Friday, July 21, 2006

Afghanistan: The return of the religious police.

Date: Friday 21 July 2006
Subj: Afghanistan: The return of the religious police.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.


When Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, strict conservative Islamic practice and values were enforced by the religious police of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. This force, famous for beating women, destroying art and turning executions into spectator sport, was disbanded after the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Now however this department is being reinstated by President Hamid Karzai's government.

WAR FOR AFGHANISTAN BEING FOUGHT ON TWO FRONTS

There are two battles raging in Afghanistan: the battle between the US and allied forces against a resurgent Taliban; and the battle between Afghanistan's hard-line Islamist conservatives and reformist West-leaning moderates. Taliban military advances, Afghan (mostly Taliban) deaths at the hands of "infidel" forces, and Taliban propaganda against the "apostate government" of "US-puppet" President Hamid Karzai, are all playing into the hands of the hard-line Islamist conservative forces.

The reality is that the government is only one of many power groups in the nation. The government does not control anything much outside Kabul. The countryside is politically fragmented and controlled by warlords who fight either with the Taliban or against them according to their own interests at any time. American military might is not the primary weapon against the Taliban. America has only about one-tenth of the troop numbers that the Soviets did when they failed to pacify the mujahideen. Rather it has been America's ability to manipulate and buy the co-operation and allegiance of the warlords.

But, as Stratfor Intelligence comments: "As Taliban power increases, the willingness of regional warlords to collaborate with the government and the United States decreases. No one wants to be caught on the wrong side of a war in that country." (Stratfor 19 May)

Reflecting the political difficulty caused by Afghan deaths, Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently called on the international community to re-evaluate its strategy regarding the war on terrorism, saying the death of hundreds of Afghans in fighting with coalition troops is "not acceptable". According to Stratfor Intelligence Karzai told a news conference in Kabul, "I strongly believe ... we must engage strategically in disarming terrorism by stopping their sources of supply of money, training, equipment and motivation." This, while both logical and strategic, would also shift the focus of the war on terror to Pakistan. Karzai added that even if the approximately 600 people killed in Afghanistan over the past month are Taliban, "they are sons of this land". (Stratfor 23 June)

TALIBANISATION

In a clear sign that Afghanistan's reformist moderates are drastically lacking support and struggling for political survival, President Karzai's Cabinet has approved a proposal from the government-appointed council of Muslim clerics to reinstate the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The Pak Tribune (Pakistan News Service) notes: "Although crackdowns on forms of expression deemed un-Islamic have generally come from the courts, and although conservative Islamists are currently the main block in Parliament, this initiative came from the President's recently approved Cabinet." The decision was clearly made for short-term political gain but the long-term implications for Afghanistan are deeply worrying.

Tom Coghlan reports from Kabul for The Independent: "The Afghan government has alarmed human rights groups by approving a plan to reintroduce a Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the body which the Taliban used to enforce its extreme religious doctrine.

"The proposal, which came from the country's Ulema council of clerics, has been passed by the cabinet of President Hamid Karzai and will now go before the Afghan parliament." (Link 1)

Coghlan quotes the Minister for Haj and Religious Affairs, Nematullah Shahrani, who says, "The job of the department will be to tell people what is allowable and what is forbidden in Islam. In practical terms it will be quite different from Taliban times. We will preach ... through radio, television and special gatherings."

According to Coglan, Shahrani denied that the department would have police powers but said it would oppose the proliferation of alcohol and drugs and speak out against terrorism, crime and corruption, adding that it would also encourage people to behave in more Islamic
ays.

Likewise, the Deputy Minister for Haj and Religious Affairs Ghazi Suleiman Hamed assured Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's (RFE/RL) Radio Free Afghanistan that the new department will be quite different from the one run by the Taliban. He said there would be no violent punishment, only education, preaching, and encouragement to help move people towards God. (Link 2)

The assurances of moderation provide little comfort to multitudes of Afghan citizens who have traumatic memories of Taliban repression and violence. Likewise, analysts and human rights groups have expressed great concern that the new Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice could become a force of political and religious oppression in the guise of protecting Islamic values. The crimes the department will allegedly focus on, such as alcohol and prostitution, are already covered under criminal law. There is also drastic shortage of safeguards, and the definition of virtue is vague and open to interpretation.

