Irshad Manji’s book was not, by any stretch of imagination, a book of religious instruction, writes Zaid Ibrahim

As always Zaid Ibrahim continues to fascinate us with his arguments. Here is his latest blog post which will certainly stimulate your thoughts. He tells us:

My son Ezra loves books. Even in primary school he was already reading books on a wide range of subjects. When he graduated, I suggested to him that we should start a small publishing company to put out books that we both liked, and he took up the challenge with gusto.

It started with my own books but later we expanded to other titles. One day, he asked me if he could publish a translation of the Canadian author Irshad Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love.

Ezra_with_bookThis book – a bestseller in Canada – isn’t about religious instruction or Islamic law. It’s just a simple book about what the author believes the essence of Islam is all about: love, freedom and liberty.

Allah, Liberty and Love had not been banned in Malaysia – anyone could buy the English version at Borders – so I said “yes, let’s go ahead,” hoping that we could make some money in the process.

We did not expect the Selangor Islamic Religious Department’s raid three years ago and the confiscation of the Malay translation of the book.  It did not occur to me that translating a book—that was not a religious book as such—could result in the prosecution of my son.

Ezra was charged under Section 16 of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Selangor) Enactment 1995. The section prohibits any person from publishing any book, document or any other form of record containing anything contrary to Islamic law. In fact, in the title of the Section, the Act uses the phrase “religious publication contrary to Islamic law” to indicate that the crux of the prohibition.

Irshad Manji’s book was not, by any stretch of imagination, a book of religious instruction. It was just a book about her personal reflections on Islam and life as a Muslim.

We thought the civil courts would see the injustice done to Ezra, who was just translating a book that was already freely available in the country. There was no law that said we should let the religious department first read the book and approve it before we could translate it.

We were naïve to think that the Federal Court would protect our basic freedom to publish a book that was legally available for sale in the country, but after yesterday’s decision it’s clear to all Muslims in the country that fundamental  liberties in the Constitution mean nothing if you are Muslim.

I respectfully submit that, in their judgment yesterday, the learned justices of the Federal Court appeared more concerned with determining the limits of freedom, and with establishing that Malaysia was an Islamic country by virtue of Constitutional provisions for the religion of the Federation.

The learned judges kept alluding to Article 121(1A) of the Constitution, which they said precluded them from interfering with the decision of the religious department. They thus concluded that the Selangor Islamic Religious Department had the power to prosecute offences under Section 16 of the 1995 Enactment without even determining if Irshad Manji’s book was in fact concerned with religious instruction.

As such, the court did not see it as its business to determine if the Selangor Islamic Religious Department had properly applied the law or whether the charge itself was properly conceived.

In other words, to ordinary people like us, it appears that if we are seeking justice in the civil courts for any transgressions in the Shariah court or the conduct of any religious department, we can forget it.

These religious departments are immune to the scrutiny of our civil judges because, according to the civil court, we are an Islamic country, and because of Article 121(1A) of the Constitution, and so on and so forth.

So where do we go from here? We must now try and see if the Pakatan leaders who are administering the state of Selangor are willing to look into the matter.

Will Azmin Ali and his Exco dare to do justice in the case by telling the Selangor Islamic Religious Department that Section 16 is a prohibition only on publishing matters regarding religious instruction — and not any ordinary book?

Will they prevail on the Department to spare Ezra prosecution? Will the DAP, which champions freedom, liberty and fundamental rights, say and do something for justice in this case?

I have grave doubts that anything like the above will take place; but let’s see if miracles happen.


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