Categories
Conflict & disaster Society

[2839] Syrian refugees on Jalan Bukit Bintang

Part of Jalan Bukit Bintang has been transformed into a mini-Arab town over the past 5 or 10 years. It has been quite an intriguing trend.

Arab restaurants and tourists are not uncommon along the stretch between the Pavilion and beyond Jalan Raja Chulan. They like Malaysia for various reasons and it is easy to see that they are a wealthy bunch, fitting the general stereotype assigned by the locals to those originating from the Gulf quite nicely.

But in recent weeks, something extraordinary has been happening. I am beginning to spot Arab women and their children begging on the streets on Jalan Bukit Bintang.

The first time I noticed them, I found myself feeling incredulous, feeling that this must have had been some kind of a prank. Many beggars all around the city are linked to some kind of syndicates. Some are manipulating public sentiment for disagreeable personal gains while others are truly desperate in need of help. The prevalence of syndicate-related beggars and the second group of people make me suspicious of these Arab beggars.

But yesterday, I spotted a woman in her black purdah without a face veil sitting on the floor just outside the newly renovated Isetan store in Lot 10. He held a small placard, telling passerby that she was from Syria and she needed money.

I do not how true her claim is but my heart melted nonetheless.

 

Categories
Conflict & disaster Society

[2823] It is wrong to say ISIS has nothing to do with Islam

As an individualist, I do not condemn a whole community for wrongs of the few. I do not subscribe to collective blaming for individual crimes. Each person is responsible for his or her action. In the context of terror acts frequently committed by Islamic extremists these days, I would not ask a random Muslim to apologize for killings done by his coreligionists located thousands of miles away. To make such demand is just dumb.

It is dumb because Islam as practiced all over is diverse and its interpretation varies from group to group. The interpretations range from puritan to liberal, from medieval to modern, from mystical to logical. One interpretation can even be hostile to the other, making the act of blaming one side for the other’s violence as nonsensical.

The same diversity makes it wrong to claim ISIS and all of its terror acts done in the name of the Islamic god has nothing to do with the religion. As if there is one true Islam and only those Muslims subscribe to it. On the contrary, ISIS has everything to do with the religion.

There is no one Islam anymore. However strongly many Muslims would want to stress on the unity of the religion, the truth is that the successful proliferation of Islam beyond Arabia is due to its ability to absorb local beliefs, among other things. Its syncretic nature gives rise to its diversity.

All Muslims share several core tenets but that does not make all Islams as the same. The nature, the nuance, the outlook and the way of life of a Malaysian Muslim is very different from that living in the Middle East. Even within Malaysia, the general Islam experienced in Kuala Lumpur is very different from that in Kota Bahru.

War did advance Islam but war alone could not guarantee lasting belief. The religion had to be tolerant of some local practices to entice and keep people to its side. You could observe the result of the syncretism among the Malays in Malaysia. Traditional Malay wedding ceremony for instance has hints of Hindu influence. The Malays after all, were largely Hindus, Buddhists and animists before the arrival of Islam in the 1100s-1400s to Southeast Asia. Archipelagic Islam developed based on that old Malay (and others like the Javanese) foundation. Post-independence nation state context further influences the interpretation and practice of Islam in Malaysia and elsewhere in the region, that the state used religion to promote nationalism. Brunei is the other example where religion is a subservient tool of nationalism.

The idea that there is one Islam is not only untrue across geography. It is also untrue across time. Karen Armstrong in her book A History of God shows that early Muslims believed they were part of the Christian community. While mainstream Muslims today accept all of the Christian prophets, they do not consider themselves as Christians. Early Muslims did not share such a strong distinction. A separate Islamic identity developed only after the hijra. Indeed, before meeting the Medina Jews, Muhammad thought Christians and Jews were of the same belief and Islam was merely renewing the two religions that came from the same god. The conflation between Christianity and Judaism would not have been a mistake if Muhammad had lived centuries earlier when Jesus was preaching. Armstrong demonstrated that early Christians thought they were Jewish in religious terms and that they themselves thought they were renewing the religion of Moses.

Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms chronicling the old communities of the Middle East shows how minor religions like the Mandaenism sprung out of the Abrahamic beliefs by holding on to dogmas modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam now reject. Apart from the rejected beliefs, these minor religions are or were similar in so many ways to the major three faiths. These minorities are fossils from the days when the three world’s religions were rapidly evaluating their creeds and figuring out what worked and what did not. They are the living proofs that religion evolves over time, just as dinosaur fossils are proof that the Earth is older than 4,000 years.

All religions evolve and adapt to time, geography and culture and whatever other secular forces.

The one Islam may exist as a Platonic idealism but that model is irrelevant to the material world. The Islam that matters are the practical ones: the interpreted ones.

And so I do disagree with the claim that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. ISIS’s is a disagreeable brand of Islam but it is a brand of Islam nonetheless. It is a brutal brand as a reaction to the disastrous 2000s war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

There is a parallel to this. A harsh puritan form of Islam appeared after the massacre and the razing of Baghdad in the 1200s-1300s by the Mongols. That Islam sought to return the religion to the early Meccan and Medinan days, rejecting intellectual progress achieved in the previous 700 years that made Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus the great capitals of the world during its times.

There is a Muslim tradition that leads to ISIS. That post-Mongol puritan Islam as rationalized by Ibn Taymiyyah informed modern day wahabbism and the salafism, which in turned influenced ISIS.

We should go further and explain why ISIS’s interpretation is so problematic. Their interpretation is that theirs is the true form and everybody else’s is false. ISIS believes theirs is the one true Islam while rejecting the diversity that exists in the religion.

That similarity, between ISIS and those who claim ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, amuses me. Both sides build their argument that their version is the one true Islam.

That logic shared by the two parties is not merely a source of amusing coincidence unfortunately. There is something more sinister about it.

Because there is only one true interpretation, then there is only one way of doing things and everything else is wrong. The religious diversity is rejected altogether. The magic word here is puralism. The corrupt Malaysian state is also guilty of this by politicizing Islam to legitimize its increasingly undemocratic hold to power, that the state is the guardian of the supposedly Platonic Islam. To add to the sense that the religion is being manipulated, I should write, the guardian of Platonic Malaysian Islam.

From where I stand, I feel the difference between the two sides is only a matter of degrees of intolerance and coercive force. I would not be shocked if it really about the ability to exert coercion for a large minority in Malaysia. After all, did a survey last year not show 11% of Malaysian Muslims sympathize with ISIS?[1]

And this is a problem. When you want to fight ISIS yet you share the same intolerance however different the degree is, your fight is logically unconvincing and turns out into choosing the lesser of the two evils.

Sometimes, we can reject all evils.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — See In nations with significant Muslim populations, much disdain for ISIS. November 17 2015.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

p/s — Tolerance to diversity itself does not make ISIS okay. There are other values more important that blind diversity, like individual rights.

Categories
Conflict & disaster Economics Society

[2812] Government failure causes bauxite vigilantism

Powder kegs that are too close to the fire. That is the situation in Kuantan right now.

Local residents frustrated by the rampant bauxite pollution are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Threats have been made and carried out. Trucks carrying the mineral burned by the angry mob. Vigilantism is on the rise.

Vigilante justice is always worrying but it is hard to blame the local residents for resorting to it. When non-violent ways failed to address their grievances, they are left with less than desirable devices. Like it or not, vigilantism is a solution available when the typical mechanisms ”• market and government ”• are not working.

The free market usually provides robust solutions to a myriad of problems big and small. But such a market does not exist magically out of nothing. It is a human institution running on implicit human rules arising from our daily interactions with other fellow beings. As with any human creation, it can be imperfect. At times it can fail disastrously.

The market will disappoint the strongest supporters of the laissez-faire approach when too much of profits are privatized while too much of costs are passed on to the public with impunity. In economic jargon, that cost is called negative externality.

The tragedy of the commons is the oft-cited theoretical example of market failure involving extreme externality. Without any intervention to correct the misaligned private and public incentives, the benefits will be exhausted and the commons will collapse.

The negative effects of climate change are examples of market failure of global proportions.

Closer to home, I would submit the massive bauxite pollution in Kuantan, Pahang as a disturbing local case. The miners and the landowners reap their windfall profits but the rest bears the cost of the pollution.

Heavy red dust now contaminates the local air and water supply and that creates severe health threats to residents. One can only imagine the fate of whatever wildlife left in the plantations where the topsoil has been removed to feed China’s ferocious appetite for more bauxite.

When the market fails, then it is the responsibility of the government to step in and realign the diverging private and public incentives to produce a better outcome for both sides.

The typical solution involves taxing mining activities heavily, imposing strict production quotas or regulating the industry tightly in some ways to force the beneficiaries to take into account the disregarded general welfare.

But from the very beginning when the mining began, the government at the Pahang state level is not doing its job as the industry regulator and as the guardian of public welfare. Not enough has been done to correct the market failure. By definition, that is government failure.

Factors contributing to market failure mostly are innocent despite the grave consequences as it usually involves people minding their own legitimate business. It is always the government’s job to understand those businesses so that if there is any negative externality or conflict, then the authorities can come in and arbitrate any dispute. Any libertarian mindful of market failure will take this as one of the major roles of government.

In contrast ”• if it is not incompetence or inadequate powers ”• government failure is almost always about conflict of interest. In the case of Kuantan, it does seem like yet another case of conflict of interest.

For one, reports suggest the Pahang state government received more than RM37 million in revenue last year from bauxite mining. That figure will increase significantly once the state government doubles its current tariff rate on production to RM8 per ton.

The sum is significant for a government with a budgeted spending close to RM900 million in 2015. In a country where the concept of separation of powers is weak, the state’s fiscal interest can be hard to overcome.

