Politics, Power and the Violence of History

By Farish A. Noor ~ July 29th, 2009. Filed under: TOM_Main.

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?

6 Responses to Politics, Power and the Violence of History

  1. PHG

    Poor lady being a victim. Go to Jalan P. Ramlee on a Friday or Saturday
    they can catch many muslims drinking, charge them and whip them. Do this so that it will be fair to Kartika. Why must she endure this.

  2. maryato

    Thanks for the article. I am sure many Malaysians, whether they be Muslims or not, feel as outraged as I do at the draconian and, it would seem, unequal punishment that was meted out. Non-Muslim Malaysians, though we may feel compassion and empathy, understandably, are afraid to express comments or opinions of any kind because of the many possible consequences that could be visited upon us, including the ISA, and because of our lack of education and understanding of the Islamic faith and laws.

    Just for curiousity though, has there even been an occasion when a Muslim man was caught drinking in public and then similarly charged, convicted and punished?

  3. anna brella

    Like that cruel and evil and also seen as “The Incorruptible” politician Robespierre and his guillotine and reign of terror, and his final just dessert come-uppance at the end of it at that very same guillotine, I hope the same fate will befall all those who have taken part in this grotesque sentencing of this poor woman.

    And furthermore I hope the good Grace of a loving humane God/Tuhan will see it that way too when that final Judgement day inevitably arrives at the end.

    How can Islam, which IS a religion of peace and kindness inflict or condone this cruel, unGodly sentence?

    Rightly or wrongly or blasphemously, that Shariah law is almost certainly being misinterpreted and the goodness that is innate in Islam is being hijacked and denigrated and held to ransom for the likely self-serving purposes of some who are either dangerously ignorant (like this lot who passed this sentence) or dangerously manipulative, like the Taliban and Al Qaeda and other false-Muslim(so not Muslim or Islamic) terrorists.

    Time for the Voice of GOOD ISLAM that millions of kind and peaceful Muslims all over the world believe in and worship and practise to come out bravely and loudly now out of the quiet peace of the woodwork and say firmly that this whipping sentence imposed on this poor Muslim woman is WRONG in principle and must be re-examined as it goes against the grain of the kind and principled teachings at the heart of true Islam.

    If YOU the good and kind and peaceloving Muslims don’t come out in support of true ISLAM and this poor persecuted Muslim woman NOW, then she and other Muslims like her will continue to pay the price of human ignorance from misinterpretation and will be treated like some cheap form of worthless chattel and without mercy in this “enlightened age” of the 21st century and be whipped like an animal in public (for drinking some alcohol for God’s sake!) and not to her shame, but to all OUR immense shame for allowing it to be perpertrated in our view.

    “Imagine Power To The People” John Lennon.

  4. LES

    What really irks me is the double standards and hypocrisy involved. Why is her husband who is also a Muslim not punished? Was he not drinking alcohol? Or is it because he is Singaporean and ‘we’ don’t teach the Singaporeans such lessons? Or is it because he is a man, and men are treated more leniently because - after all - “they just cannot help themselves”? I am referring to rape cases here. Isn’t a husband somehow responsible for his wife’s actions particularly in public, according to Shariah?

    Do you remember a particular photograph a number of years ago in one of our mainstream newspapers showing a son of a particular Malay royal family drinking alcohol with his friends during his student days?

    It is common knowledge that quite a number of Malays are drinking alcohol, in Malaysia or abroad. What has happened all of a sudden that such an example has to be made out of that woman?

    I just don’t get it.

    Except that I understand that the screw has been tightened further; the relationship between God and the individual - personal to me - has been regulated further; the control of the government over the individual, the personal sphere, has been increased. “1984″ has been implemented. I am waiting for the thought-police to arrive at my doorsteps. After all, ISA is in place to deal with all “deviants”! Welcome brave new world?

    That’s not the change demanded by the people!

  5. Chan ST

    Who among the non-muslims in Malaysia would openly condemn the judgement. Malaysian non-muslims have always left the muslims to deal with syariah laws without interference because that is what the muslims want. Non-muslims might not agree with the punishment but for harmony’s sake, they remain silent. Why poke a stick inside a bee hive? Blind reaction to any percieved slight will be the outcome.

    Non-muslims will however not accept nor take it lying down if proponents of syariah laws try to impose those same syariah laws on them. Then, non-muslims will not remain silent.


  6. yati

    My friends in Europe were sceptical about Malaysia before, and now it scares the hell out of them even more to explore Malaysia. They have been asking me, is Malaysia a radical, turning to be another Taliban/Afghanistan of the South East Asia?

    The report about a woman who will be publicly caned for drinking and another report about a religious teacher who forced his student to finish a few packs of cigarettes as punishment for smoking are making headlines here (is there no better way to help these individuals to see the unhealthy side of drinking and smoking?).

    Gosh, if we let these inhumane players dominate our life with their violence approach in life and limited understanding of human behaviour and human relation, we are actually paving an easy red carpeted walkway and planting easily grown seeds for extreme beliefs to take over our independence and freedom.

    After 52 years of independence, isn’t it time for us to grow to be mature? Not the other way around? Malays should be allowed to enjoy freedom, freedom to be a person she or he wants to be, freedom to learn from mistakes, freedom to be human, freedom to ask and question, freedom to think for her/himself. It is such a shame that Malays in Malaysia is being meticulously subjected and brainwashed to think that there is no other choices for us, once we are born, we are obligated to be Muslims, not allowing us to explore other options, to choose what is best and most suitable for us. Even Arabs around the world and Malays in Indonesia enjoy freedom to choose their way of life. Such controlled propaganda imposed upon us through our system has created the Malay society we have today. Ever since I was young, I rebelled, wanting to escape shallow minded society who thinks they are the only ‘right’ people exist in this world.

    We need more intellects who highlight love and tolerance in Islam, the true beauty that we human are equal; that we need to work together and respect each other for the benefit of our existence, as God only leave one planet that we can live in, and this planet needs our love, compassion and care. However it seems that these so called religious protectors are more concerned over finding faults and mistakes of their fellow brothers and sisters, proud to show off their power to punish and to bring shame to others rather than spending time to do more programme and research on understanding human values and development through some painless, simple and compassionate approach. Honestly, anyone who chooses violent way to solve a minor issue shows the person’s psychopath behaviour. This person’s credibility to act as a judge is questionable. Is a sadistic person fit to be a judge? If Malaysian society allows and accepts violent behaviour to educate its public, then it is sad to say that we have a sick society.

    Based on the way Islam is being practiced and mislead in Malaysia, It is not a surprise if more Malays would convert to other religion or just be a non believer silently. The dilemma and struggle to be that perfect Malaysian Malay-Muslim follower will definitely be the hidden-silent conflict among Malays who are unconvinced, uncomfortable or not whole-heartedly practicing Islam. Some may see being a practical Muslim has no positive effects in their life and would like to put priorities in other matters. However they have to do so privately and not publicly since to express them openly would mean to expose oneself to the possibility of being punished and humiliated publicly.

    Malaysian politics has become too corrupted, dirty and shallow which makes it the perfect stage for people who carry such values. Most good valued, peaceful, moderate and broad-minded Malaysians, regardless of their background enjoy being out of the limelight, living side by side happily. But how long can we see our beloved country being torn apart by self centred rulers and arbitrated by violent judiciary system?

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