Some government officials have claimed that Christians are making an unnecessary fuss over the recent stamping of the Al Kitab seized in Port Klang and Kuching.
After all, they say, the government also requires copies of the Quran to be chopped/stamped with a notice of government approval before they are sold in the shops.
Even some Christians also wonder why such a big deal is being made about the stamping since Christians, unlike Muslims, do not regard printed copies of the Bible with reverence. It is just a printed text. What matters is the message conveyed by the Bible.
This article seeks to address the failure to understand the reason for rejecting the stamping of the Al Kitab. The terms of the debate need first be clearly defined to ensure accuracy in my analysis and coherence of my argument.
Since the issue is whether the government officials committed desecration of the Holy Bible let me begin with some definitions taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.
1. Of a thing, place, etc.: kept or regarded as sacred; set apart for religious use or observance; consecrated.
2.Of a god or icon: (to be) held in religious veneration or reverence; spec. in the Christian
Church, free from all contamination of sin and evil, morally and spiritually perfect.
1. Consecrated to or considered especially dear to a god or supernatural being.
2.Set apart for or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration or respect;
consecrated, hallowed (in names of animals and plants indicating ancient or traditional
1.Remove or violate the sacred nature of, profane; fig. spoil or treat with contempt (something venerated or admired).
From these definition I shall say that when Christians refer to "The Holy Bible" they are commending it as something set apart or dedicated to religious activity and thus to be held in reverence.
There is some diversity among Christians in the way they approach the Bible. Some devout Christians approach the text with veneration. Other Christians feel they do not need to revere a printed book, but they will still consider the text to be indispensable in leading them into the presence of the Holy God.
We should also keep in mind that Muslims display great reverence for their holy text, as is evident from the way they physically handle the printed Quran and how they protest (violently in some cases) when the Quran is reportedly mishandled or desecrated.
How do we decide when a holy text has been desecrated, that is, violated and treated with contempt? Let us consider several scenarios pertaining to how the holy text could be treated:
1. A government official stamps on copies of the Quran to declare they are legally approved by the authorities.
2. A Christian stamps his name on the inside cover to declare ownership of a copy of the Bible.
3. A Christian highlights a scripture text while reading the Bible.
4. A critical scholar scrawls on pages of his Bible with the word "LIES AND MYTHS" while a militant atheist cuts off sections of the Bible he considers out of date and irrelevant (for example - miraculous stories).
5. A Nazi mob burns a heap of seized Bibles with wood carved in the form of the Swastika.
Comments on the above scenarios :
1. Obviously, stamping on these Qurans is not an act of desecration. Rather, it positively declares that these copies of the Quran are to be accepted as authoritative texts to be used by Muslims in their devotion. Its intention is one of positive regard in contrast to desecration that treats the text with contempt.
2. This action has no expressed valuation on the Biblical text. The owner simply declares his ownership of the book. The question of desecration does not arise.
3. For this devout Christian, highlighting the texts emphasizes his response while engaging with the text - as a human listening to the voice of God speaking through the text. It represents the personal response of the reader as he is led into the presence of the divine. Obviously, the reader's attitude is one of reverence rather one of triviality and contempt.
On the other hand, other Christians may hesitate to highlight the text even when they experience spiritual uplift while reading the text because of their cultural background and personal sentiments. In this case, both these groups of Christian should respect each other and give allowance to one another so long as both groups respect the Bible and more importantly, obey the spiritual injunction of its teachings.
4. There is no desecration when a critical scholar declares he does not regard the Bible as the revealed word of God. He may even exercise his academic freedom and publish articles that criticise the Bible. The scholar is entitled to his view but the militant atheist is expressing contempt for the Bible and commits desecration by cutting up the Bible.
5. The Nazi mob is expressing publicly their contempt towards the Bible. The fire symbolically declares the intention of the Nazi movement to destroy both Christianity and the Bible. This is a desecration and a violent declaration of war.
Obviously, the issue of desecration is a complex one. We need to take into account the cultural values and the intention of the actors in making judgment when someone makes a mark on a holy text. We need to be sensitive to both the intention of the actor (message sent) and the perception of the believers of the holy text (message received). They may or may not coincide.
How then do we evaluate the action of the government officials when they stamped the Al Kitab with the words: "FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY" "BY ORDER OF THE HOME MINISTER".
The root cause of the problem can be traced back to the December 1981 when the then Deputy Minister of Home Affairs gazetted the prohibition of the Al Kitab in Malaysia under Section 22 of the Internal Security Act 1960 (PU (A) 15/82).
It was a draconian order prohibiting absolutely the printing, publication, sale, issue, circulation or possession of the Al Kitab. The gazette contained a very serious accusation, which might even be considered seditious, stating that the prohibition was made on the grounds that the Al Kitab is prejudicial to the national interest and security of the Federation.
In March 1982, a subsequent decision of the Deputy Minister repealed the above order in recognition of the fact that it is unacceptable to prohibit Christians from using their Holy Scriptures.
