Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Don’t Be Afraid of Open Debate

Brave New World (The Star)
21 February 2008

Ideas are meant to be put through the crucible of debate; otherwise, they will never develop and never change."


Last week, it was announced that our next general election would be on March 8. About two weeks ago, 11 books were banned. Both things are related because they both are about the ability of Malaysians to make a choice.

And freedom, ultimately, is about the ability to make choices.

The 11 banned books are all about Islam. Some are arguments against Islam and some are what have been dubbed “liberal” interpretations of Islam.

Of all these books, I have read only one and that is Islam & Pluralisme. It is a collection of essays translated and edited by Al-Mustaqeem Mahmood Radhi.

Personally, I found the essays fascinating. They generally argue that pluralism exists in Islam and this can be seen in Quranic verses as well as in the actions of the Prophet Mohamed.

The underlying principle of those who support pluralism is the acceptance that all religions at their heart attempt to bring their followers closer to God.

With this as a core idea, it follows that all faiths must be given equal respect. This is an ideology of peace. It is an ideology of understanding and inclusiveness. It is the antithesis of exclusivity and arrogant bigotry.

It escapes me how a book that proposes such ideals can be banned. The only conclusion I can come to is that those in authority disagree with pluralism and they want to make sure that the Malaysian public are not privy to any arguments for it.

It boils down to what is basically the tyranny of thought: we disagree with these ideas and we will jolly well do all in our power to prevent you from reading about them.

Obviously, this stand against pluralism has its roots in dogma and, equally obviously, those who want the book banned are of the opinion that pluralism, or at least pluralism as suggested by this book, is un-Islamic.

It is their right to hold such an opinion, but to deny citizens the freedom to explore other opinions is not only authoritarian; it is also an insult to the intelligence of Malaysians.

Ideas are meant to be put through the crucible of debate; otherwise, they will never develop and never change. And the stagnation of ideas will ultimately mean the stagnation of human progress. This is why the banning of books is so destructive.

Regardless of what these books may contain, no matter how vile one feels their contents are, the only way to oppose it is by intelligent debate.

If an idea is bad, destroy it intellectually, or risk seeing it grow silently underground. And if you can’t destroy it intellectually, then perhaps it is time to re-examine your own world-view.

At the end of the day, banning books is stealing from us the right to make informed choices. Informed choices are also what elections are about.

Without the necessary information on all the political parties and candidates being made available to the voters, without full disclosure of the incumbent government’s record being done, elections become farcical.

Thank heavens for the Internet. It has given an avenue for Net-linked citizens to find out about events and ideas that may not be available in the more traditional media.

However, those who do not have access to cyberspace are still beholden to the usual sources of information. And these sources are in turn beholden to the incumbent government through restrictive laws (coincidentally the same laws that are used to ban books).

We are a democracy, true enough, but we are an infantile democracy. And the primary reason for this puerile state of affairs is mainly the lack of truly open debate in politics.

This, coupled with general cynicism about issues such as gerrymandering, has led to many citizens being totally disdainful of the entire election process. Personally, I think this is a defeatist view and I shall be voting in this election if I am able.

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