There’s a Malay saying that tells you not to build your house by the sea if you’re the kind who’s afraid of being swept away by the tide.
PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang lives by the sea. Even at the height of his political career as the Terengganu menteri besar, he made it a point to take time off to fish in the rough seas. And when he is not addressing followers who throng his stronghold in Kampung Rusila, he spends time fishing.
He probably knows the sea more than any politician in Malaysia. And he probably knows that politics is not much different from the rough South China Sea.
You can be a saint, but when you step into politics, you are getting ready to be drenched by the tide. Be seen at a fancy restaurant and expect to be called a thief. If they don’t believe you, expect to be called a liar. If you are flip flopping, expect to be labelled “unprincipled”, “an opportunist”, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
Or a “monkey”.
That was the word Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau (NYSP) used when it carried a cartoon depicting the circus that took place in the Dewan Rakyat last week, soon after Hadi was allowed to table a motion on his shariah bill.
But some did not find the cartoon funny. And so they descended on the NYSP offices, urging the paper to apologise directly to Hadi, even demanding that its permit be revoked.
Why? Because Hadi is a revered Muslim scholar. And lampooning and insulting him could anger the Muslim world with disastrous consequences.
One PAS leader went a step further. He raised the spectre of the 2015 attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, when two French Muslims shot and killed 12 people and injured 11 others.
“If you remember,” said the Penang PAS chief, “there was a French newspaper that published a caricature that angered the whole Muslim world.
“This man is the vice chief of the World Ulama Congress. If the cartoon went worldwide, it would only anger the Muslim world again.”
Yes, we all remember the Charlie Hebdo incident, but we’re not sure how it can be compared to NYSP’s monkey business unless two siblings from PAS barge into the NYSP office on a Wednesday morning and start shooting the staff.
The heinous crime that took place at Charlie Hebdo was roundly condemned, and rightly so. What’s not unanimous is whether the cartoon which triggered the attack was to blame. People differ on whether the incident can be viewed purely in terms of freedom of speech.
Some pointed out that there was bound to be reactions when the deeply revered symbol of a religion is deliberately targeted. Others scoffed at claims to “freedom”, when only a few years earlier a French paper had sacked a cartoonist for drawing an image linking the son of then-president Nicholas Sarkozy to Jewish interests.
Because Charlie Hebdo had insulted the man at the centre of the Muslim faith, the Pope too was qualified in his condemnations: “If (a close friend) says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”
Herein lies the difference between Charlie Hebdo’s thoughtless insult on the Prophet and NYSP’s insult on Hadi.
Hadi is not the Prophet or even a prophet. Neither does he represent Islam. He may be a Muslim scholar, he may be revered by millions, but his name is not uttered in prayers or mentioned in the Quran.
Comparing NYSP to Charlie Hebdo is not only irresponsible, but shows how some PAS members forget that their organisation is a political party, and their leaders are politicians who take part in elections with all its name-calling and smear campaigns.
Muslims, even the most hardline ones, will not feel that their deepest-held beliefs have been insulted by NYSP’s depiction of Hadi as a monkey.
Unless they think PAS is Islam and Islam is PAS. Or its president is a prophet who lives by the sea.
Abdar Rahman Koya is the editor-in-chief of FMT.