On skodeng visual culture

Marshall McLuhan perhaps never foresaw how the global village would one day become like a Malay village where a person’s code of morality was carefully circumscribed and their private life is everybody’s business. One aspect of the online Malay village is the exchange of saliva-inducing moral tut-tutting and cruel assassination of character between internet users via the ‘skodeng’ video. These are videos of people in intimate situations uploaded online by voyeuristic moral vigilantes. The details of many of the videos are in Malay and are searing with judgmental commentary. Many are tagged with the now notorious word ‘skodeng’ or spying. The videos, made in the idiom of amateur/gonzo salaciousness, are captured using mobile phones or digital cameras.

‘Skodeng’ is the byword for the contemporary state of Malay sexual morality. It is not simply a Malay person’s expression of prurience, sexual frustration, and the need to punish others, but a product of state-sponsored moral policing that entices the volunteering public into positions of ancillary power. Members of the public have always been a part of the controlling of bodies, erotics, and movement within its imagined communities. The more commonly applied methods of moral policing come in the form of raids by religious officers who act on tip-offs from members of the public. And moral vigilantes officialised under the auspices of federal and state religious authorities – like Badan Amal Makruf Nahimunkar (disbanded in 2005), the Putrajaya Islamic Council Volunteer Squad, and RELA – have been never low in supply.

On Valentine’s Day in 2011, the Malaysian state of Selangor’s religious department rounded up 80 Muslim individuals for committing khalwat in an operation called ‘Ops Valentine’. The nine-hour operation, which began at 8pm, was a two phase event involving visits to the recreational and public parks around Selangor and raids in budget hotels. Sexual relations outside of wedlock is considered a sharia offence for Muslims under the Section 23(3) of the Sharia Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997. Along with the case of Ops Valentine, state governments and religious authorities have been known to assign the role of moral enforcers to less official citizen volunteers termed ‘mat skodeng’ (male spies/peeping toms).

Moral policing has been described as a political tool to shore up the moral vote, but it has become a social tool with far-reaching consequences. By enlisting vigilantes to assist in the moral policing, religious authorities may have inadvertently unleashed a phenomenon in which members of the Muslim public take it upon themselves to expose furtive activities of other people to humiliate and possibly, blackmail. Instead of reporting to religious authorities, however, skodeng voyeurs resort to another kind of vigilante ‘justice’: video evidence and the threat of shame.

The moral high ground also comes with a privileged view of the moralising gaze. According to the feminist activist and web media expert, Jac SM Kee, one’s legitimacy or moral ‘right’ to see (and judge) coincides with their their privileged social and religious position in society. Malay people are institutionally privileged and a version of their faith Islam is often used by the state as a stick to beat people with. When religion is used as a state tool to intimidate, those with a righteous streak have a convenient source of legitimacy that the aura of Malay privilege and state Islam provide.

The ability to look with dehumanising intent is a position of power; the male gaze determines the mainstream ways of eroticised looking, the touristic gaze looks on from a position of seclusion from the reaches of the exotic Other, the white gaze reduces the non-white into insignificance. Once legitimised by being the on the ‘right’ side of morality, one feels emboldened and justified to look and judge. But the moralising gaze gains much of its power from seeing without being seen. Once the tables are turned against them in which they are exposed and subjected to scrutiny, they lose their power and pleasure.

There’s no mistaking that the skodeng video exists as part and parcel of our sex-tape, nip-slip, invasive papparazzi-style image-saturated society in which forbiddenness, desiribility, and erotic legitimacy are mediated through audio-visual material. Skodeng videos are part of a visual culture where the boundaries between the public and private are tantalisingly thin. One major cost of media voyeurism is the devaluation of privacy and the privileging of spectatorship over interaction that renders the viewer passive but hungry for more.

It may not be a stretch to suggest that mediated voyeurism, with regards to the production and viewing of skodeng videos, is not an isolated expression of social deviance and state intervention, but rather exists in a constellation of the more banal world of reality television and its close cousins: curated television programmes of home or amateur videos of embarrassing or extraordinary circumstances such as police car chases or animals performing improbable acts caught on tape, all of which are sadly available on Malaysian television.

