell on controversy or on unpleasant aspects of life in Qatar. He has several reasons, including

According to the Qur’an, we are not supposed to speak of an evil unless we are a victim of it. There are exceptions to this when a problem affects society at large, however. An example of this is as follows. Say someone else commits a sin, and I become aware of it. If I tell others of his sin, I am committing a sin probably more grievous than his. On the other hand, I can speak in general terms against the type of sin that he commits, or, I can speak of his sin specifically, if society as a whole is harmed by it. I generally will not speak of negative things that do not affect me or society as a whole, as it is unislamic.

I’ve been holding to a general “speak no evil” policy for the same reasons here on this site. I have one more reason to keep silent on local controversy: I have no idea what is going on. It’s not that I don’t try to keep informed. It’s that the coverage of issues in the local media is remarkably superficial. It’s remarkable because the press is not actively censored here. It’s more like it is neutered to start with. If you thought the American press just passively repeats government press releases, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Front page headlines will often read like, “Get Act Together, People Told” or “Industry Must Raise Standards, YB Says” accompanied by glamor shots of politicians grinning and shaking hands. Our local top politician proudly calls it the “Politics of Development”, which basically seems to mean, as long as everyone’s fortunes are rising, nobody better rock the boat. And since everyone’s fortunes have been rising since indepedence, albeit perhaps not at uniform rates, the press seems content not to dig too deep.

Meanwhile, the news is less than encouraging from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Nzingha writes that now the religious police are forcing women to cover their faces in the two holy places while they pray! I’m no religious scholar, but I’m certain covering the face invalidates the prayer for those following the shafi’i madhhab. Not content to vandalize our sacred architectural heritage and prevent us via truncheon of receiving baraka at the Propet’s door, they are now compromising the performance of our sisters’ salat. Subhanallah. I was advised years ago to make my hajj as soon as I could, before they wreck anything else. I think I need to start taking my preparations more seriously.

Books Lost and Found

Books from Kinokuniya

If I have one piece of advice for my sister who is in college right now, it is “Don’t Sell Your Books!” I regret selling off my books. I regret that in a general way; I wish I still had every book I once had, if only to have a library that resembles the libraries of well-educated people I know and admire. But sometimes, I will find myself in a situation where I need a specific particular book that I once had. It is a terrible feeling. I’ve felt that with at least a dozen books now. I clearly remember staring at my big expensive general entomology textbook and saying to myself, this is one book I will never, never need again. It took 11 years, but sure enough I did need it again. The feeling is worse when it hits me here in Malaysia because so many books are out of reach or expensive enough in Ringgit to be prohibitive.

If I live long enough I think I will have cause to regret each individual book I have owned and lost. The most recent book I’m missing is my old Elementary Modern Standard Arabic Textbook. It was a great big heavy orange book from a class that I was hostile towards to begin with, so somewhere amongst my dozen changes of address and/or times of financial need I sold it. Now that I’m finally studying Arabic again, I miss it sorely. So I was thrilled to come across a pdf of an ancient (1890’s?) Arabic Grammar textbook in English available online. I strongly suspect that it is way over my head, but I’ll take what I can get. Thank you very much to for making it available. I found it by way of Seeker’s Digest, by way of Alexandalus. has a huge number of other texts available as does its sister site, Muslim Philosophy.

Islam in Detroit

The University of Michigan Graduate School has a project on the web called Building Islam in Detroit: An Interdisciplinary Study of Muslim Institutions & Collective Spaces. The site is not fully developed yet, but it sounds like a great project, with case studies planned for a number of masajid around town including Muath bin Jabal near Hamtramck. They have a list of masajid around town, plotted on a map. I’m fond of telling people that Detroit has as many masajid as Kuching; now I have proof. The most fleshed out part of the site is the section that has photographs of various mosques, taken by a photographer visiting from Sudan. Well worth a look.

[via Islamicate]

Mawlid ar-Rasul: Surau Darul Rahman

Darul Rahman

Prophet Muhammad’s birth was commemorated last wednesday night throughout the muslim world. The tiny corner of it that I inhabit was no exception. Surau Darul Rahman held an evening of learning and celebration. I feel extremely fortunate to live two blocks from our neighborhood surau.