Coglan reports that while Western diplomats have reacted with unease to the proposal, several told The Independent that they believed the move was partly designed to defuse Taliban propaganda which accuses the Karzai government of being un-Islamic.

Coglan writes, "With the Taliban making considerable gains in the south the Karzai government has been keen to establish a more conservative Islamic profile and to appear more critical of Western military operations."

Legislator Shukria Barekzai told RFE/RL that it was not clear when the parliament would debate and consider the proposal. However, she believes there is no need for such a department unless it commits to fighting bureaucratic corruption. Likewise MP Ahmad Behzad told AFP that he believed there was no need for such a department. "This decision was made under extreme pressure from religious groups — a return to Taleban rule is impossible but some circles are trying to lead Afghanistan towards Talebanisation. To preach virtue is cultural work — through the media, papers and other means." According to the AFP the Taliban are waging a growing insurgency "with a sophisticated propaganda campaign that includes condemning the government's foreign allies as anti-Islamic 'infidels' who are undermining the country's morality". (Link 3)

Mohamed Asif Nang, the spokesman for parliamentary affairs, told Reuters he did not know when parliament would debate the proposal, but if parliament decided to set the force up again, it would also determine its duties. (Reuters 16 July 2006)

The Afghan Parliament reconvenes at the end of July.

Elizabeth Kendal

Links

1) Fury as Karzai plans return of Taliban's religious police
By Tom Coghlan in Kabul, 17 July 2006
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article1181612.ece

2) Afghanistan: Proposal To Create Morality Department Causes Concern
PRAGUE, 18 July 2006 (RFE/RL)
http://www.azadiradio.org/en/news/2006/07/12E5F422-DFD8-42FC-A25D-5984C96EC3B2.ASP

3) Alarm over govt's move to set up Taleban-like 'vice squad'
AFP 19 July 2006

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Malaysia bans more books deemed prejudicial to public order.

Date: Thursday 13 July 2006
Subj: Malaysia bans more books deemed prejudicial to public order.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.


Once again, Malaysia's Internal Security Ministry has used the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984 to ban books on religion. The banned titles are books that critique Islam and books that assist in Christian witness to Muslims. Many are international best sellers and have been in circulation, including in Malaysia, for many years. They are banned on the grounds that the Internal Security Ministry has deemed them prejudicial to public order. In reality however, the only members of the public likely to be provoked by these books are apostaphobic Islamists who rely on repression because they are threatened by public debate and public access to alternatives. That the government should pander to this element in this way is very disturbing.

--------------------------------------------

In early April 2003 the Malaysian Home Ministry (KDN) banned 35 books that they considered detrimental to public peace. Twelve of these were Christian books, eleven of which were in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. The twelfth was a translation of the Bible in Iban, the language of the Iban people of Sarawak. Amongst the banned titles were translated works by J I Packer and John R W Stott. After much prayer and advocacy, and a meeting between Malaysian Christian leaders and Acting Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the ban on the Iban-language Bible was lifted.

Then in April 2005 the Malaysian government banned eleven more titles dealing with religious topics on the grounds that they were "detrimental to public order". The books included: "Great Religions of the World" (published by National Geographic and in circulation for more than 30 years), "The Word of Islam" Edited by John Alden Williams, "A History of God" and "Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet" both by Karen Armstrong, "The Cross and the Crescent" by Phil Parshall, and "Women and Islam" by Fatima Mernissi (a Moroccan feminist). (For full list see Link 1)

Malaysia's Democratic Alliance Party called for an explanation, saying "Simply stating that the publications are detrimental to public order without justifying how they are so is plainly unacceptable. The decision of the Ministry to ban the books concerned is clearly retrogressive and does not square with the government's aspiration of creating a knowledge based society, especially in the present information technology era where people should have the fundamental freedom of access to information; not only information which the governing authorities deem appropriate." (Link 2)

In early June 2006, a further eighteen books on religious topics were banned on the grounds that they could disrupt public peace and harmony. Under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, all forms of reproduction or distribution of these books are thereby banned. Six of the titles are in Malay language and the rest are in English.