We cannot discount how high profile moral policing has created a culture of surveillance in Malaysia in which an unseen eye ensures that we are at our best behaviour. To briefly invoke Foucault: those who are observed (or think they are observed) and controlled by an unseen eye will end up observing themselves and disciplining their every move. The fear of the law, fines, CCTV, nosy neighbours, and now personal video devices are part of this culture of surveillance.

Somehow acts of observation and control have shifted from the self to being exerted over others in this culture of surveillance. One also wonders whether concerns about the lack of integrity that the police and other guardians of social order have in Malaysian society means that we resort to privatised methods of securing personal safety and order. And in the case of securing moral order, the lack of trust in authorities distorted by a warped sense of righteousness means that ordinary individuals can reinstate a veneer of morality in their own twisted way.

The author wants to thank Jac SM Kee for her contribution to the writing of this post and journal article. This post is a condensed, truncated, and deliberately florid version of a journal article in progress. Please refrain from citing this piece without my permission.

Reader response criticism and sacred texts

Question: how useful is reader response criticism in understanding a community’s relationship with its ‘sacred texts’? In what ways does reader response criticism challenge the meaningfulness of the term ‘sacred’?

A book does not read itself. Meaning does not happen when there is no one there to make it.

Reader response (RR) criticism or theories can demonstrate that the text does not have inherent meaning of its own, but rather created by the reader and shared between individuals and communities. An accepted interpretation of a particular text is very much a reflection of the community’s context and motivated by what the community wants to see or at least thinks it sees in the text. What RR theories can also show is the instability of meaning of the text, and that interpretation of the text can evolve, be accepted and rejected, or completely disappear over time. And thus with regard to ‘sacred’ texts, the sacredness is to a certain extent created and maintained by religious communities. Outside such communities, the meaning of sacredness in the text is understood differently, perhaps not as ‘sacred’ at all. RR criticisms challenge the ‘sacredness’ of a text when they highlight the constructed nature of interpretation that exists, inter alia, in the mind of the individual reader or as a group interpretation of the text (influenced by compromise, politicking, and other biases because we’re all human with interests to protect) instead of something that is received in a supernatural and decontextualised manner. By implicating the reader in the meaning-making process that bestows upon the text its ‘sacredness’, this means that the ‘sacredness’ of the text is not autonomous nor it is pre-formed and waiting to be found. RR criticism calls into question the ‘sacredness’ of the physical book that sits on the shelf or the desk unread. Instead it considers the ‘sacred’ nature of the book that only ‘materialises’ when reading it is tantamount to a religious experience. In other words, ‘sacredness’ is an event that occurs in a particular time and place rather than something that just is.

On the viability of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ as categories in Malaysia

The first thing that would be useful when thinking about genders and sexualities in Malaysia is that the categories of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are far from native and natural in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. What is meant by ‘native’ and ‘natural’ refers to the fact that gender and sexuality are relatively recent loanwords. And as loanwords, they have a history and serve particular functions. Does the fact that ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are loanwords from the English language and emerge from a Western medical, sociological and philosophical tradition mean that their meaning in the Malaysian context is foreign and out of place?

When ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ and their different linguistic incarnations reflective of the country’s multilingual fabric appear at all, they are sporadic, infrequent, and usually enmeshed in the discourse of academia, feminism, and human rights. ‘Gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are words and currency of those privileged by education and class background. Having rigorous knowledge and interest in gender and queer theory is often the preserve of liberal, queer, activist and/or intellectuals. So there is a spectrum rather than a discrete know/don’t know in the level of knowledge and use of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia.

The entry of new terms into a language and the development of those terms are governed by multiple factors beyond the will of one individual. Although the viability of terms in a language will require the consensus of collective acceptance and use, the fate of the terms’s cultural connotations are harder to predict. We can have the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in public usage, but how would people react to these terms? What are the assumptions, misconceptions, prejudices, and the kind of curiosities these words invite? But above all, why does an interrogation into the genealogies of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia matter at all? The answer to these questions has huge political implications with regard to the state of queer and feminist activism in Malaysia. Because language matters.

The banning of the LGBT rights festival, Seksualiti Merdeka, in 2011 precipitated the circulation of false descriptions and connotations of the festival in the Malaysian media as a ‘free sex’ event. With ‘merdeka’ to mean ‘independence’ or ‘liberation’ but with ‘seksualiti’ not gaining much linguistic traction in Malay, the very name of the festival became subject to misunderstanding. However, machinations leading to such a misunderstanding was far from innocent.

