Following the ban imposed by the government on the Feb 11 issue of the Newsweek , many Malaysians, including this writer, who wanted to read the magazine had to resort to the Net for its web edition.

While this writer could not find any image of Prophet Muhammad in the web edition, he found the article discoursing the doctrinal similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam rather normal and acceptable, although one may not agree with a few interpretative understandings of the Bible and Quran. After all, the Newsweek writer did not claim unchallengeable authority on the subject.

It is certainly not right for Newsweek to publish the so-called image of Prophet Muhammad in its paper edition. It is insensitive to one of the fundamental beliefs or core values of Muslims, shared by all the different schools of interpretative thought in the Islamic community worldwide. This has also been understood by many non-Muslims throughout the world for a long, long time.

However, instead of imposing a straight and blanket ban, the government should strike a balance by allowing those copies in which the image had been taken out to be distributed as usual. In this case, moderation and compromise on both sides are needed.

In any case, the controversy of the Feb 11 Newsweek must not be confused with the ban imposed on the Far Eastern Economic Review , Time and Economist . The Malaysian government is wrong to ban the other three magazines.

There is simply no religio-doctrinal sensitivity behind the reports and opinions published by these foreign magazines on international terrorism in Southeast Asia and Malaysia. If the government thinks there are factual errors in these reports and/or opinions, it should dispute them openly in our own media or by writing to them. And if the government thinks that the factual errors were committed with malice, it should sue the magazines in court, backed by facts and figures.

Propaganda backfires

To be fair, it is the government of Dr Mahathir Mohamad and its propaganda machines that have been giving the world the strong impression that Malaysia is full of Islamic fundamentalists, mad mullahs, Islamic terrorists, radical Holy Warriors and the like.

Initially, it probably intended to use these scary images to discredit former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, opposition parties Keadilan and PAS, and to mobilise the support of non-Muslims in Malaysia and Western powers for the regime. Instead, the propaganda has now backfired to the detriment of the image of the whole country.

Western governments and investors are of course justifiably worried because they have investments, personnel and facilities located in Malaysia. Since it was our government which claimed that there were many real or potential terrorists around and started to detain people without trial under emergency powers in the form of the Internal Security Act, these foreigners naturally have to take appropriate precautions.

One way out for our government is to first lift the ban on The Review , Time and Economist , then charge all the suspected terrorists in open court and unconditionally release the legitimate dissidents and opposition leaders.

Otherwise, as western governments, investors and media continue to have legitimate reasons to be cautious against Malaysia and many Malaysians will continue to blame the government for irresponsibility abroad and authoritarianism at home. In other words, the support base, both holy and secular, for the government will continue to narrow and erode.

JAMES WONG WING ON is chief analyst of Strategic Analysis Malaysia (SAM) which produces the subscriber-based political report, Analysis Malaysia . Wong is a former member of parliament (1990-1995) and a former columnist for the Sin Chew Jit Poh Chinese daily. He read political science and economics at the Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. While in Sin Chew , he and a team of journalists won the top awards of Malaysian Press Institute (MPI) for 1998 and 1999.

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