Lucy Popescu

Irshad Manji

Irshad Manji, a renowned Canadian Muslim writer, is the latest victim to fall foul of the Malaysian government’s practice of banning books under a draconian Printing Presses and Publications Act that allows the Home Affairs Ministry ‘absolute discretion’ to ban books, from possession to reproduction and distribution. Book banning in Malaysia is nothing new. Works by Karen Armstrong, Salman Rushdie, Kahlil Gibran, Irvine Welsh and local authors, such as Faisal Tehrani, Kassim Ahmad, and the cartoonist Zunar, have all been censored in this way.

On 29 May, the Home Affairs Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, officially banned Manji’s book, Allah, Liberty and Love (which deals with the reconciliation of faith and freedom), claiming it is ‘prejudicial to morality and public order’. Two weeks earlier, Manji had arrived in Malaysia to promote the book, but learned that the planned events had been cancelled due to protests and government pressure. Undeterred, she managed to launch Allah, Liberty and Love at an alternative venue in Kuala Lumpur.

According to Human Rights Watch, officers from the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department raided the offices of the Malay-language publisher, ZI Publications, on 29 May with a warrant from an Islamic court. They seized around 180 copies of Manji’s book and arrested the publisher, Ezra Zaid. He was then released on bail and, at the time of writing, is waiting to be charged.

Abu Seman Yusop, the Deputy Home Affairs Minister, has since stated that the book was banned because it ‘is believed to have elements that can deviate Muslims from their faith, Islamic teachings and elements which insulted Islam and has received numerous complaints’. Apparently, a report from the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia had suggested that the book could ‘confuse the public’.

Manji was born in Uganda in 1968 to an Indian father and Egyptian mother, and she experienced repression early on in life. When Idi Amin began his expulsion of Asians, her family was forced to flee, settling in Vancouver. There, she attended both a secular school and a madrasah. According to the account on her website, Manji was kicked out of the madrasah when she was fourteen ‘for asking too many questions’. She studied the history of ideas at the University of British Columbia and went on to work as a legislative aide in the Canadian parliament. She also served as a press secretary in the Ontario government and as a speechwriter for the leader of the New Democratic Party.

Manji has worked extensively in journalism. Aged just twenty-four, she became the national affairs editorial writer for the Ottawa Citizen and thereafter enjoyed a successful career in television, including hosting Citytv’s QueerTelevision, which explored the lives of homosexuals, and TVOntario’s Big Ideas, which covered research in various fields from economics to spirituality.

In 2004, she published her first book, The Trouble with Islam Today, which also proved controversial and was banned in several Muslim states, including Malaysia. The book went on to be published in thirty countries, including Pakistan and Indonesia, and inspired an award-winning documentary, Faith Without Fear, which followed Manji’s attempts to reconcile her faith in Allah with her commitment to free expression and critical debate. The New York Times subsequently called her ‘Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare’.

Now resident in New York, Manji is director of the Moral Courage Project, a ‘global leadership program to help students engage in difficult dialogues about culture, power, justice, responsibility, citizenship and other contentious issues’. She is also a senior fellow of the European Foundation for Democracy, which promotes universal human rights and freedom of conscience.

Indonesia’s Jakarta Post named Manji one of three women contributing to positive change in Islam today, but she also had problems promoting her book in that country, before her visit to Malaysia. Police shut down several events after the Islamic Defenders Front, a hard-line action group, held violent protests and condemned her liberal views on Islam and her homosexuality.

Manji has responded to the Malaysian government’s ban in a public statement, claiming that ‘The irony is that this book makes the case for faith. It empowers readers to reconcile Allah and freedom, showing that Muslims can be independent thinkers and profound believers in a loving God.’

The Centre for Independent Journalism has condemned the authorities’ decision and sent an appeal, co-signed by other civil-society organisations, that noted:

Malaysia as a nation of diverse identities, religions and cultures should embrace and welcome the complex interaction and exchange of ideas that is rapidly expanding in this era of globalisation … the ethics of agreeing to disagree is crucial to ensure mutual respect for diverging ideas and dissenting views.

Readers might like to send appeals urging the Malaysian government to uphold the right to freedom of expression as provided under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and immediately reverse its ban on Irshad Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love, and calling on the authorities to put an end to book banning in order to promote diversity and respect.

Appeals to be addressed to:

His Excellency Datuk Zakaria Bin Sulong
Malaysian High Commission
45–46 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8QT
Fax: 020 7235 5161

Update: Last month members of the Free Zarganar Campaign welcomed the Burmese comedian and performance poet to London (LR, Oct 2008 & Oct 2011). The consortium of human rights and freedom of expression advocates, including PEN, Index on Censorship and Article 19, had campaigned for Zarganar’s release since 2008 when he was imprisoned on a series of trumped-up charges following his outspoken criticism of the government’s response to Cyclone Nargis. Zarganar was released on 12 October 2011, as part of a general amnesty.

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