The newly banned titles include: "Lifting the Veil" by Trudie Crawford, "A Fundamental Fear of Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism" by Bobby S Sayyid, "Islam Revealed - A Christian Arab's View of Islam" by Dr Anis A Shorrosh, "What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam" by John L Esposito, "Sharing Your Faith with A Muslim" by Akbidayah Akbar Abdul-Haqq, "The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam" by Karen Armstrong, and "Mini Skirts Mothers & Muslims" by Christine Mallouhi. Amongst the Malaysian language titles are two works by critic Kassim Ahmad, whose book, "Hadith: A Re-evaluation", challenges the infallibility of the Hadith, the purported words of Muhammad. (For full list see Link 3)

"THE SPACE FOR DISCOURSE IS NARROWING"

On 4 July the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) reported, "The Kuala Lumpur-based women's rights group Sisters-in-Islam is protesting the ministry's decision. 'We are particularly concerned over the increasing number of books on Islam and religion that are being banned,' the group said in an appeal to be sent to the ministry. 'The space for discourse is narrowing and Malaysian readers are being deprived of ideas and debates by renowned scholars and writers, published by reputable institutions such as the Oxford University Press.'

"Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is walking a tightrope between ensuring open discussions about liberalism and pluralism in Islam, and maintaining a strong political base among Muslim conservatives." (Link 4)

While PM Badawi is walking his tightrope, he is being pulled to each side by opposing forces. In reality, he needs to choose which side to jump into before he and his coalition are torn apart.

ARTICLE 19 (http://www.article19.org), an international human rights organisation which defends and promotes freedom of expression and freedom of information all over the world (the name comes from Article 19 of the UDHR) has strongly condemned the Malaysian government over the book bans.

In its 10 July press release ARTICLE 19 stated, "Any restriction on freedom of expression must be the least restrictive means possible to protect a legitimate interest, and must be carefully tailored to effectively protect that interest." ARTICLE 19 maintains that the bans violate international standards governing the right to freedom of expression. However, ARTICLE 19 also notes, "Malaysia is one of the few countries around the world which has not signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which under Article 19 guarantees freedom of expression and access to information." (Link 5)

New Straits Times columnist Syed Nadzri lamented the ban on books and strict regulation of local television, saying it is antithetical to the whole notion of "openness and transparency" as is often bandied about by the Abdullah administration. (Link 6)

Elizabeth Kendal

Links

1) Banning Books. 12 May 2005
http://thebookaholic.blogspot.com/2005/05/banning-books.html
(This page has links to the banned English titles.)

2) The Internal Security Minister should review and lift the ban on
11 foreign language publications. DAP press release April 2005
http://www.dapmalaysia.org/english/bul/apr05/bul2679.htm (2005)

3) Ministry Bans 18 Books.15 June 2006
http://bernama.com/bernama/v3/news.php?id=203457
http://thebookaholic.blogspot.com/2006/06/more-banned-books.html
(This page contains links to the banned English titles.)

4) Government bans 18 books on Islam. 4 July 2006
http://www.seapabkk.org/newdesign/newsdetail.php?No=489

5) ARTICLE 19 condemns authorities' banning of 18 books for
disrupting peace and harmony. IFEX 11 July 2006
http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/75609/
(original press release from Article 19:
http://www.article19.org/pdfs/press/malaysia-18-books-banned.pdf)

6) Burning concern for democracy and press freedom
4 July 2006. http://www.aliran.com/content/view/86/22/