Wednesday, 30 May 2007

What's in a name

This is an article I wrote for THe Sun, but which was never published. Given the demise of the Constitution earlier today, it no longer seems relevant, but for those interested in the recent history of Malaysia, it may be worth reading. Just so we know what we've lost - I don't think that the majority judges or Pembela realise it.

What's in a name

By Sonia Randhawa

I've always been grateful for my first name. Sonia doesn't rhyme with anything. My brother, in contrast, endured years of primary school suffering.

My name has a meaning, and I learnt what it's formal meaning was long after I had learnt that 'Sonia' meant me. But names aren't always as carefully constructed to their owner as Sonia now seems sculpted to me. Some names are, merely, labels. The nicknames that various friends called me in school, none of which have stuck. The nastier names thrown by enemies. These names are only as important as the truth they contain, vicious or virtuous.

Some names, however, can shape the named. If you call a child worthless, it internalises the label and begins to incorporate this into its identity. It shapes the child's behaviour, his or her outlook on life.

But it isn't just people that can be shaped by labels. It's hard to see how a table would change, even if you persuaded successive generations to call it 'Kate'. Call a State something, though, and it can have exceedingly worrying consequences. Which is why I was worried when I was engaged in a conversation about whether Malaysia as an 'Islamic state' is merely a label, or if it is indicative of something deeper. And was before we couldn't protect our Constitutional rights through peaceful forums, closed due to the threat of mob violence. Before one of the leading organisations in the 'Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA' declared that it was okay to imprison people without trial, if it was for religious transgression. Before the clampdown on 107 religious 'deviants', with barely a whimper from civil society.

The Islamic state label is more than just on name, regardless of what Mohd Nazri may have maintained earlier this year. It is an issue at the heart of many recent debates, from Anthony Rayappan and M. Moorthy, to Lina Joy, Shamala Sathiyaseelan, even the closure of radio shows on Ai FM. Because what is at stake is who or what is the supreme legal power in this country. 'Islamic state' is more than just a description. It is prescriptive as well. It prescribes how our courts, our Parliament and our Executive should behave. It prescribes a theocratic state, one in which God, as interpreted by one religion and its proponents, is in charge of the day to day running of the State. Not the Constitution, not the law, not Parliament, not the Government.

This might work, if God deigned to come down in, as it were, person, to rule in the stead of our Prime Minister. Or if our Prime Minsiter (as Bush has claimed to be) is directly inspired, a Prophet. Both solutions, of course, are blasphemous in Islam.

So we can't rely on God to govern directly. Which means that people will be governing. And my experience has been that most people are fallible. Except, possibly, Tun Dr Mahathir.

What we have is a State where, in name, God is the supreme power, but in practice, a person rules in his stead. A fallible person. What happens when the fallible person makes a mistake? Well, that's the problem with a theocracy. With God as the head of state, they can't make mistakes. Because then it's saying that God is making mistakes, and that is undoubtedly blasphemous.

It was for these reasons, along with a host of others, that democracies in Europe replaced monarchies. Not because the societies were mature, just or wise. But because they were fed up with dealing with the mistakes of monarchs who believed they were infallible. In the UK, as here, they rather liked their monarchs, so rather than beheading them, they just ensured that their powers were limited. True, it took civil war to get to the point, but they did get there.

Unfortunately, even in a democracy, there is no guarantee that the ruler will not attempt to usurp God-like powers from those who first put him or her in power (that's us). That's where Constitutions come in. It's our first line protection, saying, sorry, but no, you don't have the power to do that. You, no matter who you are, can't tell me what religion I should follow. You can't curb my freedom of speech. You can't send me into exile, deny me the right to life, the right to assemble.

I am equal with anyone else, before the law, regardless of race, religion, gender or class. (That one I love so much, it's painted on the side of my house).

If we are a theocratic state, then these rights are taken away from the Constitution and put in the hands of a man-made interpretation of what God wants. If we're an Islamic state, it's put into an interpretation of God that neither myself nor anyone in my multi-religious family adhere to.

It's just a name. Call us an Islamic state. What difference will it make, to Lina Joy, or any of us. Sticks and stones may break my bones, sure, but names will never hurt me? I hope not.

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