Marina Mahathir is one of Malaysia's leading Muslim women writers who
contributes a regular column for the Kuala Lumpur daily newspaper, The Star.
Earlier this month, Ms Mahathir, daughter of the former Malaysian Prime
Minister, wrote about the Da Vinci Code and wondered what would happen if a
Muslim writer wrote such a thriller based on Islam.
"...if anyone tried to write a similar thriller based around Islam, they'd
be hounded and pilloried and threatened with death, thousands would riot in
protest and people who would never have been able to read the book either
because they are illiterate or can't afford it would have died. Such is the
difference between our religions. While there are many Christians who are
upset about the book and movie, they are countering it with seminars and
other educational events to balance what is being said in the book, even if
the book is only fiction. There have not been Da Vinci Code-related riots or
deaths thus far. Which speaks volumes for the adherents of the faith."
Read and reflect.
May 3, 2006
By MARINA MAHATHIR
The Star, Kuala Lumpur
A friend was relating how after her daughter had read the Da Vinci Code, she
had wanted to read the Bible. Which is not in itself a bad thing except that
she was concerned that an impressionable young mind would not be able to
differentiate fact from fiction. Also it seemed that perhaps what was needed
is a Da Vinci Code-type book for Muslims to spark off the same level of
interest in young people in their own religion.
Except that if anyone tried to write a similar thriller based around Islam,
they'd be hounded and pilloried and threatened with death, thousands would
riot in protest and people who would never have been able to read the book
either because they are illiterate or can't afford it would have died.
Such is the difference between our religions. While there are many
Christians who are upset about the book and movie, they are countering it
with seminars and other educational events to balance what is being said in
the book, even if the book is only fiction. There have not been Da Vinci
Code-related riots or deaths thus far. Which speaks volumes for the
adherents of the faith.
It would be nice if everyone could brush off similar challenges and say "we
are strong enough to withstand any attack". Even if a book or a movie
becomes a runaway hit, compared to the total number of any faith's
followers, the numbers sold can never match it. Books are by nature, in a
world where illiteracy is still common, a luxury item. As are American
movies, no matter what arguments people make about cultural imperialism.
I remember when there were riots over Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic
Verses, President Benazir Bhutto commented wryly that the people who were
dying over the book were those who would never have read it, or possibly
even heard of it if someone hadn't whipped them into a frenzy. A similar
situation arose with the cartoons. As insensitive as they were, they were
still not worth dying over.
The point is that people's impressions of a religion are often related to
the behaviour of its adherents. Some religions are thought of as simply
kooky because its followers behave strangely. Some are viewed as benign and
peaceful because its followers resolutely will not harm a fly.
But when people, supposedly in the name of religion, riot, burn and kill, it
can't help but give the impression of a religion that advocates this, no
matter how much we point out that nowhere in religious texts itself does it
say you should do this. And unfortunately we get the whole spectrum, from
men who publicly insult women on a daily basis without censure to the real
Recently in New York I had to suffer the embarrassment of having to listen
to a Muslim man say to a non-Muslim woman at a forum, "Don't mess with
Muslims, we have nuclear weapons!" There I was trying to dispel stereotypes
about violence-prone Muslims and in one fell swoop, this nutcase confirmed
every stereotype there was.
I think the only people who can dispel stereotypes about Muslims are women.
While there are certainly some conservative women, even when these speak out
they will naturally change perceptions because in a world where Muslim women
are perceived to be perpetually hidden behind curtains, their sheer presence
and articulateness will be noticed. What more if they are able to argue
rationally in a calm manner.
Thus far there have been very few Muslim men in the international media who
give a good impression. We might argue that the Western media selects who
they interview in order to perpetuate stereotypes, which is true and that is
a problem for all of us. A man or woman who looks like the archetypal
wild-eyed conservative is far more telegenic than someone who looks like
everyone else. Channel surfers are far more likely to stop at the sight of
someone they think of as alien to their culture than if they see someone too
similar to them. To stop this means having to make a concerted effort to
come together as one community and decide on a sophisticated media strategy.
But sadly coming together as one united community is a challenge in itself.
If we do manage as a global community to change other people's perceptions
of us, the benefits would be many. Our own people might think more kindly of
each other so peace would reign within. And because within ourselves, we
respect diversity, we can do the same with others. Then peace would truly
have a chance.