News reports and opinion editorials about transgender, gay, and lesbian individuals in Malaysia in the local mainstream media activate and reproduce transphobic and homophobic sentiments in a moralising tenor. Outside the manipulation of emotive issues and moral panics that serve partisan politics lies a broken linguistic and cultural landscape that seems, at first sight, inhospitable to the development of a local gender and sexuality discourse.

First and foremost, let us consider the westernness of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’. In the present situation, the words ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are already in usage and in circulation in Malaysia. There’s not much we can do about that. Of course words do become obsolete and ‘die out’, but I’m not convinced that the terms used in one of the most influential discourses in recent times will become obsolete anytime soon. In opposition to Francis Fukuyama’s eurocentric assertions of the ‘end of history’, our history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia is only beginning to be told.

In their current usage, we have to pick up and analyse the perceived and ‘real’ cultural connotations of the terms, i.e. as concepts, they are ‘western’. Of course this accusation is true, as concepts ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ emerge out of western philosophy (which was once upon a time, an amalgamation of medicine, politics, mathematics, among other pre-specialised disciplines).

Even the discourse of biological sex did not begin with the oppositional or complimentary notion of sexual dichotomy. In Greek philosophy (and throughout much of western thought), women were considered lesser men or simply ‘incomplete’ as people. For instance, morphologically, the naming of women’s sexual anatomy (vagina, or the invagination of the women’s ‘penis’) was once part and parcel of the discourse that justified women’s inferiority. It would take hundreds of years for feminist theory to pick up on misogynist philosophical texts of a bygone era to develop what we can recognise today as gender theory. There are certainly differences in female and male anatomy, but the way they are talked about have changed during the course of history.

But what of the idea of ‘concepts’ themselves? The methods in the development of an idea are perhaps western in origin, too. Concepts are frameworks for systematic thinking and analysis. They are the vessels in which discourse reside, but they are permeable to other elements – the cultural and historical. Take for instance the differences we see in women and men; how people talk about women and men, and why they dress the way they do. In systematic thinking and analysis, what groups women and men together in how we describe them is gender. How we systematically think and analyse the erotics and legal history of desire is conveniently described through the concept of ‘sexuality’.

Remember, the term ‘gender’ or ‘sexuality’ had not come into popular existence until the last century. This means that gender is a cultural and historical construction as much as it a social construct. Gender is also an analytical construction in that we now have a framework to understand how femininity and masculinity exist as ‘effects’ of political and religious culture. More recently, people have begun to talk about how even sexuality is constructed. The idea and discourses pertaining to homosexuality had only come into existence in the late nineteenth century. Before, what is considered same-sex practices did not have a name. Now, not only does the term ‘homosexuality’ exist, but so does the identity and personhood of the ‘homosexual’.

Accused as more western than ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are perhaps ‘homosexuality’, gay, and lesbian identities. Again, the westernness of gay and lesbian identities cannot be disputed as the origins of the discourse of homosexuality did emerge from the medical annals of European doctors and the reclamation of the discourse by gay communities did take place in the west. More belatedly, heterosexuality is now understood as a construct.

To ignore for a moment those who are still obsessed with the Kipling-esque binaries of east and west, globalisation is now the order of the day and changed how we think about world geopolitics. Globalisation of media and the internet assisted in the travel of ideas and concepts. Among them are the concept and connotations of gay and lesbian identities that were adopted by communities in their quest for belonging, identification, and legitimacy. Those with access to knowledge about gay and lesbian culture are those with class and educational privilege. The greater the privilege, the more savvy one becomes with the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’.

In a way, Malaysian public discourse picks up the terms gender and sexuality halfway in the narrative history of gender and queer theory, when the discourses regarding the two have developed in highly sophisticated ways in the west. By comparison, our own versions of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ remain remotely peripheral to the ways gender and sexuality are discussed in the west and neighboring Southeast Asian countries. As discourses, our ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ are non-existent. Only until we develop our own discursive ‘centre’ of gender and sexuality can we begin to talk about decentering western ones.

