Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Why War?!

"Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?"

"WAR does not decide who's right only who's left"

Bunga Popi

Dari darah, dari nanah yang punah di tanah,
rangka manusia kehilangan nyawa disambar senjata,
hasil manusia gila perang membunuh mesra,
bunga merah berkembang indah minta disembah.

Yang hidup tinggal sisa nyawa,penuh derita,
kering, bongkok, cacat, tempang dan buta,
perang dalam kenangan penuh kengerian,
sekarang dalam kepahitan,
dalam kesepian.

Yang lain kehilangan anak, suami dan kekasih,
hilang pergantungan, hilang pencarian,
hidup kebuluran,
ribuan janda, ribuan kcewa, ribuan sengsara,
jutaan anak-anak yatim hidup meminta-minta.

Manusia gila perang telah membunuh segala mesra!
perang berlangsung mencari untung tanah jajahan!
perang berlangsung membunuh anak dalam buaian!
perang berlangsung menghantar lebur nilai kebudayaan!

Bunga popi bunga mayat perajurit bergelimpangan,
bunga darah merah menyimbah,
penuh kengerian,

kami benci pada perang penuh pembunuhan!
kami rindu pada damai sepanjang zaman!


From blood, from pus that rots in the soil,
from skeletons that have lost their lives,
snatched by weapons,
the result of war maniacs who kill love,
the red flowers bloom beautifully,
requesting to be adored.

Those who live on are remnants of life,
full of sufferings,
wizened, bent, deformed, maimed and blind,
war in retrospect is full of horrors;
they remember now,
in bitterness,
in solitude.

Others lost children, husbands and sweethearts,
lost their sources of support, their livelihood,
they live in starvation,
thousands widowed,
thousands disappointed,
thousands tormented;
millions of orphans live on, and beg.

The war maniacs have killed all love!
war raged and found profit in colonial lands!
war raged and killed babies in their cradles!
war raged, and destroyed cultural values

Poppies are the flowers of fallen soldiers,
flowers drenched red with blood,
full of horrors,

we hate war,
full of killing!
we cry for a never-ending peace!

Usman Awang, 1955
(English translation by Adibah Amin)

Friday, 19 December 2008

Culture, Respect and Freedom of Expression

In his farewell visit to Iraq, outgoing United States President George W. Bush had a shoe thrown to him (twice!) during the press conference in Baghdad. In many ways, for someone to be thrown a shoe at, as Professor Akbar Ahmed had pointed out when interviewed by CNN, is the ultimate insult akin to like having your head being stepped on by someone.

Predictably, there were different reactions from different sides to the shoe throwing incident. Many Iraqis and Muslims in the Middle-East saluted the actions of the Iraqi journalist. Muntadhar Al-Zaidi is now not only receiving support from various quarters clamouring for his immediate release, he has also received a new job offer and a marriage proposal! Many Americans, on the other hand are angry about the incident as they believe their president deserves greater respect from the Iraqis having poured in billions of dollars rebuilding their country.

During his presidency, George W. Bush has been condemned, ridiculed and made fun at. Both Jay Leno and David Letterman have said that they will miss President Bush. Why? Because both of them and many other talk-show hosts and comedians have prospered with Bush jokes in the last eight years. To make jokes about Bush was easy, but to joke about Obama will not.

When I was visiting Washington DC last year, I saw a number of anti-war activists with placards with some very nasty caricatures of President Bush on them displaying them directly in front of the White House. That, and the many nasty jokes made about Bush are deemed acceptable in America, actions that are considered part of the society’s freedom of expression. To openly and publicly make fun of government and political leaders is considered normal and acceptable in most Western countries, but here in Malaysia and the Asian region?

As much as I cherish the rights of any individual to express himself, and as much as I am indeed disgusted about some of our local political leaders, I don’t think I would like to see the kind of jokes made about Bush being made about them here. Malaysians or Asians in general are still conservative societies in which respect towards elders is a sacred tradition inspired by cultural and religious values. In many ways, we show respect to our seniors, teachers, superior officers, and society leaders the same way we show respect to our parents. And people here just do not openly argue with their parents.

