Politics, Power and the Violence of History

Farish A. Noor

Posted Jul 29, 2009      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Politics, Power and the Violence of History

By Farish A. Noor

The guillotine, it ought to be remembered, was originally conceived of as a safe, clean, efficient and ironically ‘humane’ method of murdering people when it was first introduced. Dubbed the ‘revolutionary razor’ when it was first used to execute the enemies of the state at the outset of the French revolution, it was seen as an improvement and advancement from the age of neo-feudal rule where the despotism of the King of France was manifest in the macabre and gruesome spectacles of public violence that were enacted in the kingdom against those who were seen as the enemies of the regime.

In time however it is clear that even this mode of public execution has been inscribed with negativity and regarded as a brutal way for the state to express its power in the public domain. Robbespiere, Danton, Saint-Just were all victims of the same mode of state violence that they had originally supported and promoted, and it is ironic that Robbespiere and his contemporaries met their end at the same guillotine that they had used to execute their enemies earlier.

The tale of the guillotine is an apt reminder of the historical impasse that Muslim societies are in today, and how the dream of political Islam is now turning onto itself and demonstrating its internal unsustainable contradictions in no uncertain manner. In his landmark study of the regimes of violence and punishment before, during and after the Iranian revolution of 1979, Darius Rejali notes that the Iranian revolution – despite its distaste for all things secular, western and modern – was nonetheless a modern enterprise that was couched in the same secular, materialist and modernist premises it sought to distance itself from.

Today the Muslim world is witnessing an internal pluralisation on a scale that is unprecedented. Modern developments ranging for mass rural to urban migration, the urbanisation of Muslim societies (Iran was the most urbanised Muslim country in the world at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979), mass education accompanied and aided by the rise in Muslim literacy levels, the availability of off-the-rack communications technology etc. have all conspired to create a Muslim global community that is wired up, networked, integrated and which lives in a virtual time-space that is forever present and immediate.

Yet despite these material advances that have been furthered by the march of global capital and its attendant technologies, there remains a huge disconnect between the material-economic life of Muslims and their social-cultural-religious realities.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Muslim normative social, cultural and legal discourse has remained by and large stuck in the past, harking back to an age of Empire where Muslim power was dominant and where the epistemology of Empire – to paraphrase the term made popular by Ebrahim Moosa – remains the defining epistemic standard by which all utterances in the public domain are made. It is partly thanks to this disconnect that we witness the manifold contradictions that now exist in the Muslim world, where even the most materially and economically developed Muslim states may still cling on to an understanding of Muslim law and legal-social praxis that is out of date, if not outright medieval.

A case in point in the present furore in Malaysia – long since regarded as one of the most economically developed Muslim countries in the world and a model for other developing Muslim states in South Asia and Africa – where a Muslim woman (Kartika Sari Dewi) has been sentenced to whipping by the Shariah court for the offence of drinking alcohol in public. It is not often that such news reports reaches the wider global community for the simple reason that Malaysia has long since cultivated its image as a ‘model Muslim state’ for others to emulate and prides itself with the role it wishes to play as the cultural bridge-builder between the Western and Muslim worlds.

Yet this is the same Malaysia where books are banned on a regular basis, where the state-employed morality police regularly raids homes and public spaces to morally police the private lives of citizens, where the religious authorities see fit to pronounce judgements on all matters ranging from sexuality to the use of witchcraft, and where authors like Karen Armstrong are allowed to speak at conferences hosted in the capital while their books are banned and not allowed to be sold or read in the same country.

Furthermore it should be noted that in Malaysia today where political Islam has made an impact thanks to the constant political instrumentalisation of Islam by the two main Malay-Muslim parties UMNO and PAS, the public domain has been increasingly defined by Islam (of a politicised variety) and has shrunk as a consequence. Despite the heated political contestation between the two parties, neither PAS nor UMNO have shown any willingness to engage with other Islamist/Muslim actors and agents, be their alternative Muslim intellectual groups, NGOs, lobby groups, Muslim minority faith communities (such as the Shias or Ahmadis) and Muslim women’s groups.

It is telling that in the case of the sentence of whipping meted out to Kartika Sari Dewi in July 2009, both UMNO and PAS leaders claimed that the judgement was in keeping with Islamic law and ethical norms. The PAS leader Dr. Lo’ Lo’ Ghazali – who initially expressed her reservations over the judgement – later reversed her stand and came out in support of the Shariah judge who had meted out the punishment of whipping thus:

“When the Shariah Court passed the sentence I was shocked not by the decision but by the boldness of the judge. I congratulate him for it.”

On both sides of the political divide, the leaders of UMNO, PAS and the state’s religious authorities maintain that the punishment was in accordance with Islamic legal norms and ethical values; that the punishment was not intended to physically harm or mutilate the condemned but rather to ‘reform her’ through the ‘symbolic’ act of publicly whipping – and thereby humiliating her; and that such forms of public humiliation and punishment were carried out to maintain and police the ethical standards of society and to safeguard public morals.

In short, as was the case of the guillotine of the revolutionaries, the public act of whipping someone in public was presented as ‘humane’ and meant to serve the utilitarian needs of society as a whole and to maintain a sense of social order and cohesion – albeit through a regime of social policing, public humiliation, sanctioned (and therefore legitimate) state violence and social conditioning. This was yet another instance where Muslim law and social policing was and is understood in terms that deny the rights of the individual and the sanctity of privacy, private agency and the right to personally conduct one’s life on the basis of one’s own personal judgement.

To compound the matter further, practically none of the major political parties of the country have spoken out against the judgement, for fear of appearing to challenge the primacy of the Shariah court and legal system when it comes to the policing of the private morality and private choices of Muslims in particular. It would appear as if despite the hype and talk of how Malaysia is such a developed country in material-economic terms, its religious laws have evolved in a completely different direction from the march of capital in the country. What is more, with the exception of a small minority of dissenting voices emanating from Muslim lawyers, scholars and human rights activists, it would appear as if the normative ethical and moral standards of Malaysians – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – have been set by those whose moral standards are based on a legal and moral vocabulary that is traditionalist, essentialised and bound by scripture.

The legal reasoning that has gone into the justification of the sentence meted out to the condemned in this case – as with the legal reasoning that has informed so many other instances of moral policing, book banning, marginalisation of minorities – is one that is rooted in history, but that history happens to be one that is defined mainly by conservative scholars who have opted to highlight the evolution of only one stream of Muslim legal thought, the conservative tradition. Muslim power and politics in Malaysia as in so many other Muslim countries is understood and foregrounded with history as its springboard, but we need to ask, which Muslim historical tradition is being used to justify the present-day policing of Muslims all over the world? And are there no other alternative historical traditions that we can consult? Where, in short, is the history of progressive Islam in the midst of all this sound and fury?

See also:  Emphasise positive personal change, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2009/7/29/focus/4407002&sec=focus