Currently, we rely on the anthropological data of mainly western academics to piece together a puzzle that is the history of gender and sexuality in Malaysia. But will using the frameworks of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ to look into the past when such ideas may have been non-existent risks being anachronistic? A reflexive historian never forgets that we can only look through the prism of the present and construct a historical narrative using the modern conveniences of theories that help us ‘see’ gender and sexuality of the past.

Thanks to the accommodating nature of the Malay language in its absorption of foreign words, we have the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in the national Malay language dictionary. But surely this is not enough. Behind the definitions of terms lies a lack of depth. We are beset by a number of factors exacerbating the isolation and negative connotations of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in Malaysia. First, they are not used enough in the mass media and everyday parlance. Second, there is not enough interest in the studying of gender and sexuality. Third, our academic culture is stifled by rigid institutional barriers against ‘controversial’ and ‘liberal’ topics like gender and sexuality.

As concepts or theories, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ needn’t be western if we can develop our own concepts and theories for even the notion of concepts and theories can be de-westernised. And with the critical mass of talk, writing, and visualising to develop a local discourse, the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ can be reclaimed from the clutches of negative connotations to become viable, positive, and culturally robust. In the mass of inconsequential commentary, there are gems to be had. During the age of globalisation where nation and local cultures are safeguarded from the ‘outside’, locality and indigenous concepts have greater legitimacy to withstand critique from within.

Derrida, the life of the philosopher, and the ‘biopic’

‘He was born. He thought. He died’

                                                                                        Heidegger on the ‘life’ of Aristotle

A review of Derrida’s biography by Benoît Peeters in The Guardian today made me think about whether or not the biography is crucial or incidental to understanding a philosopher’s thought. Does knowing (or not knowing) about Derrida’s life enable us to understand what is at stake in the process of deconstruction? What role does the biography, and in particular the 2002 ‘biopic’ by Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, play? And since we’re talking about Derrida here, how is the biography deconstructed?

An image representing Jacques Derrida in his later years.

In a way, the biography does matter. Because it strives to capture the humanistic accounts of the philosopher’s life as noteworthy and supportive of her/his work. It also plugs into our obsession and voyeurism of the minutiae of a person’s life, to find out what makes them tick, and what of ourselves we can find in them. The thoughts, if one wishes to practice/follow them, can only be made tangible when it is embodied in the physical realm; in locational/corporeal context. There is a reason why certain hadiths attributed to the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) are so resonant for Muslims, particularly for some men who would dress, eat, and grow a beard in a certain way that the prophet himself might have done in order to become ‘closer’ to the memory and morality of the prophet. With regard to the philosopher, it becomes a question of destabilising the division between mind and body, speech and writing, the philosopher in person and the philosopher in representations.

Depending on how Derrida’s life is represented, it will not be entirely possible to understand the circumstances from which he had arrived to explaining the process of deconstruction. If told from the point of view of the biographer with an intention to record Derrida’s intellectual upbringing, his personal life, likes and dislikes, but without interrogating the place certain significant events in Derrida’s life that can be turning points in the way he thought, we as consumers of a philosopher’s biography may not gain much insight into his thought processes.

Biography in the film assumes the role of the recording tape that records and plays back the thoughts and bits of life events that emerge yet enmeshed in their place of enunciation. But once deconstructed, elements in Derrida’s biopic which include the authority of the biography’s authorship, the unity of the text, and the neutrality of representation will all be called into question. These include the status of Derrida as the great philosopher (possibly) undermined by the banality of his life such as looking for his house keys, eating breakfast, crossing the street, etc.

A deconstructed biography is often at variance with conventional narrativising of a person’s life that invariably include ‘true’ information about the philosopher’s life (i.e. details about his birth, education, opus, (eventual) death, the “What of Derrida” as opposed to the “Who of Derrida” as exemplified in his walking, talking, eating, laughing). Most importantly, the film raises questions about the status of the biography’s author: is it a film about Derrida or merely an autobiography of the film-makers and their experiences with the great philosopher? Their names are placed on the film as author/producers; who are they in relation to the subject they film? The film-makers record and cite Derrida’s words, select and edit them to create a kind of snapshot that only has traces of Derrida taken from a specific moment in time. But we do not get the ‘real’, unitary Derrida, the person.