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A surau is a prayer hall just like a masjid except that it does not hold the Friday congregational prayer. Our surau could probably hold about 200 people maximum. It is a fairly new building, about 10 years old, built around the same time that my subdivision was developed. Prior to that, the area only had a few clusters of kampung-style homes sprinkled through the woods at fairly low density. Like most suraus and masjids throughout the country, ours was built in part by government funds and its activities are nominally overseen by the religious department. Often, large planned unit developments will include a surau as part of the basic infrastructure, just like pocket parks.

You may wonder why there is no dome. Well, the traditional masajid of Malaysia were built of timber and had no dome but rather a set of square tiered roofs. The grand masjids with huge domes that have been built in recent times are often gorgeous but are not really classically malay in form. I’m not saying our humble surau was built with a hipped roof as some kind of architectural statement: it’s a fairly homely building really. It’s just that the dome is not a necessary part of mosque-building around here. But I digress.

For this special night, a guest was invited to come and speak after maghrib prayers. Our guest was an ustaz from Indonesia who has been teaching Arabic and Religion at a religious school in Kuching for the last ten years. He came to us from the pesantren of East Java, an area reknowned throughout the nusantara for the high level of scholarship they maintain and the da’is they have produced. He gave a wonderful talk, touching briefly on the the fatwa of Sayyid Muhammad Alawi Al-Maliki concerning mawlid from which he read for us excerpts in Arabic and translated on the fly into Malay. There is great good in gathering together, beautifying the masjid, remembering the Prophet and praising him to the best of our ability, though we can hardly praise him as he deserves to be praised. Our only transgression, as the ustaz reminded us, is that we don’t do it everyday.

Following the cerama, the congregation broke for a meal, to be followed by zikr and nasheed. Some of us ran off with the ustaz instead to another gathering, where we recited the Ratib al-Haddad and the Mawlid Diba’i late into the evening until our throats were raw. I can’t find translations of the Mawlid Diba’i anywhere online, but you can listen to it here.

“Falaw anna sa’ayna kulla heenin/
‘Alal ahdaqi la fawqan naja’ib/
Wa law anna ‘amilna kulla yawmin/
Li Ahmada mawlidan qad kana wajib”

“And verily though we rushed to do it at every moment/
We could see around us nothing more noble/
And verily, even if we did it every day/
For Ahmad celebrating his birth is nigh unto obligatory”

[Forgive my poor Arabic. It’s just me and Hans Wehr working alone. Corrections welcome.]

[My coverage of Mawlid Nabi, Kuching 2003 is here]

Naming conventions pt. 3


One last thing about names here is the “bin”. Bin is Arabic for “son of”. Binti is “daughter of”. Although it does not appear on the birth cert itself, it is inserted between the first and last names of muslims, or more accurately, between the child’s name and the father’s name. (So in case you hadn’t put it together yet, my name is not Bin. I am the son of Gregory.) That part is straightforward. What is curious though, is that non-muslims don’t get a “bin”. Instead, they get “anak” inserted between their and their father’s name, as in Jefferson Anak Tutong. Anak means “child” or “child of” in that context. Then, it seems only with Hindus, it is changed to a/l or a/p, short for “anak lelaki” or “anak perempuan”, meaning son of or daughter of, respectively. What could be the reason for this? Why not just “bin” and “binti” for everybody? There’s nothing particularly islamic about it, aside from the Arabic origin of the word. There is a ton of Arabic in Bahasa Malaysia (and Bahasa Iban for that matter. See Bup Kudus) that doesn’t have any overt islamic significance, so that’s not a good reason. I don’t know, but I think it is a bit of chauvanism on the part of the Malays, to distinguish between the muslims and non-muslims that way. It’s not as though anybody would be confused between Muhammad Abdul Latif and Sivabakti Mahalingam. It’s not uniform anyway. Some tribes here in Sarawak use bin even though they are not muslim, specifically the Melanau, who are very close to the Malays in culture but are mixed christian and muslim. Maybe it’s a non-issue… Still, from time to time, some wiseacre in my class will put “bin” on his attendance sheet.

