Malaysia, The Netherlands, and The Fear of Holy Books
By Farish A. Noor
Not too long ago, a certain Dutch politician – Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Dutch Freedom party – caused a stir in that rather flat country by suggesting that the Quran should be banned on the grounds that it was a ‘dangerous book’ that spread the message of hate and violence.
As the rather pointless and tiresome debate took its course, other right-wing politicians chipped in, suggesting things such as new laws that forbade the reading of the Quran in public, limiting the sale and dissemination of the Quran in Dutch society, controlling the number of Qurans being brought into the country, etc. Needless to say, Geert Wilders got what he wanted, which was to project himself yet again on the national stage as a rather loud and outlandish advocate of far-right causes.
Predictably, the Muslim community of Holland and other European countries were upset by Wilders’ remarks. Many came to the fore to insist that all this talk about banning Qurans was part and parcel of a wider trend of Islamophobia in the EU; that it was essentially racist and that it was an attempt to rob Muslims in Europe of their fundamental rights and liberties.
What offended many Muslims was the suggestion that the Quran could be seen by some as a ‘dangerous text’ which Wilders even compared to Hitler’s Mein Kampf: An ironic comparison to say the least considering Wilders’ own far-right political leanings. That Muslims would be offended by such claims and demands is understandable as no doubt most faith communities regard their sacred books as precisely that: sacred arks that bear the message of God and divine revelation. To even suggest that the Quran could be read profanely as some terrorists’ manual or guidebook for fanatics was to demean the text, and by extension Islam and Muslims.
Yet the question remains: If Muslims can get so worked up by the fact that some right-wing Dutch politician hungering for publicity can stir up a debate by demeaning the Quran, why is it that so many Muslims remain indifferent to how their fellow Muslims treat the holy texts of other faiths and belief-systems?
A case in point is the recent seizure of thirty-two Bibles from a Malaysian Christian who was on her journey back to Malaysia from the Philippines. Upon arrival in Malaysia, her bags were checked by the customs authorities and all of the Bibles were confiscated, on the grounds that they had to be vetted by the Ministry of Internal Security. But since when were Bibles deemed a security threat in Malaysia, and to whom might they pose a danger? More worrying still is the fact that the customs officers – who we were told were Muslim – had seized the Bibles on their own initiative, despite there not being any formal ban on Bibles in the country. (After all, there are literally millions of Christians of all denominations in Malaysia and they have lived there for decades if not centuries, so why the fear of Bibles now?)
In the event the Bibles were eventually returned to the Malaysian Christian in question, but worrying doubts remain. What will be the fate of other books of other religions and belief-systems? As a scholar who teaches comparative religion, I have in my collection not only numerous editions of the Bible but also Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Tantric, Animist and Jewish texts. Are these to be screened and vetted too? And on what grounds; that as a person born to the Muslim faith (a contingency of history that I did not decide or determine, I might add) I am not allowed to read such texts for fear that I may be ‘contaminated’ by alien ideas of alien creeds?
Predictably the first to react to the seizure of the Bibles were the Christians of Malaysia. But it is sad to note that the same level of anger and outrage that was expressed by Muslims over the Muslim-bashing sentiments of a Dutch politician thousands of miles away was not evident when this outrage was perpetrated on their own shores. Universally this has become the norm, where religious communities the world over have grown more introverted, inward-looking and consequently selfish in their motives and concerns. In the same way that non-Muslims seemed relatively indifferent to the constant Muslim-bashing that is taking place in places like Europe today; Muslims are equally indifferent when injustices such as the seizure of holy books are meted out to those who are not of their flock. Should this trend continue then we are certainly on the verge of a balkanisation of the religious communities of the world, and this spells trouble for multi-faith nations like Malaysia and the countries of the West. The remedies are primarily political ones, which include controls on hate-speech and fear-mongering by far-right demagogues like Wilders in Holland and other equally right-wing demagogues in other communities, including Muslim communities too. But all this can only work if we begin with the fundamental premise that sacredness is not something exclusive to ourselves and our own faith community. When Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists alike realise and respect the sacredness in the other, and drop the claim that they alone monopolise all that is good and holy; perhaps then we will be one step closer to recognising the fundamental humanity we share with each other – whether we like it or not.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research site.