The cinema as house of worship

The cinema and house of worship might come across as incongruent bedfellows. From its earliest days to the present day, cinemas have either been burned to the ground or, more mercifully, closed down for being places of moral decay. Where there is compromise (thanks to heterosexist logic), female audiences are made to sit apart in the darkened theatre from their male counterpart to circumvent illicit behaviour between sexes.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The flickering image of a saint is more akin to religious iconography than actors in a theatrical passion play.

The story of early silent cinema has been a lot about the story of gods and prophets. More as a footnote than a celebrated touchstone in the history of cinema is the fact that seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War. One of the first American films was about the last of days of Christ called The Passion Play of Oberammegau (1898). The ‘father of Indian cinema’, D.G. Dadasaheb Phalke was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the screen:

‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?’ [1]

The showing of the film The Life and Passion of the Christ (1908, dir. Ferdinand Zecca) in a New York theatre was criticised by a priest in Newark for not being shown in church instead. Commentators of the film suggested soothing organ music and incense to add to the religious atmosphere of the film showing in a theatre [2]. A maker of biblical epics of the silent era, D.W. Griffith was convinced that film could be used as medium of moral instruction.

In my own area of research, texts from the Quran have been represented in cinematic form in Indonesia. The 1980s became a period when certain Indonesian films began to be particularly preachy. One of the first (and only) Indonesian films to adapt Quranic texts was Kisah Anak-anak Adam (The Story of Adam’s children, 1988, dir. Ali Shahab). Kisah Anak-anak Adam is the Islamic version of the story of Adam’s rival sons, Qabil and Habil, who fight over the hand of their sister, Iqlima, with tragic results.

Clipping from Suara Karya Minggu (26 June 1988): Cara Lain Untuk Berdakwah (Another Way To Preach). Here, Qabil kills Habil to attain Iqlima for himself.

The director would lead a prayer before the shooting of the film to bless the crew and film-making process. You could also say that the prayers were also supposed to have added an aura of religiosity to the film-making experience. The film is argued to be an alternative, more popular way of proselytising (or dakwah) to audiences who were more keen to go to the cinema than to the mosque.

Beginning a film shoot with prayer is hardly a rare practice unique to Muslim film-makers. The shooting of Cecil B. De Mille King of Kings (1927) first began with a mass celebrated by the Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord who went on to write Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code. Even the actor who played Jesus is kept away from the rest of the cast during filming to imbue mystique to his role.

The cinematic visualisation of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that film can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Film with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, a sermon, or a statement which alludes that something highly moral and religious is to be learned from watching the film.

Defying all classical theories of secularisation and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, repackaged in a more popular format (some say commodified) have always found its way into public consciousness in brighter, glossier ways. With more films adapted from biblical texts still in the making, it seems as if the tension between cinemas as morally suspect places and religion may never be resolved once and for all.

[1] Rachel Dwyer (2006) Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, Routledge.
[2] Jeffrey A. Smith (2001) ‘Hollywood theology: The commodification of religion in twentieth-century films’, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol 11 No 2, pp 191-231.

The street as stage: Muslims participating in peaceful protests

While in Denmark and Indonesia this year, I found myself standing alongside people who took to the streets to demand the end of oppression against Muslims. In Copenhagen in late summer was a protest against the retainment of the Danish armed forces in Afghanistan. In Jakarta on Valentine’s Day feminist and Muslim activists and members of the film-making community stood outside on Bunderan HI to demand the end of the extremist group Front Pembela Islam’s (violent and at times, murderous) activities. Of course Muslim people are more than capable of protesting peacefully, having tea and biscuits while at it, and always happy to chat with passersby-cum-inadvertent-participants like myself about why they were out there.

Film director Hanung Bramantyo speaking to the press and the public.

Commodification of Islam in Malaysia: A postmodern condition

First published on New Mandala on 8 November 2012.

At the World Halal Week held annually in Kuala Lumpur, you can purchase halal bone china, an exemplar of luxury and piety rolled into one. Malaysia is the leader in halal certification and a major promoter of the global halal industry. With markets saturated with a mind-boggling array of sharia-compliant goods that cater to a more discerning Muslim middle class, Islam can be seen as having entered more deeply into the lives of Malaysian Muslims in more commodified ways than ever before. The line between the sacred and the consumable profane have blurred, and true to the dictum that Islam is ‘a way of life’,  anything which supports the notion of good Muslim personhood can now be made halal. The explosion of consumer goods imbued with spiritual meaning is a new phenomenon spurred on by the broadening middle classes disenchanted with meaningless consumerism. Now consumer goods can have real intrinsic, spiritual meaning. But how did everything beyond consumables (and indeed items beyond meat) become halal.