Even when there are disagreements, children would most likely utilise various subtleties to express their disagreements with the hope that somehow their parents would understand. Children find it hard to give a direct "no" to their parents for the fear of hurting their feelings. As the Malays would often say, 'ibarat menarik rambut dalam tepung... rambut jangan putus, tepung jangan berselerak' ('like pulling a hair from a container full of flour... you have to pull the hair out gently that the hair does not break and flour is not scattered around the place').

On this adab (etiquette) of respecting our elders, is it possible however that people here tend to overdo it? My respected senior colleague Professor Malik Badri certainly thinks so as he often laments on how students here are indeed over-adab-ised, a point that I cannot help but agree since my own students hardly question me in class even when I made factual errors (occasionally) during my lectures. Yes, students should respect their teachers but would it be disrespectful for students to disagree with their teachers?

As a student, I once disagreed publicly with one of my lecturers about attendance to make-up classes. He had said that attendance to make-up classes is compulsory to which I argued a student’s responsibility is to attend classes as arranged in the official schedule. Make-up classes are organised to replace class sessions cancelled by the lecturers in order for them to cover all topics in the syllabus. Hence, lecturers have the obligation to organise make-up classes but they should not force students to attend them. The argument I had was quite tense but I knew my lecturer did not take it personally. After all, it was the same lecturer who a few years later as the head of department lobbied the university’s authority to hire me as a teaching staff at the university.

I have to say though that my experience above was more an exception rather than the norm. The reality is the culture here in Malaysia, and in the whole of Asia in general, has limited tolerance for dissent. I have heard numerous personal stories of students and low-ranking officers being heavily reprimanded and unjustly punished for disagreeing with their teachers and superior officers.

When I first became a staff member at IIUM, it was after two years studying in Finland and half-a-year working for UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Three years of ‘Westernisation’ had ‘corrupted’ me somewhat that I was always eager and ready to argue with anyone regardless of their standings and positions whenever I feel I had something to say. However, I have learned to be much more relenting over the years mainly due to some of the friendly advice given to me by a few concerned colleagues. Was this for the better? Perhaps, because I no longer create any unnecessary tension between myself and others. But I can’t help but feel that by doing so I may have sacrificed some of my core values and principles.

Still, I do not quite understand why people here almost always take criticism personally. My senior colleague Professor Wan Rafaei once told me how astonished he was to see both the supervisor and co-supervisor of his doctoral research (at the University of Wales) arguing so aggressively for more than an hour, but at the end of the meeting both went off happily together for lunch. According to Professor Wan, if there was an argument like that here in Malaysia, both parties will not be on speaking terms for at least a few months!

Perhaps, traditional cultural values and 22 years of Mahathirism had nurtured this culture of submissiveness in Malaysia. But certainly a balanced and moderate perspective between the need to show respect and the need for constructive criticism and disagreements can be achieved. Sheikh Taha Jabir Al 'Alwani has written a beautiful book on 'The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam' (Adab al Ikhtilaf fi al Islam). I remember vividly his argument in the book on how Islam in fact recognises disagreement and scepticism as valid methods of inquiry. Of course, in Muslim communities today, this beautiful tradition is largely forgotten. The political culture in most Muslim countries does not value dissent and tend to see it as a corrupted Western approach that is alien to Islam.

Of course, I am not advocating throwing shoes as a way to express disagreements, or making nasty jokes about our political leaders as often seen in Jay Leno and David Letterman talk shows. What I would like to see is the creation of proper channels and avenues for freedom of expression where people can voice their views (with observance of adab) without fear of negative repercussions.

To speak just for the sake of speaking is indeed foolish, but to not speak when something needs to be said is a sign of lack of wisdom and self-confidence and often lead to weak and faulty decisions and understanding. Allahu’alam.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Early Marriages

I'm not a therapist, nor am I a counsellor. However, for whatever reasons, in my five years working at the university, I've had on a number of occasions, students who came to me for advice for various personal problems. These are young adults, and as can be expected many of their problems centred around the issues of marriage and romantic relations.