More AIDS and Islam

Muslim Wake Up has a followup to the AIDS conference and the Dr. Wadud controversy, pointing out the dreadful condition of women in Pakistan. Of course there are many other muslim countries the author could have named too. Times are rough all over.

At one point, the author says this:

“When she gets married, and if her husband is promiscuous, it’s easy for us North Americans to legalistically claim that a woman can leave him if he isn’t pious. All is still well in our jurisprudence. “

Since I left this comment:

“If a woman suspects her husband of adultery, isn’t divorce or separation more the issue than refusal of intercourse?”

in the Dr. Wadud article, I assume she is talking to me.

Although I think she is being sarcastic, I’m going to repeat the statement “All is still well in our jurisprudence”. That’s the crux of my objection and I think it’s still valid. Stringing these two arguments (MWU’s and Wadud’s) together in the context of fighting AIDS, which is what this was all supposed to be about in the first place, Dr. Wadud was saying that the religious injunction to avoid adultery was meaningless, or worse, harmful or deceptive, because evil men will still fornicate and bring disease home to their wives. Divorce, though allowed in Islam, is not an option because it’s rough for a single mother in Pakistani society. Therefore wives must have the religious right to refuse intercourse. Now tell me, we should expect the man who defies the religious law by fornicating is going to respect the (new) religious law by not forcing intercourse on his wife? I don’t see how that could be. And this will stop AIDS because the wife will actually be refusing intercourse for the rest of her life? I don’t understand. The only thing gained by such a course of action is the undermining of the sanctity of the Quran and Hadith. Arguably, that was the whole point of the exercise.

I hope I don’t sound callous. AIDS is a big problem and so is the status of women in Pakistan and in many other countries. That’s why I support the Muslim Women’s Coalition and the Sisters in Islam pro-monogamy campaign, and any other group that wants to advocate for the rights of women in society within the context of Islam. But Dr. Wadud and anybody else is barking up the wrong tree if they want to “problematize” the Quran and Hadith, as Esack oh-so-gently put it, in pursuit of a solution to these things. And they shouldn’t be surprised if muslims in turn are hostile to it.

As an aside, Dr. Haddad deals with this issue in his review of the work of Riffat Hassan. [Update: Dr. Haddad’s review of Dr. Wadud’s Aisha’s Legacy]

Catching Up

There’s been some great posts among the websites I regularly read as well as some noteworthy stuff elsewhere as well. Here’s a quick round-up for you:

Thebit discusses in his very learned way an essay about the genre of Islamic apologetics that produce evidences from the Quran for modern scientific discoveries. The logic behind the genre goes that since the Quran was revealed before knowledge of these things, this is proof of the Divine nature of the Quran. It’s flawed for a lot of reasons, but a friend of mine summed it up best when he said, paraphrased, that if a muslim scientist studied the Quran and produced from it a new scientific discovery, that would be noteworthy. But interpreting the Quran to reflect the knowledge of a scientific discovery that has been made by non-muslims using modern science is quite unexceptional. The Holy Quran is far above needing this sort of defense.

Al-Muhajabah, the Niqabi Paralegal has the complete low-down on the Sultana Freeman driver’s license case, including relevant case law for you law nerds. Although she herself veils, A-M explains why Freeman’s case is not so supportable from an Islamic point of view. I also didn’t think her complaint was justified in Islam, regardless of what she might be entitled to in US law. In any case, she joins a long line of muslims of questionable character that have wound up in court. It certainly strains one’s powers of sympathy.

Borneo Chela is a brand new blog from an American studying the deep and wide field of treeshrews in Sabah. As a fellow countryman on the island, Jason gets a big shout and a spot on the blogroll. (His taste in website design is stunning too ;))

And speaking of Sabah, Lionel from Kota Kinabalu backs me up by dissing Pop Shuvit. According to him, the Malaysian rap group to watch for is the Teh Tarik Crew. I’m sceptical but I’ll keep my ears open.

Last but not least, Anak Alam has a cache of excellent articles on Shafii fiqh and related issues from the erudite Sidi Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti. I particularly liked the one on Jahl al-Murakkab, Compound Ignorance. I didn’t know that (simple ignorance)! Anak Alam is off to Tunisia, so you all should check back in a little while for his travelogue.