Commodification of culture started as a phenomenon that emerged from the early capitalist period of Fordist mass production which then intensified during late capitalism. Flexible and geographically mobile post-Fordist market approaches shifted from mass production to a more fragmented, niche market to suit every possible types of lifestyle. The ‘religious’ lifestyle or public piety characterised by halal crockery, toothpaste, make-up, and even beer can be regarded an outcome of post-Fordist modes of production. Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetish’ may be the most relevant point of entry into understanding the commodification of objects and practices that were previously not considered commercial.

In Marx’s analysis, commodity fetish requires the concealment of the origins and processes involved in the production of a consumer product from the consumer in order to maintain the ‘religious fog’ that justifies the mystery of its self-evident value. Religious symbols and meaning as commodity fetish may behave in the same manner, in that the deeper engagement of the purpose and context of a particular symbol are sidestepped and usurped by other distracting elements that vie for the attention of the consumer. The self-evident value of a religious commodity is intrinsically located within itself rather than the processes that lead to its points of ‘origin’.

The abstraction of all other factors involved in the production of a commodity has profound consequences on not just our relationship with literal consumer products but also with symbols, religious or otherwise. The post-Fordist condition demands the proliferation of diversity and thrives on the specialisation of products (and labour). Driven by the perpetuated need for ‘new’ and ‘ever more novel-seeming goods’, styles and signifiers are extracted from their previous associations and fused together to produce new products in what Jameson calls ‘pastiche’ for new consumers in new contexts. The ease with which such meaning and symbols are removed from their original contexts may point to their increasingly depthless, untethered, and frictionless qualities.

Investigations into religious commodification have challenged theories of secularisation in modern society demonstrating that far from a wholesale decline in public belief in God and church membership, modern and rational societies, in particular those in Asia and the United States, continue to embrace religion and imbue public life with notions of religious essence. The rise of religious commodification has been argued to go hand in hand with the emergence of ‘Islamic modernity’, a political and cultural sensibility whereby modernity is embraced alongside a commitment to Islam as part of the project of modernity in its own terms as much as its approximations to western notions of modernity.

The concept of ‘Islamic modernity’ have a Lyotardian suspicion against the grand narrative of western modernity in favour of a more hybrid and reflexive modernity inflected with faith-based sensibilities where non-western contexts experience the rise of advanced economies and public cultures. The Islamic modern can be located in the popular consumption of Islamic media and Islamic forms of consumerism that at times exist, not without friction, alongside orthodox Islamic beliefs and practices.

When does a symbol cease becoming sacred and becomes simply a commodity bereft of its spiritual meaning? Can they become both? Halal products now have become more than just a spiritual choice but made to be synonymous with quality. However, there is considerable debate among practitioners and scholars about the effects of commodified forms of Islam. Some have praised the increased presence of Islam in the marketplace as it encourages the incorporation of Islamic values into the everyday practices of Muslims. Others have been less celebratory, arguing that the commercialisation of Islam appeals to superficial expressions of piety. Where does one draw the line for halal products? Does the choice to not utilise halal products make one less a conscientious Muslim?

The circulation of Islamic symbols outside the formalist domains and authority of the state and religious institutions and into the market and the media coheres with the emergence of Muslim publics. Facilitated by increasing access to new modes of communication, the creation of the Muslim public sphere challenges the authority of conventional religious institutions and fosters the building of a civil society and the ‘global ummah (community)’. The so-called Islamic revivalism across Muslim societies of the world coupled with increased communication and economic opportunities have boosted the production of things ‘Islamic’ which occurs alongside the increasing adoption of a public pious image amongst the consumer middle-class.

With all things considered, it is not an understatement to say that Islam is big business. But in Malaysia, where the conflation of ethnic and Islamic identity is a political and socioeconomic issue, consumer habits aligned with aspirational piety form just another disciplinary mode to reinforce the boundary markers of such an identity. To purchase halal products may just be another way of asserting one’s Malay identity. In the mounting challenges to Malay privilege and positive discrimination, Islamic consumerism may be a way to reinstate a sense of meaning and belonging.  Perhaps unexpectedly, Malaysia’s mall culture and ethnic/religious anxiety over the loss of institutional privilege were destined to become kindred spirits.

