No Room for Dissent
The bookseller looks cautiously at the young man in front of him, sizing him up. He asks a few questions; most importantly trying to ascertain if the young university student is an informant for the police. Deciding he is not, there is a quick exchange and a book, covered in paper, is handed over. The young man delivers 20 ringgit and the transaction is complete.
Walking away, Mohamed quickly tucks the book into his bag, turning to give a short wave to the owner of the bookshop, who watches anxiously until the man turns a corner and disappears from view.
"This is the Irshad Manji book and it's banned right now," Mohamed said after arriving at a coffee shop in the popular China Town area of Kuala Lumpur, referring to Canadian author Irshad Manji's "Allah, Liberty and Love".
"The government doesn't want people to read the book because they are afraid it will make people turn gay." He laughs.
Shoring up the conservative base of the electorate
The bookshop has every right to fear a police crackdown. In late May, 36-year-old Borders bookstore manager Nik Raina Nik Aziz was charged in a Malaysian court of selling the banned book. If convicted, she could be fined up to $1,000 or jailed for two years.
For Mohamed and other young activists, the banning of the book over its message – one they say portrays Islam as a "tolerant and understanding faith" – is absurd, especially considering Malaysia's multi-ethnic make-up.
But with an election pending – the government must call for a general election by April next year – officials are seeking to shore up the conservative base of the electorate, and that means Manji's book has been barred from selling.
"They are doing this because she is a lesbian woman who is talking about an Islam that the conservatives don't want. They think she is dangerous and will have young people going crazy. Of course this is not really true, but it is why they ban it," added Mohamed, a political science student in the capital.
Officially, the home ministry banned the book after it was deemed offensive to Islam, arguing that it contained "elements that could mislead the public", and was "detrimental to public order".
According to Manji's website, the book "shows all of us how to reconcile faith and freedom in a world seething with repressive dogmas." Manji has been a longtime proponent of tolerance and understanding within Islam, and describes herself as a "practicing Muslim".
Government claims monopoly on Islam
Self-described religious blogger and women's rights advocate Ousmane Aziz argues that the banning of the book is about which form of Islam is being discussed in the country. She says that the government wants to be seen as the only promoter of liberal and tolerant Islam in order to "win votes".
"It's about sending a message," she begins, "and that message is that the government and its party own the rights to moderate Islam. They talk to the world about how open and tolerant Malaysian Islam is, but at the end of the day, censorship is running rampant in the country."
Aziz refers to popular cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, or Zunar, who has faced the heavy hand of the state in recent years. "He is an inspiration to us young people against the government trying to end our freedom to speak out on issues we think are important." Zunar has been intensely watched by the Malaysian government and subject to draconian forms of censorship for close to 10 years.
In 2010, he was arrested and detained and all the newspapers in the country were ordered to not publish his cartoons. Zunar fought back by publishing five volumes of his cartoons in a booklet format so that the Malaysian public could view them, aside the big newspaper market.
But the books were seized by the government and publishers, too, had been told to not publish Zunar's work. In addition, his office is constantly raided, dozens of his books have been confiscated by police, and vendors are told not to sell his books or they could face court charges. His movement is monitored and his phone is tapped.
In July 2011, Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) presented its annual Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning to Zunar. In his acceptance speech in Florida, he said his cartoons have covered "corrupt practice by the Prime Minister and his cabinet members, the murder of the Mongolian model by the name of Altantuya, the conspiracy against Anwar Ibrahim, the domination of the Prime Minister's wife, the Scorpene submarine scandal, and waste of public funds."
"Why pinch when you can punch!"
Zunar explained that the government controls all the newspapers and television and radio broadcasts, leaving no room for dissent. He said: "My aim is to use cartoons as a weapon to fight corruption and abuse of power by the Malaysian government. Through my cartoons, I highlight very important issues, which have not been reported in the government-controlled media."
He urged everyone to fight injustice. "My philosophy is clear: in order to make an impact, we must do it to the fullest. My method is to criticize the most powerful leaders in the hardest ways. Why pinch when you can punch!"
For young people like Mohamed and Aziz, the idea of fighting back is part of their struggle, which is why both of these youths have purchased, illegally, Manji's book and hope to keep the fight, for Islam and against government censorship, moving forward.
"We have to keep fighting or else Malaysia will not be a free country for all its people. Views we don't like or agree with deserve a place in the dialogue," says Aziz.
© Qantara.de 2012
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de