Sheikh Abdallah Adhami, a Muslim preacher in America, was once asked to deliver a talk on marriage in Islam. In preparing for the talk, he asked the organiser what exactly about marriage they want him to talk about. The organiser requested the sheikh to focus on what happens before marriage. To that, Sheikh Adhami said: "that will be a very short talk because in Islam NOTHING happens before marriage."

If 'nothing' here means no social interactions whatsoever between men and women, it certainly is a big challenge for youngsters today to adhere. Of course, in the past the situation was different. Both my grandmothers got married at the age of fourteen while my paternal and maternal grandfathers were eighteen and twenty respectively; both immediately upon completing their education (the former upon graduating from Tanjung Malim Teachers' College, and the latter after passing his Senior Cambridge examination). Needless to say, when my grandparents got married they hardly knew their spouses.

Allah SWT has instilled in the hearts of human beings the ability to experience love. To love and wanting to be loved is part of human nature. Hence, for a person to fall in love with another is something natural and in most instance unavoidable. The only question then is how does one manage and respond to this emotional experience?

Marriage is the natural solution ordained by both religious and cultural traditions. It is not easy however for people today to get married. Here in Malaysia, social-cultural expectations dictate that only those (men especially) who are financially stable can begin contemplating marriage. To be exact, you should have a stable job, a car and at least able to rent a decent house before you can think about getting married. All of these of course are in addition to saving enough money for the dowry, wedding gifts and expenses for a lavish ceremony. To meet all these requirements, a young man would need to work fulltime for at least a few years. That would mean pushing the age of marriage to the late twenties if not later.

Can a young man (or a young woman for that matter) wait that long? Of course, I'm posing this question in the context of the Malay-Muslim society here in Malaysia where conservative religious values are still largely adhered to (to be exact, the strict prohibition on pre-marital sex). Studies in developmental psychology have shown that humans develop romantic feelings and sexual desires from the period of adolescence. And it grows even stronger and remains strong during the entire period of young adulthood. Can we just simply expect young men and women today to suppress these feelings? Suppressing them entirely during high-school, throughout their years studying at universities, and a couple of more years of working life?

To me, the answer is quite simple: encourage early marriages! During my undergraduate studies, I once wrote a term paper on encouraging early marriages. And one of the earliest publication projects I worked on was to translate a book entitled 'Marriage in Islam' from English to Malay in which the propagation of early marriages is the thesis statement of the very first chapter. Of course, the call for early marriages would run directly against social-cultural expectations. One has to decide then which one is more important: marriage as a religious duty to preserve one’s chastity or adherence to social-cultural norms?

Without a doubt, anyone who decides to get married at a young age would face some serious challenges. I have never failed to caution students who have consulted me, about these challenges that they should be mentally prepared for. Certain sacrifices of course need to be made, but rather than making things more difficult, the society can and should facilitate young married couples. At IIUM, back in the 1990’s, married students received additional allowances for living expenses. In fact, family apartments for married students were part of the original design of the university’s main campus in Gombak. Such facilities should be reintroduced and offered by other social institutions.

What we have now is more cultural than religious. When religious values and socio-cultural expectations collide, religion values must and should always prevail.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Making of Muslim Terrorists

Denial, is a common reaction among many Muslims to any news of terrorist acts committed by Muslims. At first the reaction will be: "a Muslim could not have done that", then to: "how can a Muslim do such a thing?", and finally the conclusion: "it must be a conspiracy!"

I was in Joensuu, Finland (barely two weeks since my arrival) when 911 occurred. I was first told of the attacks on the World Trade Centre when I came to the masjid on that day for evening prayers. And to be honest, when my Muslim brothers were talking about the attack, most of them were expressing a genuine feeling of jubilation. Yes, in jubilation that America was attacked in its own soil, and to a large extent, proud (not shame) that it was allegedly done by our fellow Muslim brothers.

