Demonisation, politics of banning: Pas should look at own history

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During the first half of the 2000s, Pas was linked – falsely and without any evidence – to radical militant groups in an attempt to silence it. Pas too has experienced firsthand the politics of silencing and demonisation, and cried foul when it was the victim of such dirty politics. So why is Pas engaged in the same dirty politics today with regards to SIS, asks Farish Noor.

 

The recent Pas general assembly has left us with a rather mixed serving of results and outcomes, some of which will linger for a while and some of which may prove harder to digest than others. Despite the reiteration of Pas’ stand vis a vis Umno, which was couched in oppositional terms, we are left with the question of Pas’ long-term orientation and objectives, and where the party will go from here. It is clear that the party remains divided over the question of dialogue and co-operation with Umno, which has been its nemesis since its genesis in 1951.

But when it comes to the question of dialogue and engagement, Pas’ stand seems clearer with regards to other Islamic movements and NGOs in the country: While Pas has demonstrated its willingness to work with some of the more conservative Muslim groups in Malaysia, it has steadfastly refused to work with other groups, notably Muslim feminist organisations such as Sisters in Islam (SIS).

What has shocked many of us, however, was Pas’ call to have SIS investigated by the religious authorities of the country on the grounds that it is a movement that has allegedly ‘misled’ Muslims and which has been tainted by liberal ideas. More worrying still was the call to have SIS banned if it is found to be somehow ‘anti-Islamic’ in its activities.

Let us cut through the hogwash of political correctness and state the matter as bluntly and clearly as possible: For a political party like Pas to call for the banning of an NGO like SIS is nothing less than a determined move to close the space of public discourse and debate in a country where civil liberties are already compromised by a host of repressive laws. SIS has borne the brunt of numerous attacks from right-wing movements since it was formed, and the attacks have always been the same. The accusations levelled against SIS have been that it is a ‘liberal’ movement, that it promotes a ‘free interpretation’ of Islam, and that its members – mostly Muslim women – are ‘not qualified’ to speak and discuss on matters related to normative Muslim socio-religious praxis. I will return to these accusations in the following articles, but for now let us look at the latest move to ban SIS and understand its implications.

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The term ‘ban’ has an etymological link to the term ‘banish’, and to ban a movement, a book or even an idea is to banish it beyond the pale of the public domain. Any political party that calls for the banning of an NGO, book, individual or idea is a party that is no longer able and willing to engage in an open, plural and inclusive public domain where the exchange of ideas and opinions is encouraged and respected. It would therefore be hypocritical for Pas to boast about its willingness to engage with non-Muslims in Malaysia if it cannot even engage with Muslim sisters in Islam. So where is Pas’ commitment to the inclusive, plural and democratic Malaysia that it talked about at the last general elections of March 2008?

This latest attack on SIS is a repeat of the politics of demonisation that Malaysians have grown accustomed to over the past five decades. It is just another attempt to silence a group of activists by demonising their activities and very presence in the public domain by accusing them of all manner of nefarious activities, rather than to take them seriously and listen to what they have to say. Accusing SIS of being ‘liberal’, ‘secular’ and ‘Western’ are rather outdated clichés by now, but this also points to the bankruptcy of ideas in our public domain at the present, thanks to the long process of de-politicisation of Malaysian society and the way in which our political culture is shaped by emotion-laced, sectarian and exclusive political concerns.

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But Pas should be doubly wary of resorting to such tactics to silence other groups that it may disagree with, for Pas was itself the victim of such politics of demonisation from the 1980s onwards. Pas should remember that in the 1980s and 1990s it too was demonised as a ‘radical’, ‘militant’, ‘extremist’ threat and that despite the fact that it has remained a constitutionalist party from the outset Pas was cast as a threat to the nation. During the first half of the 2000s, Pas was even linked – falsely and without any evidence – to radical militant groups in an attempt to silence it. Pas too has experienced firsthand the politics of silencing and demonisation, and cried foul when it was the victim of such dirty politics. So why is Pas engaged in the same dirty politics today with regards to SIS?

Again I repeat my assertion that the vote for Pas at the elections of March 2008 was a vote of goodwill given by a Malaysian electorate that was prepared to see beyond the negative stereotypes of Pas and to give Pas a chance to be part of the reformist wave of the new Malaysia we see around us today. The Malaysian public was prepared to look beyond the negative stereotypes of Pas and give the party their vote as long as they were genuinely committed to the process of democratisation and reform.

Pas therefore should remember that democratisation and reform begins from within, and the first thing that Pas has to revise is its own jaundiced view of other alternative Muslim organisations like Sisters in Islam. It is no exaggeration to say that in Malaysia, no Muslim group has said and done more for the plight of Muslim women than SIS. If this is a sin in the eyes of Pas, then one wonders where Pas’ moral compass is pointed. Our advice to Pas – given with sincerity – is simply this: Wake up to the new Malaysia around you and realise that Malaysian society today is more complex than ever. If Pas wishes to entertain the notion of becoming a national party one day, it has to adapt its own discourse and political praxis to reflect this diversity, rather than suppress, deny and ban it. Sisters in Islam is here to stay, and many of us are happy for that. We may not agree with each other all the time, but differences of opinion are a fact of life and living in the adult world. The call for the banning of any movement you disagree with, even if it is enacted via the legal process, is perhaps the highest form of violence of all, the violence of silencing the Other. If this is the course that Pas wishes to pursue in the near future, than many of us will be inclined to believe that the stereotype of Pas as an intolerant, extremist party may be true after all. And that would be a tragedy for Pas, ultimately.

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