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Banning of the Book on “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism”

On 14 August 2008, Bernama and other media organisations announced that the Ministry of Home Affairs had banned two books, namely, “Pelik Tapi Benar Dalam Solat”, by Ustaz Abdul Rahman Mohamed, published by Telaga Biru Sdn Bhd, and another entitled, “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism”, edited by Norani Othman, published by Sisters in Islam, Petaling Jaya and printed by Vinlin Press Bandar Baru Seri Petaling.

The announcement was made by the Publications and Quranic Texts Control Division principal assistant secretary, Abdul Razak Abdul Latif, who said that the book was banned for “containing twisted facts on Islam that could undermine the faith of Muslims. It came with a prohibition order under Section 7(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and if any individuals found to be in possession, do reprints, or distribute the publications, they will be jailed not more than three years or fine not more than RM 20,000 or both. (Bernama, 14 August 2008)

Sisters in Islam (SIS) is deeply concerned with the manner in which the allegations were made against the publication. It is equally disturbing to note that when such accusations were made, Sisters in Islam as the publisher, received no prior notification, nor was there any formal or direct communication by either the Ministry of Home Affairs or by the Publications and Quranic Texts Control Division. It was only when SIS called up the Ministry of Home Affairs on 15 August 2008 that eventually a letter was faxed to us, dated 14 August 2008, informing us of our banned book.

SIS, therefore, calls this press conference with the intention to explain to the public the issues at stake.

The 215-page book has ten well-researched and academic chapters. The book is an outcome of several discussions and meetings among Muslim women’s groups from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The writers include Norani Othman, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Fatma Khafagy, Kamala Chandrakirana, Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, Zainah Anwar, the late Zaitun Mohamad Kasim, Suzaina Kadir, Norma A. Maruhom, Fatima Pir T. Allian, and many more well-known women activists and academicians, who have persistently championed the rights of Muslim women for more than a decade. The works of these women need to be recognised, shared and made accessible to all.

The issues raised in the banned book evolved around the lived experiences and realities of Muslim women around the world, the impact of fundamentalist Muslim movements on women’s rights, the role of the state in managing the process of Islamisation, and the alternative strategies used by various women’s movement in their attempts to build bridges when confronting global politics, growth of religious fundamentalism in modern day society. This book explored and discussed how women’s groups, not only for Muslims but people from other faiths, can come together to identify the different areas of their lives, where network, cooperation, and solidarity can be strengthen and built upon as contemporary women stake their claims for their rights, justice and equality, principles that are pivotal in the Quran.

In pursuit of our commitment to open more spaces for intellectual debate and discourses, SIS had specially invited the editor of the book Professor Norani Othman to provide us all with an overview and analysis of the challenges facing us today.

Here, we must also stress that the banning of the SIS book is not our first experience – it is our third book. Fiqh Wanita: Pendangan Ulama Terhadap Wacana Agama dan Gender, written by KH Husein Muhammad was banned in 2007. Another book which SIS helped to distribute Qur’an and Women: Rereading the Sacred Text From A Woman’s Perspective by Amina Wadud (Oxford University Press, New York), was banned in 2008.

Other similar books by esteemed authors, which could enrich the Islamic discourse on Islam were also banned, such as What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John L Esposito; The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and Muhamad: A Biography of the Prophet, both by Karen Armstrong; Women and Islam by Fatima Mernissi; and many more.

Criteria and guidelines on which the ban is made are unclear, not communicated and there was no discussion or consultation with the authors or publishers as to the basis of the objection against the publications. In the case of SIS, the explanation that we received from the Ministry of Home Affairs was brief and gives no indication as to why and how our book “menyentuh kesucian Islam, mempropagandakan akidah, hukum dan ajaran yang bercanggah dengan Mazhab Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah serta bertentangan dengan fatwa atau pendapat Jumhur Uama’ dan menimbulkan keraguan dan kegelisahan awam”.

Without forwarding to the publisher or the author further detail explanation for their action, it will only make one wonder whether the authorities may have something to hide or that they are submitting themselves to unfathomable prejudices or simply they have not yet read the book. Not giving full explanation will only place a blot on democracy.

Ignorance is never bliss. By narrowing the space for open dialogue among citizens and squashing their quest for information and to read, the government’s act can be deemed as “promoting Jahiliah” as it will push us into a more suppressed world where we will blindly follow with no questions asked, lest it disrupts our small worldview, as the Malay proverb says “mempunyai pandang dunia seperti katak di bawah tempurong”. It certainly does not garner well for freedom of information as protected under our Federal Constitution.

Sisters in Islam recommend that the Ministry of Home Affairs:

  1. Must provide adequate and detailed explanations of their action which should indicate the specific parts of the book that have for example “menyentuh kesucian Islam;
  2. Must indicate their reasons why and how the book has violated the Printing and Presses Act, 1984 Section 7 (1) which resulted in the Ministry memutuskan penerbitan ini sebagai penerbitan tak diingini dan dikenakan Perintah Larangan melalui Warta Kerajaan P.U. (A) 261 bertarikh 31 Julai 2008;
  3. If failed to do the above (1) and (2), must immediately revoke the ban on SIS book’ Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, edited by Professor Norani Othman;
  4. Must conduct a review of all banned books and to immediately release all those books that have been banned unjustly; and
  5. Must make available to all the full set of guidelines and criteria on the production, distribution and use of publications.

Sisters in Islam also take this opportunity to announce its No Book Banning Campaign and officially launch its postcard campaign to stop books from being banned in Malaysia.

Sisters in Islam
19 August 2008