Another Article 11 forum, this time in Johor Bharu on 22 July 2006. Again, opposition from certain quarters. Will the forum be allowed to proceed without disturbance? Looking back at the disrupted forum in Penang in May, Prema Devaraj asserts that there is no excuse for any attempt to muzzle dialogue or discussion in a thinking society.
As the chanting grew louder, I tried to make sense of the situation. Two hundred-odd protestors shouting and looking very angry. Banners galore: IFC Angkara Zionis (IFC, a Zionist scheme), IFC Menghina Islam (IFC insults Islam), Perangi Islam Liberal (Fight liberal Islam), Don’t Seize Our Rights, Bantah IFC(Oppose the IFC), Jangan Hina Undang-Undang Allah (Don’t mock Allah’s laws) … why were they waving those here?
Were the police actually protecting us? What next?! The guys with the funny helmets, batons and huge plastic shields climbed out of a truck…. Oh no! For heaven’s sake, people have a right to assemble and wave all the banners and posters they want (even if they are at the wrong venue). I registered a protest to the nearest police officer. He smiled and said the police would do what was necessary.
All this and more, on the morning of the forum ‘Federal Constitution: Protection For All’, jointly organised by Aliran and Article 11 on Sunday, 14 May at Cititel Hotel, Penang. The forum ended abruptly upon police ‘advice’ that they could not handle the protestors who were threatening to storm the hotel.
It has taken more than a few days to digest what actually happened. We can thank the media for giving different angles and information, depending on which newspaper you read and who was interviewed. The speakers’ names were inaccurate for the first few days, the numbers of the protestors varied from 200 to 500 to over 1,000 (Harakahdaily)! There was confusion as to whether the protest was organised or happened spontaneously; whether the demonstration was peaceful or unruly; whether the protestors threatened to storm the hotel or disrupted the proceedings inside, whether the forum had a permit or not; whether the demonstration was stupid/uncalled for or defended Islam and the rights of Muslims; whether the forum was about the Federal Constitution or the Interfaith Commission (IFC), whether the signatures being collected was about the IFC or about the Federal Constitution; whether the police were in the dark about the forum or had organised roadblocks and filmed the whole thing, whether the police advised or instructed forum organisers to stop or asked demonstrators to leave. More than seven days of press coverage in various newspapers. Letters, memorandums, press statements and comments continue to float around in blogs and websites.
How do we make sense of what happened at the forum? How is it possible that an attempt at discussing a problem currently facing Malaysians today can be construed as something demeaning or insulting to Islam. A difference in opinion? An overreaction? Or an effective tactic to prevent discussion, bullying people into silence? Subsequent letters and strongly worded statements from the protest organisers and their supporters accused the forum organisers of being biadap and of having a hidden agenda: to subordinate Syariah under the Federal Constitution, to form the IFC, to encourage apostasy, etcetera. One statement even threatened the forum organisers with a larger risk should the forum be reconvened. Where is this type of thinking coming from? How much mainstream support is there for these views?
A source tells me that a few of the protestors are beginning to realise that the information given to them regarding the forum was inaccurate. They were apparently surprised to learn that the organisers, speakers and participants comprised both Muslims and non-Muslims. Perhaps if they now watch a video of the behaviour in the forum hall by certain individuals, supposedly in the name of defending Islam, they might feel a sense of shame or embarrassment, as many of the Muslim participants later expressed to the forum organisers. Perhaps they might learn from the Muslim Professionals Forum’s comment on the disrupted forum which states among other things, “We recognise and reaffirm the right of any group or individual to express their opinions on the above matter in a public forum” (Letter to Malaysiakini) – a view shared by many, whether or not they agreed with the topic of the forum.
I wonder about those among the protestors whom we have previously stood shoulder-to-shoulder with on a variety of issues over the years, ranging from the war in Iraq, to Palestine, the ISA, to the public transport system, to the rights of the marginalised, to corruption and the privatisation of health care in the country. Has our stand for humanity and justice not been clear? Do they really believe that we would insult Islam? Or be part of a Zionist plot? Is our ongoing solidarity on various issues too fragile to withstand such accusations?
There is no excuse, in any thinking society, to muzzle dialogue or discussion. To look at any issue, we need to have discussion, data or information about the issue, an understanding of the situation, the laws which affect the situation, concrete case studies which highlight the situation. Ostrich-like behaviour will not make the problem go away. Stopping discussions will not solve anything. And neither will jumping up and down. We may not like the problem. We may even disagree on the solutions. But if we are serious about tackling a problem and looking for solutions then we must be mature enough to dialogue calmly and rationally (more so if there are differences) and work out solutions that are just for all.
In our country, which is multi-religious and multiethnic, Muslim and non-Muslim live side-by-side. It is actually something to celebrate and to be proud of. Nobody says it is an easy balance but it’s important to keep trying to communicate with each other, to reach out to each other, to understand each other and to have respect for each other, especially when things are unclear. If we do this, we can hopefully keep this balance. We need maturity, faith and trust in each other that we will look out for each other’s welfare, needs and rights in a just manner. We must be very clear that there can be no room for chauvinism, intolerance or bullying tactics on any side. It serves only to divide. Sensitive issues will only cause division if we allow them to. If we truly want to seek justice for all, then we cannot allow ourselves to be divided. How much more progressive we could be, how much more we could achieve, if we worked together.
The message is very simple. You and I, irrespective of our faiths, sister and brother, must seek the solutions we need – together. The 14 May forum was an attempt to do just this.
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