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.


bubu said...

About the Throwing-shoe incident, recently I've checked at Yahoo! news that there's even an online game for that! (Same as when 'Obama's world' online game came out after he became a 'celebrity'. The news reported that Bush had received thousands (if not millions) of shoes thrown at his virtual-self in the game. Mm.. interesting indeed.

Indeed. We need to respect our leaders as like what we do to our parents etc. Even so, it is not done at the cost of suppressing what needs to be addressed or criticized for the betterment of the population. Even Khalifah Abu Bakr said this during his first address as a Khalifah:

"... If I am right, obey me. If I am misguided, set me right."
(Majid Ali Khan, 1998 in The Pious Caliphs)

This shows how humble a leader is and also how objective he was in being a Khalifah (highlighting about what you mentioned about taking things personally in our culture). This was what the Khalifah said and showed, there should not be any reason why we should show the otherwise. Both the citizens need to know that if things need to be addressed, it should be and; leaders should also be open for criticisms and be objective in dealing with them.

Now addressing the issue in education setting, I'd also say what respected Prof. Malik said. To think that students don't know about mistakes done, is actually inaccurate because when they talk among themselves, they actually know some mistakes done by the lecturer, but why it was not voiced during the class, I would not know. Shyness? Looked as being disrespectful to embarrass the lecturer? Maybe. And even so, students are not to be blamed as well as sometimes, even few lecturers reacted unprofessionally to criticisms which then renders students to not criticize again. To some extent, the submissive culture is so indoctrinated that people couldn't be bothered to change it.

How would you see it from the lecturers' role in this culture? You've very much highlighted about how the students are. What do you think?

Zaki Samsudin said...

Salam Brother Bubu,

As always, thank you and greatly appreciate your valuable comments.

I know that students would know when lecturers make mistakes in class. The question is, as you aptly raised, why don't they asked their lecturers about it? I can understand that students maybe put off by the reactions of their lecturers whenever they pointed out their mistakes. The immediate nonverbal response, a sign of annoyance at times, is understandable. That is a natural reaction something that I myself perhaps am guilty for. But lecturers ought not to take it personally and definitely not carry it beyond the place and issue of disagreement. That I have never done and never will inshaAllah. In fact, I would often pay greater attention to students who raised question about what I say and I am often more impressed about them as a result.

I can't say much about others but yes, I do often hear grouses about lecturers and professors who are perceived to be unable to accept differences of opinion. To get them to open up and be more flexible, I think all of us lecturers need to constantly be put at our place, to be humbled by the fact that we don't know everything, and what we think and know may not necessarily be right. How do you that? Maybe all lecturers should be asked to make annual presentations about their work in front of a public audience and let themselves be the target for questioning from anyone. Then we would know, as one of my teachers use to say: "the more you know, the more you know you don't know".

bubu said...

Hehe. That was what my teacher said also, who he taught me in our History and Philosophy of Psychology class :) The humility felt when people learn about history. Knowing about other knowledgeable people makes you think that you know more about what you do not know.

Education setting aside, what do you think about the political setting regarding this issue? We've talked about the culture and the people, how about the leaders and the system? Are they strong influences to this "over-adabized" culture? If so, will interventions be practical?

Scooper said...

Shrinkwrapped has another way to view the shoe-throwing incident. He explores what is in his opinion the interaction between traditional honor/shame culture (which predates Islam, but has been absorbed by many Muslim cultures) and the psychological phenomenon of narcissism.

I, too, have speculated about this.

Zaki Samsudin said...

Brother Bubu,

The political culture in Malaysia and the rest of the Muslim world (except perhaps Indonesia) has not reached the level of maturity and sophistication to accept open debates and discussions. Always, the concern is there are issues deemed too sensitive that, if discussed openly would be detrimental to the peaceful order of the society. To me, this is an outdated argument and an insult to human nature. It paints a picture that human beings are such barbaric animals that whenever there are disagreements, we have to fight and try to kill each other hence, only one point of view would triumph and allowed to prevail.

Mr. Scooper has given us the link to ShrinkWrapped's brilliant postings on this issue. Although as a Muslim, I do feel quite disturbed by some of his arguments, I have to concede that his analysis of the cultural mentality of Muslim societies today is very true. But again, the question is, rampant narcissism among Muslims today, is it the result of Islamic religious teachings or local cultural values?

I have some thoughts on this but would need time to be able to give a decent remark on this very important issue.