“…protecting the freedom to read is never more important than when the books under attack contain ideas or opinions that are unpopular or offensive to some.” Molly Raphael, President, Amerian Library Association.
I spent hours working on the first draft for this article. Despite the hours I put in, it nagged at me. Something felt wrong. When I handed the draft to Editor and she was done reviewing it, the first thing she told me was, “I saw a lot of legal, but no Rebecca.” That was when it clicked. It felt wrong because my previous draft was all about facts, judgments and court dates. There was not one sentence which expressed what I thought and what was close to my heart.
Canadian author Irshad Manji’s banned book titled “Allah, Liberty and Love” with the small heading “The Courage to Reconcile Faith & Freedom”, was published in Malaysia in June 2011. The Malay translated version titled “Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta; Keberanian untuk menyelaraskan kebebasan dengan iman”, was published less than a year after. On 29 May 2012, the Home Ministry gazetted (i.e. officially enforced) the ban of the book.
On 29 May 2012, twenty enforcement officers from the Selangor Islamic Religious Affairs Department (JAIS) raided ZI Publications, the company publishing the books. The search warrant was issued because apparently ZI Publications was publishing religious materials that conflicted with Sections 16(1)(a) and (b) of the Selangor Syariah Criminal Enactment 1995. Besides detaining the director and owner of ZI Publications, Ezra Zaid, they also seized a total of 180 copies of the banned book.
My initial criticism on this piece focused on procedural wrongs, like how JAIS did not have the right to seize 180 copies of the book because the search warrant merely permitted JAIS officers to search every part of the premise and to arrest anyone found guilty. Nowhere in the search warrant were they allowed to take anything, much less seize 180 copies of the book. However, after talking to Editor, she pointed out that my argument was weak and asked for my opinion on the book ban. Even then she detected that I had no opinion on the case. She went on to ask, “What if it was the Hunger Games book, which was banned?”
I love “The Hunger Games”. LOVE IT. I could relate to it, especially when I was first exposed to the whole activism thing. Read the trilogy thrice in one week before I could put it down. If “The Hunger Games” was banned in Malaysia, I would very likely be one of the first persons protesting against it (the ban). But what would be my argument based on the law to protect the book I love? What allows the Home Ministry to ban books? Why did they ban Irshad Manji’s book?
As it is not possible for me to legally get a copy of the book, I found a short excerpt of the first chapter provided as a Kindle sample upon Googling for summaries of it. The first few pages contain passages of where Irshad Manji’s readers had written letters to her saying how her last book changed their perspective. It prompted them to think and question not just their religion but everything around them. It encouraged them to voice their thoughts.
Those few pages prompted me to think about my own religion and beliefs. I was certainly interested to read more. But apart from that small excerpt, I have not read “Allah, Love and Liberty”. I cannot. That choice has been taken away from me. Although having never read the book, I think it is one that would transform the way we see things around us. Prompting us to think more, question more and accept less. Has anyone asked why 2+2=4 and not 5?
According to international human rights law, there is a need for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. One of these is the freedom of expression: the freedom of expressing one’s opinions and thoughts. The ambit for freedom of expression is large. It could range from as small as commenting on a picture on Facebook to having a sit-in at Dataran Merdeka. Writing a book is somewhere in between. Reading a book is somewhere in between. Having the freedom to choose what we want to read is also somewhere in between. This ‘somewhere in between’ does not mean it is any less important; it is still a fundamental human right.
As such, the freedom can only be curbed if by allowing it, it affects the rights and freedom of other individuals or the country’s national security, public order, public health, public safety and public morality. In other words, to ban a book, the book must be in danger of affecting that country’s national security, public order, public health, public safety or public morality.
In America, usually during the last week of September, “Banned Books Week” is observed. “Banned Books Week” is an annual celebration of the freedom to read organised by the American Library Association (ALA). Molly Raphael’s (President of ALA), article, Banned Books Week Reminds Us That Censorship is Alive and Well in the Internet Age ended with the phrase “…protecting the freedom to read is never more important than when the books under attack contain ideas or opinions that are unpopular or offensive to some.”
About 60 percent of the population in Malaysia are Muslims. Possibly, “Allah, Love and Liberty” would be offensive to some of them. But is it proportional to curb my (and others) freedom to choose what book I want to read to prevent the possibility of it offending a few others? And if it does offend them, would that affect the country’s national security, public order, public health, public safety or public morality to the extent that the book need be banned? We cannot even judge properly for ourselves how it violates the country’s peace and safety because the Government banned the book before we got the chance to!
I struggled in ending this article because I got confused. Being a law student whose knowledge of human rights starts and ends with the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), I know absolutely nothing about book bans. I pestered Editor with questions and she had to spend almost an hour explaining this and that to me. I am sure she regrets taking me on to write this article.
I got confused because I accepted that the Government’s reasons and decisions behind the book being “prejudicial to morality and public order” was right, without questioning further the possibility that they may have been wrong. Alongside that, I was also confused because I accepted that the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) in challenging the ban was also right. Too many a time, we accept what we are told without questioning further its validity. This is especially so if it comes from those who have authority or seniority.
I cannot have a fair opinion on the ban because I have not read the book. But taking into consideration what Irshad Manji’s readers had said, I’m for the book if it pushes me to gain perspective, think more, question more and accept less. I know from writing this article that I definitely need it. I don’t speak for the youths of Malaysia, but if most youths in our country are as shallow minded as I am, I think Malaysia needs this book, too.
As of today, two judicial reviews have been filed in relation to the ban by lawyers Nizam Bashir, K. Shanmuga and Malik Imtiaz Sarwar. The first is filed against JAIS for the arrest of Ezra Zaid. Although leave to apply for judicial review was granted, Y.A. Rohana Yusof J. refused a stay and an appeal for the stay has been filed at the Court of Appeal. The case has been fixed for hearing on 22 January 2013. The second judicial review filed was to challenge the book ban against the Home Minister; hearing has been fixed for 15 January 2013.
Note by Lord Bobo: There is no such person called “Editor”. I think my minion Rebecca may have been consuming too many purple bananas, which have caused her to hallucinate this illusive “Editor” character. However, the non-entity-Editor has informed me that he/she does not regret commissioning Rebecca for writing this article; Editor is willing to assist/help/support/facilitate anyone willing to learn more about human rights.