Of Inconsiderate Religious Authorities

Comment on the retired American couple in Langkawi that were raided by the Kedah religious department on 12 October 2006; multicultural, multiracial and multi-religious harmony cannot work in a framework of religious imperialism and bigotry.

Our government enjoys boasting about its plurality. ‘We are multicultural, multiracial and multi-religious and we get along so well!’ our politicians like to claim even as they cling tenaciously to their race based parties and racial bigotry. Our Prime Minister, who just cannot stop giving other people advice, in his recent address on the eve of Hari Raya on national television advised Muslims to pursue solidarity to correct Western misperceptions that their religion promotes terrorism and backwardness. Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was reported to have said, ‘What’s happening now doesn’t really give a good picture… We want the Muslim world to be peaceful and safe, and the Muslims to be a united and progressive people.’

Obviously the Kedah religious department (there is no need to say ‘Islamic religious department’ because all religious departments in Malaysia are Islamic) was not watching the address or did not give a damn what their Prime Minister said. On 12 October 2006, at approximately 2:00 a.m. they tarnished the image of Islam and Malaysia and encouraged the misperception. I say this because that was about the time they rudely awakened, harassed and stormed into the home of Randal Barnhart, 62, and his wife Carol, 61, a pair of Christians, and accused them of committing khalwat (i.e. unmarried man and woman being in close proximity alone is a religious offence) and demanded to see their marriage certificate.

Randal said that the religious officers also rudely demanded to ‘seeing the woman’ and ‘My wife had to show herself despite only having a sarong on at that time. We felt humiliated for being treated this way.’ As a result of this encounter, Randal said,’After that unpleasant episode two weeks ago, I do not feel like making Malaysia my second home. It is a pity because both my wife and I really love Langkawi.’ So shaken up was his wife by the incident that she insisted on returning back to America immediately because she feared the authorities return to terrify her in the middle of the night. She has since left. Randal now wants the religious department to apologise to him and his wife in writing and to compensate him for the RM 4,315.00 that he had to pay or his wife’s flight ticket out of Malaysia. I would tell Randal to insist on the apology but to just ask for compensation for a one way ticket because if he knows what’s good for him, he’d best get out of here too.

But of greater interest to me is this: What the hell were the Kedah religious authorities doing? (pun intended) Firstly, did they carry out any investigation into their religious status before approaching them? Secondly, what caused them to target Randal and his wife for khalwat? Since Randal and his wife were asleep in the privacy of their own home at the time, somebody must have provoked them to investigate. Who lodged the report? Is any action going to be taken against the person who lodged a false report with the religious authorities? Thirdly, was it necessary to carry out a raid at their apartment at 2:00 a.m. in the morning? I am certain it could have been done at more convenient hours of the day – in the morning or evening – and they would have still found the couple together. After all, they are retired. Is this in the Kedah religious authorities’ standard operating procedure manual? What’s the rationale for it? Fourthly, why did they persist in wanting to see Randal’s wife and his marriage certificate if he already told them they were Christians? They should have left him alone immediately once he declared he was a Christian. And in all of this, where was the Muslim spirit of kindness, courtesy and understanding?

All these questions clearly show that their actions were not justified no matter how you look at it. These questions demonstrate that the Kedah religious authorities’ are highly incompetent, corrupt or malicious. The incompetence speaks for itself and the corruption angle is usually a matter of course. I do not think it is either of these because Randal made no mention of the latter and only people in possession of tremendous amounts of stupidity would have carried out that raid against Randal. Although I think very little generally of our religious authorities as they are more likely to be incompetent and of unsophisticated intellect, even I loathe thinking them that stupid.

‘Malicious’ however needs an explanation and may provide the likelier explanation. We must not forget the international political backdrop: most Muslims (the Malaysians Malays included) blame America for the Israelite oppression of the Palestinians (that are a Muslim majority) in the Middle East. Randal was a retired American policemen. The average Malaysian Malay also suffers from an acute sense of inferiority complex, which is why you always find them asserting their political dominance because that is all they have in this country (they lag behind in the economic, educational and intellectual spheres). When you add racial and religious bigotry to the mix and funnel all this into a religious department that believes the morality of the world depends on their actions, you get malice.

And that is what I think happened. These frustrated narrow minded religious officers saw Randal as an opportunity to reduce their cognitive dissonance by asserting their power over him and took it. No doubt in their mind they were thinking that they were doing a one up for all the Muslim brothers and sisters all over the world by harassing Randal and frightening his wife. I have no doubt that deterring Randal and his wife from settling down in our country is precisely what they aimed for. How often have I heard the Malay politician screaming to his non-Malay counterparts in Parliament to get out of the country if they don’t like it; and it is a very small step from telling somebody to get out and then actively pushing them out. In law, the latter would be seen as the mens rea (intention) and the latter the actus reus (the criminal act), when both are present then you have a criminal act. And that is how the harassment of Randal and his wife should be seen – as a criminal act that should be punished, not as an administrative error.

State Religious and Humanity Development Committee chairman Professor Datuk Wira Dr Othman Ishak and Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid have predictably come out to declare they know nothing as if that might distance their responsibility from the incident. The Menteri Besar even went so far as to say, ‘I was not informed about this case. I will find out what really happened before making any comment.’ The Menteri Besar’s comment also seems to cast doubt on Randal’s version of events. A newspaper is under a duty to always verify the veracity of their reports. So why should he not believe what the news report has printed? It is clear that he only sees this as a one-off event that needs to be ‘settled’ immediately instead of investigating to see if there are structural problems with the entire religious department set up (i.e. poor quality of and bigot officers, lack of preparatory investigation, lack of standard operating procedures, etc.). You can also be sure that nothing is going to happen to any of the religious officers that were related to the raid.

This is why when the politicians claim that non-Muslims have nothing to fear from Muslim laws, I do not believe them. Randal’s incident clearly shows that even if you are a non-Muslim the Muslim religious authorities can still make your life very difficult. They can disbelieve you and prosecute simply because they think you are Muslim, no matter how mistaken they may be. We can have the most beautiful laws that promote racial and religious harmony but if you have religious and racial bigots enforcing them, the laws will turn out no better. Returning to the Prime Minister’s comment earlier – ‘What’s happening now doesn’t really give a good picture’ – he’s right, it doesn’t; but it sure does give a true one. And what our government does not seem to understand is that multicultural, multiracial and multi-religious harmony cannot work in a framework of religious imperialism and bigotry. And what these over-zealous self-declared pious religious bigots have failed to grasp is that the people that can do the most damage and greatest disservice to the image of Islam and Muslims the world over, and even their country is not the non-Muslim but the Muslims themselves.

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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 28 October 2006. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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