Eidul Fitri in Prison
Posted Sep 30, 2008

Eidul Fitri in Prison

By Farish A. Noor

This week marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan and the celebration of Eid’ul Fitri the world over. For more than a billion Muslims all over the planet the month of Ramadhan has been a time of personal reflection, contemplation and deliberation over their deeds and achievements over the year; a time of restraint and introspection; a time of reckoning. One only hopes that the leaders of the Muslim world have also taken this time off to do some serious soul-searching as well, and in particular to reflect on their deeds and misdeeds in the course of running the respective countries they have been elected to govern. (That is assuming that they were elected in the first place, for the quaint peculiarity of the Muslim world today is that quite a number of Muslim leaders have never been elected, and many of them regard the position of high office as if it was a God-given right to them and their families.)

During this month of Ramadhan quite a number of peculiar events have taken place all over the Muslim world. In Malaysia, the fasting month began with a right-wing leader of the conservative UMNO party making some rather repugnant remarks about the Malaysian Chinese community, referring to them as foreigners who can go back to China if they dont like things as they are in the country. Odd that such a remark could mark the start of the month of Ramadhan, when Muslims are meant to be controlling their emotions rather than letting them run riot in public. Odder still that a leader of the UMNO party can even make such a historically inaccurate and unqualified remark, oblivious to the simple fact that not only have the Chinese in Malaysia - and the rest of Southeast Asia - been in the region for more than five hundred years, it was also thanks to the missionary efforts of Chinese Muslim scholars that Islam came to some parts of the region like Java for instance.

The month of Ramadhan also witnessed a string of rather uncharitable actions being per formed in the glare of the public eye: Teresa Kok, a member of Parliament and one of the leaders of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) of Malaysia, was arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) on the grounds that she had made some inflammatory remarks concerning the volume of the azan, or call to prayer, emanating from the mosques in her constituency. The member of Parliament was then detained under the ISA on the grounds that her own remarks were ‘provocative’, despite the fact that much of the hoo-haa that led to her arrest came from the pro-UMNO vernacular Malay media. During the course of her detention Teresa Kok maintained that she had never made any of the remarks or statements she was accused of, and that she was the victim of an orchestrated media campaign aimed at defaming her character instead.

Indicative of the lack of direction that prevails in the corridors of power in Malaysia today, the political leadership at the top of the Badawi administration was not even consistent in its stand on Teresa’s case and the MP has been released from detention without trial.

But the sordid spectacle of a media campaign used to whip up public anger and hatred against an individual is indicative of the culture of pogroms and black-listing that dates back to the Emergency era when laws such as the ISA were first created, designed to help bolster a (then) colonial British government on the brink of collapse. Since the 1950s hundreds of Malaysians have been the victims of the ISA and other colonial-era laws such as the Sedition Act, all in the name of national security and the stability of the country.

Malaysia’s use of such colonial laws is neither new nor unique: Similar laws were once used in countries like India, Pakistan and South Africa, and if the issue at hand is detention without trial then one can only conclude that this has been the norm is many Muslim societies dating well back into the pre-colonial era.

But it is during the time of Ramadhan that our thoughts go to those who are unfortunate enough to become the prey of such laws. Muslim history is replete with cases of such arbitrary modes of (in)justice at work, where countless Muslim scholars and intellectuals fell prey to the whim and fancy of despotic rulers and tyrants who ruled with an iron fist, and always in the name of God, needless to say.

One needs only to look to the case of one of the most famous scholars of Muslim history, Ibn Khaldun. During his lifetime Ibn Khaldun was imprisoned time and again by a succession of despotic rulers who found his critical ideas and deconstructive reading of official history somewhat trying. On more than one occasion he was framed, defamed and scandalised by his rivals and enemies who sought to discredit the scholar and to erase his contribution to scholarship for good. Time and again the unfortunate Khaldun found himself languishing in gaols and dungeons, to be kept there indefinitely according to the whim of the ruler of the day.

Yet despite the hardships he endured, including having to spend many a month of Ramadhan in isolation in his cell and away from his family, Khaldun persevered in his critical scholarship against the odds. At a time when official history was nothing more than courtly hagiography written to benefit and inflate the egos of rulers and noblemen, his humanist reading of history placed the ordinary individual at the centre of the process of history; insisting on the rational agency - and by extension power and responsibility - of the individual as the master of his own destiny. For the courtiers who grovelled at the feet of their rulers, this form of popular history was destructive and threatening to the order of things.

Centuries later, the rulers and kings who imprisoned Khaldun are all but forgotten. Nobody remembers their names despite the grand monuments they built to their own egos. Ibn Khaldun, on the other hand, has been immortalised as the founder of modern political sociology, a discipline that remains crucial in the polit ical education of millions the world over. His imprint can be read in the works of Franz Fanon and Antonio Gramsci, and the humanist, materialist approach he took to the writing of history changed the rules of that discipline forever. It is thanks to the efforts of scholars like Ibn Khaldun that history today is and remains a political and politicised discipline, and not just a collection of happy fables to placate the demands of demagogues and dictators.

Like Khaldun, there are thousands who languish today in the prisons of the Muslim world as political prisoners who are deemed a danger to the prevailing order of power. Though history and hindsight may offer little consolation for those who are languishing in prison, it is important to remember that the pen is mightier than the sword and that the labours of the just will always prevail over the injustice of tyrants. History will see to it that they will be remembered, long after the names of the tyrants and dictators who abused them have been forgotten.


Prof. Farish A. Noor is affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia