Challenging Book-banning Efforts in Malaysia

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A struggle is on the rise in Malaysia, challenging efforts by Muslim authorities to ban books they feel are opposed to Islam.

A trial in a Shariah court has been scheduled in Kuala Lumpur for Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, a 36-year-old Malay woman. A Muslim, she’s not a writer. She works for a Borders Books shop. But she’s “charged with distributing a book that’s offensive to Islam, even though her job doesn’t involve choosing the books for the store or stacking the shelves. Due in court on Tuesday, she faces not only the prospect of a 3,000 ringgit fine ($1,000) and a two-year jail term, but a criminal record,” according to Al Jazeera journalist Kate Mayberry.

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In May, three officers from the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department basically raided the bookstore along with 20 other men, peacefully milling through the store, recording photos with their mobile phones. Then they asked if the store was selling Allah, Liberty and Love by New York-based Canadian academic Irshad Manji. It was.

The investigators cited Nik Raina because she was the highest ranking Muslim in the store, its manager, though with no say-so over the book and its distribution.

Mayberry explains in her feature story:

With its Muslim Malay majority and large communities of non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and indigenous people, Malaysia has long prided itself on its ethnic diversity and religious tolerance. For decades, Shariah courts, with jurisdiction over the personal lives of the country’s Muslims, have operated alongside the civil system with the Federal Constitution as the country’s supreme legal document. But as Islam has become increasingly politicised and the religious authorities more assertive, the system has come under increasing strain.

Nik Raina’s isn’t the only case. A Malay publisher also sought relief in the civil courts from a similar raid. And another bookshop retailer complained after a raid of “censorship by harassment.”

Mayberry notes:

A couple of decisions at the end of July, one of them backing an earlier ruling to lift a ban on a book about women and Islamic law, have raised hopes that the civil courts are becoming more assertive. What started off as a surprise raid by the religious authorities on an unsuspecting bookshop may finally force a discussion few have been willing to risk.

Since 1971, 1,517 books and other publications have been banned in Malaysia, according to the article.