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Free speech is not terrorism

Published in The Malay Mail Online


In real life, if a man says something ludicrous and is ridiculed for it, he would probably apologise for uttering such a statement.

Sometimes, he would be so embarrassed that he would just clam up and pretend the whole episode never happened.

If he is a sporting man, he would probably make fun of himself for ever saying such a ridiculous thing and laugh at himself.

Not so with bullies. Bullies do not like the notion that they could ever say something ridiculous and end up as the butt of people’s jokes.

Bullies do not like their authority and power questioned, even when they are at fault.

Sometimes, these bullies would call upon other bullies to gang up on the people who dare laugh at them.

Well, something similar happened this past week; only the actors were the nation’s utmost religious authority, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), and its new best chum, the paragon of justice, the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM).

If you missed it, Jakim released an official Friday sermon last week, where it indulged in its annual pastime of warning Malaysian Muslims over the alleged dangers of celebrating Valentine’s Day.

Apparently, Jakim thought that something as innocuous as going on a special date  (overpriced flowers and dinners optional) will lead to social ills. Abortion and mental damage from alcohol, just to name a few.

It also strongly felt that celebrating the day will push Muslim youths away from their faith, due to the alleged Christian elements that pervade it.

Obviously, lots of jokes followed.

This, perhaps, did not sit well with Jakim. Or the theo-political complex that has its insidious tentacles wrapped all around Putrajaya.

Right on cue, the Inspector-General of Police was ushered in. In a stern statement, the IGP warned that detractors, especially non-Muslims, have no right to criticise the sermon.

To make his point, the IGP even threatened the new Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) — the law which replaced the draconian Internal Security Act 1960 — on those critics of government agencies, such as Jakim.

So, do Malaysians, even non-Muslims, have the right to criticise Jakim and its sermon?

Considering that Jakim is an agency under the Prime Minister’s Department paid for by tax-payers to the tune of RM762 million in 2013 alone, that clearly gives Malaysians more than enough moral right to question its direction.

The problem is, the powers-that-be have made Jakim synonymous with Islam with the way the department regulates the way Muslims worship their God. This, inadvertently, has resulted in a fallacy that equates questioning Jakim with questioning Islam.

Even then, questioning Islam is not the same as disrespecting Muslims, and it certainly does not mean insulting Islam.

What is particularly disturbing here is how easy the police can threaten Malaysians with anti-terrorism laws at its whims and fancy.

A reading of Sosma shows that it was drafted as a response to “security offences”, which includes organised violence and inciting fear among the public.

Legal experts have since called it “overkill” to invoke Sosma against what is deemed not “security offences.”

Even then, how can there not be something wrong when the police can threaten to use such laws against the citizens for speaking up?

In his statement, the IGP warned against “causing public anger”. I am pretty sure a number of Malaysians are angry about the state of the country but surely that does not warrant Sosma against the government?

How come this “big gun” the IGP is waving never gets brandished against right-wing supremacists and Islamists stirring hate towards non-Muslims week in and week out? Is it only because these groups are not offending Muslims as such?

I would even argue that hate speech does not deserve to be threatened with anti-terrorism laws.

In this excellent interview, UK writer and lecturer Kenan Malik argued why no speech should ever be banned solely based on its content.

“Free speech for everyone except bigots is not free speech at all,” Malik pointed out, and it is the same position I take, which might baffle critics of freedom of expression.

I think it would be some time before Malaysians fully grasp the idea of free speech after decades of repression, religious submission, and strict control of media.

For now, perhaps it is enough to get people talking and for people to realise that free speech is not terrorism.

To threaten anti-terrorism laws against free speech is not only disproportionate, it is also plainly wrong. The sort of things bullies do.

Published inMMO column
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