This was done vide PU (A) 134 which, while retaining the prohibition, subjected it to the condition that "this prohibition does not apply to the possession or use in Churches of such publication by persons professing the Christian religion throughout Malaysia".
It should be emphasised that such a restriction is unacceptable by any standard of modern democracy. But even then the Christian community went along with the government. As such, there was no attempt to display and sell copies of the Al Kitab in public bookstores like MPH.
In December 2005, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi made an agreement with Church leaders whereby Christians were allowed to import the Al Kitab on condition that its front cover has the words "Penerbitan Kristian" along with the symbol of the cross.
Although the word ‘compromise' is used here, it was actually the case of Christians giving ground. After all, even the unacceptable gazette in 1982 did not require imprinting of the words "Penerbitan Kristian" and the symbol of the cross.
So when cabinet minister Max Ongkili now suggests that Christians should compromise in a spirit of give and take, he should be reminded that it has always been the case of the Christians compromising - the Christians are always giving and the government is always taking.
The issue of desecration did not arise when Christians agreed to print the cross with the caveat onto the cover of the Bible since it was to assure the government that Christians are not engaging in covert evangelism.
Unfortunately, this did not stop the government from continuing to seize the Al Kitab and other Christian teaching materials. The harassment from the government climaxed with the recent stamping of the Al Kitab without consent from the Christian community.
To add salt to injury, the chop includes in bold print the words, "FOR CHRISTIANS ONLY" "BY ORDER OF HOME MINISTER". This imprint amounts to discrimination against Christians and displays contempt towards their Holy Scripture. Two concerns arise immediately.
First, Christians cannot in good conscience limit the Word of God only to Christians. It is for anyone who freely seeks him including the animists in East Malaysia, atheists, secularists, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. By the same token the Buddhists and Hindus also say their holy writings are also for every interested seeker.
They don't have to apologise for their view and Christians respect their freedom to share their holy writings to all and sundry. Christians want to ask the government: "Why single out Christians and the Bible?" This is religious discrimination to say the least.
Second, the government officials obviously displayed contempt towards the Al Kitab in the act of stamping it. How else can Christians react but to reject such an imposition? Why should Muslims feign surprise that Christians feel their Holy Bible (Al Kitab) has been desecrated?
Indeed, some Muslims would respond with violence if their Quran is treated in the same manner. Be assured that Muslims understand the need to respect and give reverence to printed copies of holy texts.
Further, the government acted with arrogance towards both Christians and the Al Kitab when they went full throttle to stamp on the Al Kitab, even while the Christians cried "Desecration!" This is nothing less than an "in your face" insult.
To cap the arrogance, the government now arrogates for itself power over God's Word with the bold imprint, "BY ORDER OF HOME MINISTER". Such a statement imposed and imprinted upon the Al Kitab is alarming as it can amount to BLASPHEMY (arrogating for oneself the honor and authority which belongs to God).
It is already an act of defacement when the government utterly disregarded the fact that Christians regard the Al Kitab as Holy Scripture.
It is a hostile and contemptuous action that ignores the protest from Christians. In the light of these factors, any self-respecting Christian who loves God and His Holy Scripture can only judge the government's action as one of DESECRATION of God's Word.
Dr Ng Kam Weng is research director of the Kairos Research Centre.
Unrestrained power in your hands
For almost 20 years, Malaysiakini has stayed true to the cause of providing the Malaysian public with the truth. We believe that with unadulterated information, the people will obtain power to make informed decisions.
Decisions which lead to a healthy, robust nation - ours!
Keep the truth alive. Support your robust, independent media. You have the unrestrained power to do so.
Who says it's not our fault?
We aren’t trained to take responsibility.
Everytime we observe an injustice - and choose to keep mum - the prevalence of injustice becomes our fault.
Astute journalism paves the way for the public to be continuously furnished with the fastidious truth. You are continuously empowered to act and to uphold the integrity of the nation.
The Rakyat owns Malaysiakini
We choose to take a risk on independent media because we believe that only through independent reporting can one be NOT beholden to the interest of businesses or organisations. This allows us to really pursue the truth - aggressively.
Independent for 20 years.
The victorious people
In the light of holding the truth to power, Malaysiakini will continue to uphold its mission of providing credible news to its discerning public. Your support for Malaysiakini is always treasured as a testament of innate nationalism. Your victory is our history.
Quietly. Effectively. Says it all. Malaysiakini.
Speaking truth to power
When we embarked on this journey 20 years ago, we knew we would face intimidation, harassment, raids, arrests and perhaps even jail terms. We got into this venture with our eyes wide open.
The main reason we have survived this long - when many others have folded - is partly because we are prudent in our finances. But while we may be tightfisted in our budgeting, we do not hold back when it comes to speaking truth to power and holding power to account. And certainly, this new administration will not stop us from continuing to do so.