Will the real intellectual please stand up?

This is a response to Syahredzan Johan’s article, Rise of the pseudo-intellectuals. First published in Loyar Burok on 29 June 2012.

Is Syahredzan Johan intimidated by people who use big words and may actually be smart?

I am more than certain he would vehemently respond in the negative to the question above. However his recent article has all the implicit cues that point to a feeling of being threatened by smart-sounding people. More than intimidation perhaps is the curmudgeonly and sanctimonious attitude that can cut through the thick smokescreen of intellectual-wannabes and expose a person who, as it turns out, knows nothing.

What does he gain from this?

Notwithstanding the personal exchanges via email that prompted the writing of his article, ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is a personal attack on people who read, to varying degrees of depth and comprehension, and synthesise their ideas to produce arguments and opinions. It is an attack on people who are learning to engage intellectually in a culture that denies such levels of engagement from the get-go.

More crucially, ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is an all-to-easy label to use against someone you refuse to engage with on an intellectual level. It’s a label to belittle someone who you disagree with especially when that someone is adept at expressing themselves vividly.

The fact that Syahredzan thinks that ‘pseudos’ “challenge opinions or views as a way of making a personal attack” shows how personally he must take any kind of intellectual criticism and how emotionally fragile he becomes by an onslaught of Nietzschean quotes and valid, deeply thought-out opinions.

Interestingly, he speaks of this ‘rise’ of pseudo-intellectuals, but does not care to state the possible reasons for this apparent rise. I myself do not have an answer to explain this phenomenon but I can say a few things to people who are suspicious of ‘pseudo-intellectuals’:

You are lucky if you had the privilege and opportunity to study and travel abroad, talk with people who don’t bat an eyelid when you quote Marx, and being told you are smart without having to read and quote Marx. But if much of your life and intellectual formation remained rooted in Malaysia where you’re not taught to think and think differently, how wonderful it must have seem to discover rebel thinkers like Fanon, de Beauvoir, and Rousseau?

You are lucky if you have cultivated the art of articulating your ideas from your high-brow readings without sounding like a fool with pretensions above your reach. But in Malaysia, we do not have many avenues to articulate ‘high’ ideas and have those ideas validated by arbiters in the intelligentsia. To begin with, our intelligentsia or what we can recognise as one is tiny and institutionally, there is great resistance to a development of one. And we know that much of ‘highbrow’ thinking is suspicious of the state, the status quo, capitalism, and heteronormativity.

In the Malaysian context, we are witnessing some changes in public attitudes towards dissent.

Slowly, a culture of protest and civil disobedience is being developed. It comes to no surprise then that these events and the people inspired by them seek to nourish their minds further with theory and philosophy that chime with their experiences and help articulate raw feelings into bigger ideas. Also, many of these people who quote Sen and Gandhi are young. To denounce ‘pseudos’ is also to dismiss youthful attempts at forming an intellectual identity. It is like stomping on new blossoms in the spring.

What is this ‘honesty’ that Syahredzan speaks of and celebrates? Is it the admission of not knowing anything highbrow and intellectually aspirational and actually have pride in it?

For Syahredzan it seems, only some people can be deemed ‘real’ intellectuals, others not. He plays right into the hands of structural power, privilege and class if he truly believes that. Aside from the narrowly-defined established intellectuals (academicians, writers, artists), what does it take be an intellectual?

I believe that smartness is the sum of perception and institutionalised lore. Perception because you can be perceived to sound smart when you are buoyed by the gift of confident eloquence. Institutionalised lore produces who is ‘smart’ through exam results, intelligence quotients, science streaming in schools, and university degrees for example – there is no consistent evidence that these things actually make you smart, but people say they do.

Of course while smartness and intellect can mean the same thing, intellectualism is quite different; it grants status, respect, prestige, and can be very intimidating.

When you are suspicious of people who engage in an intellectual manner chances are you envious, insecure, despise people who try to be better themselves with their minds, or all of the above?

I just hope Syahredzan will see the larger context behind this ‘rise’ of pseudo-intellectuals should the phenomenon itself be real rather than a figment of his insecurities.