Banned author sees himself as war casualty

Faisal-TehraniJAKARTA: The recent spate of book banning in Malaysia can be associated with the global rise in extremism and its threat to freedom, according to a Malaysian academic and novelist whose own works have been banned.

“It is another kind of terror and I am another casualty of war,” said Faizal Musa last night when he delivered the opening speech for the Asean Literary Festival in Jakarta.

The four-day event brings together poets, playwrights, artists and scholars and from across the Southeast Asian region.

Faisal, better known in literary circles as Faisal Tehrani, started writing at the age of 16. His novel 1515 won the National Book Prize in 2005. The book is a reading text for the Malay Studies programme at the University of Cologne in Germany.

Faisal-Tehrani2While an author’s popularity can rise when his books are banned, Faisal does not relish the experience.

“It is lonely to be banned,” he said. “Nobody invites you to poetry readings anymore. Your most important books are suddenly not available on bookshelves.”

Faisal, now 43, has published more than 30 novels and academic texts.

The Malaysian government has banned six of his works, including Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang, Karbala and Ingin Jadi Nasrallah. The home ministry said they were influenced by Shia Islam, which Malaysia’s Islamic authorities condemn as a deviant expression of Islam.

Even a book launched by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2012 was banned two years later because it could “be prejudicial to public order”.

A similar explanation was given when the home ministry recently banned Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy, a collection of essays on the role of Islam published by G25, a group of Malay former senior civil servants advocating religious moderation.

But not all of Faisal’s works challenge the institutionalised Islam that he has so openly opposed. For example, the novel Bagaimana Anyss Naik Ke Langit is about the plight of the Penan indigenous group in Sarawak, and the home ministry apparently considers it safe for distribution.

“Although it is not banned, bookstores are refusing to sell it,” he said. “This commercial censorship proves that fear is creeping in effectively,” he said.

One complaint by critics of his works is a leaning towards Shia Muslim beliefs, which was how he earned the nickname “Tehrani”, a reference to the capital of Shia-majority Iran.

Faisal does not deny that his works “are loaded with Shi’i content”, saying his intention is to highlight his support for freedom of religion and his opposition to institutionalised Islam in Malaysia.

“I am against the idea of imposing Shariah law,” he said. “I am against the Wahabisation or Salafisation of Malaysia.”

Faisal said it was this attitude that earned him enemies among Muslim groups in Malaysia. “From being the poster boy of Malay literature, I became the most marginalised author.”

He said what “really happened” was that the oppressed Shia community in Malaysia sought him as their champion in the belief that he was a Shia adherent.

Faisal makes no secret of his dislike for Islamic bureaucrats, whom he blamed for the banning of his books.

“To be specific, what’s wrong here are the Muslim clerics,” he said. “In Malaysia, you cannot challenge these corrupt clerics. They are infallible.”

He said the response from religious bureaucrats was at odds with Islam’s ability to withstand criticism.

He described Islam as “a religion that is immune to opposition, criticism, disagreements or even ridicule from insiders and outsiders”.

“I believe,” he said, “that my religion, Islam, has this capacity, but the Malay clerics can be easily offended.”

However, he said, two decades of having to deal with obstacles had not discouraged him.

“I still have faith in literature. In this war imposed by extremists, words and stories have proven to be the real weapons we can use to fight back.

“I will write more. Sorry, there is no backing off, no turning back.”