One of the popular stories Slavoj Žižek tells is about a man who is suspected of stealing items from his factory. The police, in an effort to catch him in the act, decide to station themselves at the factory gate. At night, the man would come out with a wheel-barrow. When he reached the gate, the police would then stop him and inspect everything inside the barrow. But each time the man came out with a wheel-barrow, the police could never find anything. It’s only after a long time that the police realised their folly: the man was stealing wheel-barrows.
The subversive point of the story is that often we should suspect the framework and the formulation of a given problem. It is not what the barrow contains but the barrow itself.
Take the latest inter-religious fiasco in Malaysia. The Johor (state) Education department organises a teacher-training seminar with an over-extended and boring title which nevertheless raised the blood pressure of many non-Muslims because it included the phrase “the threat of Christianisation to Islam”. After a public outcry, this was ‘resolved’ by a simple title change. Now, it seems, Christianisation no longer threatens Islam, at least not in the title.
Of course, not everyone is happy.
Funny-mentalists like PEMBELA (Muslim Organisations in Defence of Islam) and PERKASA (Malay Nationalist Movement) decried the ‘cowardice’ of the change, demanding that Muslims in Malaysia have the constitutionally guaranteed right to organise events with such nasty names and that the seminar organisers should not have bowed to political pressure. The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) strongly requested that not just the name but the very content of the seminar must be amended such that any implication that Christianity was threatening Islam is removed. This was soon followed by Hasan Ali’s video-revelation of three Muslims who converted to Christianity then later re-converted back to Islam (this double-proselytisation being itself problematic, as Joshua Woo points out) and his claim that Christians have been exploiting the weakening faith of Muslims occasioned by society’s materialism and hedonism.
At the end of the day, some form of resolution has been found, which is not unlike the ‘resolution’ of the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) raid on the Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) last year. In that case, ultimately the Sultan said that JAIS were right to conduct the raid but DUMC weren’t sufficiently wrong – go figure.
And yet the key questions of this incident remain:
Why did the Johor Education Department use the title at all? Was it not aware of the controversy it would raise?
Assuming – cautiously – that UMNO is not involved (especially in election season?) and – generously – that sheer stupidity and insensitivity is not at play here, why would a state body of such outstanding quality (if Helen Ang’s gushing holds water) commit such a boo-boo?
To revert to the wheel-barrow example about the importance of the frame itself, one answer is mildly plausible: Could it be that fundamentalist Muslims in the various Islamic organisations involved and the Johor Education Department require a constant element of fear as an integral part of that which constitutes its own faith?
Not unlike PEMBELA and PERKASA who can feel threatened by 5,000 copies of the Alkitab (the Bible in Malay language) coming in to the country, were the Johor seminar organisers doing nothing more than producing what they have believe – that other religions were up to no good?
In a word, are threats to fundamentalist faith something which such faith needs to include into itself?
You know how scorned lovers often lament about their loss of love, their rejection, how life is unfair, etc.? Is it not true that some of these folks, when pressed to discuss the reasons why their boy- or girlfriend has left them, nevertheless adopt an attitude of not wanting to know? They would choose ignorance because the very act of being depressed is ‘enjoyable’ in itself, a form of enjoyment which would be diminished should the truth come to light (that, say, the relationship had lost its romance or that one’s girlfriend couldn’t stand one’s constant bickering, etc.). Such people simply cannot take the loss of enjoyment which comes from more understanding; they prefer to continue bemoaning and weeping over their lost love.
Does this not resemble PEMBELA when they remind everyone that the Constitution guarantees the right of Muslims to organise such seminars? Are they not declaring, in effect, that “I have the right to feel irrationally threatened and nothing anyone says will change that”? Pushing this further, does it not sound as if groups like PEMBELA enjoy feeling threatened?
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, posited the existence of unconscious desires and wants which cannot be expressed in reality hence must be repressed. But sometimes these desires escape the censorship of our conscious minds (known as the Ego) and ‘over-flow’ into our everyday lives resulting in symptoms i.e. outward manifestations of inner turmoil. Hence, the notion of the Freudian slip – an (unintended) public expression of a (poorly) repressed desire.
We should be clear: It is NOT that certain fundamentalists (of all stripes, not only Muslims) are afraid that their members will commit apostasy and therefore feel the need to educate the community (this may be true but it leaves unaddressed the question of why they can be so irrationally afraid). It is that the fear of apostasy is part and parcel of what it means to be a fundamentalist, a fear which ‘makes up’ the faith as they know it, a fear which drives them to even greater efforts at religious policing and outward ‘righteousness’.
It’s something they’re too ashamed to acknowledge in public, which they are thus forced to repress – but not always successfully.
And if the Johor Education Department ‘slipped’, then Hasan Ali must have totally ‘fell’. I’m not the only one who suspects that Ali’s logic is entirely ‘out of this world’ when he says that Muslims ravaged by the winds of hedonism are thereby easier targets for Christian proselytisation. As if greedy, pleasure-seeking people are more likely to become Christian. As if it’s not often the opposite case where the church helps those who are poverty-stricken, including Muslims, who then later choose to identify with the Christian story.
So assuming that Ali’s arguments have no grounding in rationality, perhaps it helps to think of his words and actions as necessarily central to, because formative of, of his fundamentalism i.e. he would absolutely fear the day when there is no longer any fear of proselytisation because this would be the day that his brand of Islam begins to disintegrate.
Like the gay-hating father (played by Chris Cooper) in American Beauty, the more he hates homosexuals, the more his homosexual tendencies manifest themselves. In fact, his hate for homosexuals was the ultimate expression of his need for homosexual affection.
All of which highlights the vulnerable and less than fully authentic nature of the kind of faith fundamentalists have. True belief, it has been said, casts out fear. A pure faith also rejects an obsessive concern with policing other faiths and in fact longs to see the good in the different. Love, in other words, is present in the genuine.
In contrast, hate and prejudice usually reign in the minds of those who are afraid that their personal and spiritual insecurities will come into the public light. Yet paradoxically, like Oedipus, the more they want to run away from their own fears (by accusing others of being the source of these fears), the more they actualise what they fear because the fundamentalist’s greatest fear is having nothing to fear.
In the context of inter-religious issues in Malaysia, then, it’s not about what people believe but how they believe and – critically – those aspects of their beliefs which do not ‘show up’ in official doctrine yet manifest themselves in broad daylight (or, in this context, seminar titles).
Remember, it’s not what’s in the barrow – it’s the barrow itself.