It is always difficult for me to explain terrorist acts committed by Muslims. On one hand, I feel the need to explain this is not what Islam propagates while on the other, I cannot deny the atrocities committed by my fellow Muslims. Often, my arguments were defensive but ultimately, a point that I would vehemently defend is, blame the Muslims who committed these crimes, don’t blame Islam. Hence, there are in fact only Muslim terrorists, not 'Islamic' terrorists!

I’ve travelled across a few cities in Western Europe and in almost all of them, managed to spend some time at the masjids and talked with members of the local Muslim communities. In all these places, there were always groups of young, angry and high-spirited Muslims who displayed strong animosity towards America and the entire Western–kafir civilisation, and often times, wished and prayed for their total destruction.

From where does all this anger come from? My background in psychology propels me to focus on a more micro perspective, specifically in relation to the social psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance; a psychological discomfort that arises as a result of inconsistencies between one’s self-concept and behavioural actions.

Any Muslim who has experienced a deep sense of religious awakening, would very likely come across some of the well-known ahadith (Prophetic traditions) emphasising on the importance of ukhuwwah (Islamic brotherhood) and unity. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "The Muslims are like the limbs of a man, where if the eye hurts the whole body feels pain and if the head hurts, the whole body feels pain and suffering." And in another hadith emphasising on the responsibility of a Muslim to another, the Prophet said: "Whoever does not take an interest in the affairs and problems of the Muslims, he is not of them. And whoever's state is such that, each morning and evening, he is not loyal and earnest to Allah, his Apostle, His Book, the Islamic ruler and towards the Muslims as a whole, he is not of them."

Muslims who learn and internalise lessons from these narrations would feel a deep sense of connectedness, an emotional-spiritual bonding with Muslims all over the world across different countries and continents. Such feelings often transcend relations based on citizenship, race and ethnicity. It is with this deep and intense feeling of brotherhood that many Muslims began to develop a strong sense of sympathy toward Muslims inflicted with hardship and struggles. Hence when they hear and read about the sufferings of Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, they would ask themselves firstly: "have I done anything to help my Muslim brothers and sisters?", followed by the painful question: "what can/should I do to help them?"

For some, the behavioural reaction would be making some donations to charity funds for the suffering people. But for some others, that would not be enough. They would think that a Muslim should be able to do more than that. And when the hardships experienced by Muslims in these areas are associated with struggles against a non-Muslim enemy, the call for jihad will soon be heard. When this happens, many Muslims would respond positively to the call seeing it as a legitimate way to harmonise their self-concept as a devout Muslim responsible for defending his/her Muslim brothers, and their behavioural reactions from one which was docile and passive to a more active and confrontational approach. Armed with religious justification, these Muslims would thereon rally behind any groups whose ideology resonates with their newly found confrontational attitude. Being confrontational means to do whatever that is necessary to destroy the enemy which include resorting to committing acts of terrorism.

So, coming back to the common reactions among Muslims mentioned in the first paragraph, yes, Muslims are capable of becoming terrorists. In fact, it won’t surprise me if some of the terrorists in the recent Mumbai attack are neither Indians nor Pakistanis. They could very well be Muslims from the UK or any other Western countries, whose minds have been indoctrinated with intense hate and animosity. A book published last year The Islamist by Ed Husain, a British Muslim and former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, outlines the author’s journey towards radicalism and explains how such an ideology can and have inspired acts of terrorism.

Conspiracy? The only thought I have along this line stems from the question, 'where these people get their weapons from?' There can’t be that many countries in the world that manufacture weapons. And weapons are also not cheap. Thus, the burning question in my mind, if most of these struggling Muslim communities don’t even have enough to cater for their basic needs, how did they get all these weapons?

Allahu'alam (Allah knows best)

In view of the need for Muslims to strive for the cause of Islam and to protect and defend our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters, are there other means to fulfil it other than through violence and terror? Something for all of us to think about...

Ma'as salam.