But more troublingly, there are pictures circulating on the Internet, creating the allegations that some of the landowners enjoying the modern day gold rush are quite influential and close to the state government.

Information from the Internet may be wrong. While the local media has done a good job at reporting the impact of the pollution, not too many are investigating the identity of the landowners and the miners. Perhaps that is the cost of the culture of fear we have in Malaysia. Public welfare is suffering from gross disrespect for free press.

The federal government has come in to suspend the mining activities temporarily to order to study whether any environmental law has been breached. It is unclear if the suspension will mean anything or even be effective but one thing is certain: the issue falls firmly within the ambit of the state while the federal government is even more reluctant to do anything conclusive especially since Pahang is the political base of the prime minister. With so many troubles in other states, would he risk the ire of local politicians to do the right thing?

These are disheartening facts. Unless the conflict of interest is addressed strongly, the state and the federal government will likely continue to do too little, thus guaranteeing the continuing government and market failures.

I fear, at the rate we are going, the whole episode will lead to a period of persistent vigilantism. Down that slope ”• however far down the slope is ”• is a general breakdown in law and order. Miners are already employing thugs to protect the trucks from vigilantism. That sounds awfully close to anarchy.

But then again, does law and order mean anything these days? When the top leadership has no moral authority, will the so-called Little Napoleons down the line be impressed by any necessary directive from the top?

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on January 5 2015.

Categories
Conflict & disaster Photography Society

[2806] Do not blame the innocent refugees

This was back in 2011 in Paris. I was there at the height of the Arab Spring and also interestingly, during the emergence of French far-right parties in mainstream politics.

20110129Paris

I do not have much or anything new to say. It is late here in Kuala Lumpur, six or seven hours ahead of Paris. Yet, I still want to express my opinion that we should not discriminate or blame the innocent refugees for the horrible acts committed today in Paris by a group of Islamist terrorists.

I am angry at the attack and I am sure a lot of others do, especially in Paris. The senseless killing is outrageous whatever the excuse. But I am also angry at the mistrust the attack is creating everywhere.

I am disgusted reading responses from right-wingers who somehow think the refugees from Syria and elsewhere from the Arab world as causing of the Paris attack. The right-wing xenophobic policy recommendation is to stop the refugees from coming in.

But as many have highlighted, these refugees are running away from the same barbaric Islamic State which attacked the civilians in Paris today. These refugees are civilians too and they are as much a victim as Parisians.

The right way is to direct the anger towards the Islamic State, and not at the innocents who just happen to share, nominally if I might add, the same religion at the attackers.

Categories
Conflict & disaster Politics & government Society

[2776] The excuse for doing nothing

I had a short consulting stint once long ago with a small firm. I think I can say that a lot of consultants like sexy terms but the one phrase that comes to my mind today is ”analysis paralysis”: the analysis goes on and on in an infinite loop, leaving no space for action at all.

Analysis paralysis is becoming an excuse to do nothing as we face a refugee crisis in the Andaman Sea. Since the crisis is complex, there are so many questions begging an answer.

Should we let them in? Where would we house them in Malaysia if we do? How long should they stay? Should Malaysia bear the cost alone? Should they be allowed to work in Malaysia? Should someone else take them later? Should we not put pressure on Myanmar to stop persecuting the Rohingyas, to accept the Rohingyas as equal and thus address the issue at its root cause? Would more come if we let the refugees reach our northern shores? Are most of them legitimate refugees? How do we get to the smugglers? How do we prevent this from snowballing?

Not all answers are forthcoming. As a layperson, I definitely do not have the answers. Even those in power struggle to provide any.

In the absence of clear answers, shamefully our default action is doing nothing except for turning the boats back to the open sea. Casually reading the news, we know that there are deaths as governments stand still with doors shut. They have nowhere to go as their food and water supply dwindle.

Our own government is under pressure to open up but sadly they can take heart from some members of public — be they columnists, letter writers, activists or just a voice on the internet — suffering from analysis paralysis. They want all the questions to be answered first before we do anything else beyond turning the boats away, leaving the weak and the oppressed to the sharks.

How long it will take to answer the questions, nobody knows. These Malaysians, paralyzed by questions, are so afraid of making mistakes that they must have their certainties. Do not be emotional, they would say. ”Think, think!” shout the Vulcan-wannabes, effectively telling the government to stay on course.

The truth is that there will be nothing to think about when all the refugees die. Solutions that come too late are no solution at all. So I charge these Malaysians as lacking urgency.

They are those in the exam halls wanting all the time in the world to complete their papers. Think however much you want. Take your time. But when the time is up and the sheet is empty, you will get an F.

We are a relatively rich country, even as the corrupt powers that be brew their financial scandals in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, even as we have poor of our own. And we are perpetually in need of workers. Our country is young and we need all the manpower to build our infrastructure. We can afford to have the refugees in while we find a solution to the mess.

But I feel the issue is never about money. Instead, we are short on humanity.

All of that analysis paralysis is just a way to hide our heartlessness.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on May 21 2015.