This is my first column on The Malay Mail, published 3rd December 2013
Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani was something of a charismatic maverick and crusader of anti-colonial ideas in late nineteenth century Egypt. His informal engagement with the public evokes a scene not dissimilar to a small forum led by Socrates. Surrounded by earnest disciples in cafes, Al-Afghani would hold court on ancient Islamic science and Western philosophy, appealing to the dispossessed lower and working class who would feel out of place in the hallowed halls of Al-Azhar University.
The ultimate goal of Al-Afghani’s thought was to avenge the degradation that European imperialism had brought to the Islamic world. But he did not reject all things Western or European in toto. By shrewdly adopting Western tools of modernity such as the printing press, Al-Afghani wrote articles and published pamphlets to disseminate his exhortations against the West. So influential was Al-Afghani that he was attributed as the architect of the politicisation of Egypt’s public sphere in the 1870s. Within a few years of his arrival in Egypt, nearly all of Egypt’s newspapers were run by his devotees. His most notable disciples would later become leaders of postcolonial Egypt and later, Iran, his homeland.
More than a 100 years later, something similar is afoot in urban peninsula Malaysia. Groups of Malay men meet at 24-hour restaurants rattling off names of white men both dead and living: Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hayek, Habermas. To make applicable and complimentary to the local context, iconoclastic Muslim thinkers such as Ali Shariati are invoked. Is this some kind of intellectual renaissance unseen since, well, who knows? Perhaps. But what is certain is that it is what Clarissa Lee calls the birth of our salon culture.
This loose collective of individuals organise book discussions, lectures, and produce books translated into Malay, the language of its audience targeted for intellectual and Islamic reform. IKD has recently published Immanuel Kant’s foundational text What is the Enlightenment? in Malay, signalling an attempt to herald a Malay kind of Enlightenment. Now is as good a time as any to investigate the rise of this community.
These names and ideas bandied about during the Enlightenment have a talismanic quality. They appeal to idealists. The Kantian man stands apart from the rest of society thanks to his superior faculty to reason and freedom from the shackles of fear and dogma. He and his ilk form the public sphere, a potent site for contesting against the state. With the right conditions, Islamic reform and Islamic secularism may be imminent. These grandiose ideals may be the seeds of an intellectual framework for a new Malaysia.
There are, however, detractors who are cynical of this fledgling intellectual trend and quick to denounce earnest verbiage as “pseudo-intellectualism.” Such criticisms should be disabused from the short-sighted ignorance of the power that ideas have in the bigger picture of history. Ideas alone, often slow in its path towards eventual action, have resulted in social transformations and political revolutions. Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet on imperialism and capitalism inspired revolts against colonial subjugators in Asia and the Middle East.
There is a naivety like the rush of first love in this intellectual movement. Their often uncritical adoration of Western philosophy is attributed to a lack of awareness of the vast corpus that challenges its androcentric Eurocentrism. But like Al-Afghani, we should not throw Western theory out with the bath water. After all, Malaysia as a country was founded on Western ideas; the nation-state was a created as a European political project, the rule of law, Parliament, and our education system are all imported without us resisting against its foreignness. And yet, other concepts — female emancipation, freedom of speech, civil liberty, gay rights — are attacked as being alien to our “culture.”
What is more interesting to observe is how pockets of this intellectual community are inspired by Indonesian civil society made up of key contemporary feminist, literary and socio-political figures. Women make a significant presence in Indonesian intellectual circles. But the urban Malaysian salon culture, which is keen on attracting the working class Malay, remains stubbornly Malay male-dominated. This gendered intellectual exclusion can also be witnessed in Singapore where an emerging intellectual book culture is dominated by young Singaporean Malay men.
There are certainly parallels between our local burgeoning intellectual community with that it aspires to mirror. Women were excluded from participating in world-changing philosophical debates in 18th century France. Their views were thought to lack weight and while their very presence amongst male thinkers (wannabe or otherwise) were inhibiting the freedom of intellectual homosociality these men enjoyed. Women opt out from late night discussions in 24-hour restaurants because being female in public at night is risky in Malaysia. Who knows what other reasons that account for their absence?
What are the other dynamics of exclusion at work in this emerging intellectual culture? Why do the chattering classes unproblematically choose to meet at 24-hour restaurants? Should they question the political and economic conditions that allowed them to discuss “liberty” and “rights” on cheap teh tarik while migrant labourers do the 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty, and difficult) that Malaysians won’t do? Liberty and rights for whom exactly? In the society where 9-to-5 jobs are privileged as the ideal, who is there to challenge the ethics of 24-hour sit-down restaurants if not the enlightened ones?
Perhaps one shouldn’t expect too much from an emerging intellectual class that is still learning the lessons of what a truly democratic society means. What took Europe several hundred years, two world wars and numerous fatal lessons from feeling superior to the rest of the world, Malaysia is only beginning to jump off the coat tails of empire since only the last century. Globalisation and super fast media may speed up the intellectual awakening of the elites in developing societies while the rest of humanity waits patiently for their turn.