Saturday, February 13, 2016

Anti-Islam and All That Jazz

There is a type of thinking about literature in Malay critical writing today that I find deeply disturbing. It is a type of thinking that would make our literature a closed system, all in the name of “the true or pure Malay-Islamic tradition.”

Mohd. Affandi Hassan
“True Malay,” mind you. There’s no concern with the truly Malaysian, despite all the fuss about the National Language and the ideals it’s supposed to embody. As is usual with such thinking, it tends to resort to highly charged emotive language when arguing against its opponents. Condemnatory labeling of opponents designed to put them beyond the pale of the Malay-Islamic world is not infrequent. “Anti-Malay” and “anti-Islamic” are the ultimate weapons of condemnation. And we all know what it means in this country to be called “anti-Malay” or “anti-Islam.” It’s like being labeled “pro-Communist” or “un-American” during the witch-hunting McCarthy Era in the USA.
This is a crude strategy one would expect of the hack journalist, fundamentalist demagogue or chauvinistic politician who writes for the mob, but not of a critic with a pretension to scholarship. Such a critic is one Mohd. Affandi Hassan who is currently engaged in an offensive on behalf of what he considers “pure Malay” (read “Islamic”) concept of literature in the widely circulated literary monthly Dewan Sastera. His target is Professor Muhammad Haji Salleh of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia).

Muhammad Haji Salleh
It was Professor Muhammad’s inaugural lecture, called Puitika Melayu (Malay Poetics), delivered at UKM two years ago and subsequently published, which provoked Encik Affandi into writing a lengthy still ongoing polemic full of pompous fashionable talk about “domains” and “systems” in literature. Professor Muhammad uses some current Western literary theories to formulate or speculate about the conceptual basis of traditional Malay literature. Encik Affandi thinks that the Professor’s allegedly misguided use of such theories has made him guilty of worshipping the West (“pemujaan kepada Barat”). As if that wasn’t bad enough, he further accuses the poor Professor of “berlebihan memuja tinggalan animism dan Hindu Buddha” (“excessively worshipping the survivals of animism and Hindu-Buddhism”), and therefore of having an attitude that is “sangat anti-Islam” (“very anti-Islamic”), simply because the Professor has some positive things to say about the unstated theory behind certain pre-Islamic Malay literary/cultural forms.  

Professor Muhammad rightly considered the label “anti-Islam,” repeated several times in the first part of Encik Affandi’s polemic, as a defamatory and took legal action. But the case didn’t make it to the courts; Malay civility finally triumphed with the publication of an apology by Encik Affandi and Dewan Bahasa in the current issue of Dewan Sastera. I hope this incident will be a lesson to other fanatical and shrill defenders of the purity of Malay-Islamic values.
In this modest column, I don’t wish to enter the debate between these two gergasi (giants) of Malay literary theory. I am not a scholar of Malay literature, and I am hopelessly “Westernized.” The views I have about traditional Malay literature are those of an idiosyncratic layman, and they are probably outrageous enough to provoke people like Encik Affandi into calling me all kinds of things. And that can be dangerous. What I would like to do here is make a few comments on certain things Encik Affandi says which I think I know something about. Encik Affandi believes with his guru, Professor Syed Naquib al-Attas, that Islam radically and totally transformed the Malay world-view, sensibility and concept of literature. Because of that, it is considered dangerously atavistic to talk of the survival and influence of pre-Islamic literary concepts and values.
The claim of total transformation from pre-Islamic to Islamic concept of aesthetic values is, I think, highly arguable, but it is not what I want to argue here. What I would like to take up is Encik Affandi’s claim that after a long period of Islamic conceptual dominance, embodied in literary forms of Islamic origins like the hikayat and syair, the Malay concept of literature underwent another radical, but this time corrupting transformation under the influence of Westernization. Like many others who think like him, he indiscriminately lumps all Western literary influence as “totally secularistic,” in the sense of being hostile to things spiritual or metaphysical. This is like the popular tendency to identify everything Western with materialism (in both the philosophical and moral sense though the latter is usually meant). Although it is true that secularism and philosophical materialism did come with Westernization, it is a gross distortion of Western literary ideas and practice to say that the influence of Western concepts of literature, as embodied in Western-inspired forms like the novel, puisi (poetry) and drama, has meant “total secularism.” No one with even a superficial first-hand acquaintance with Western literature would make such a claim. There are western writers who are thoroughly secular (especially those influenced by Marxism), but many of them, including some of the great modernists, even the apostates among them, were consumed by a hunger for the transcendent had an acute sense of the sacred, however unorthodox or anti-doctrinal, and were certainly fiercely critical of the spiritually impoverished nature of modern man’s existence. Only a person with a deficient notion of spirituality would say that a rejection of established doctrinal religions necessarily means the rejection of spirituality and the embracing of “materialism.”
A preoccupation with man’s spiritual needs has certainly always been a continuing and essential part of Western poetry. Even the novel, the dominant, supposedly secular, literary form is not necessarily anti-spiritual. The focus of the novel may be social man, but it doesn’t preclude the exploration of spiritual and metaphysical themes. Far from it. Encik Affandi’s ignorant dismissal of all modern literature (“sastera moden seluruhnya”), including modern Malaysian literature formally influenced by it, as reflecting “the writer’s spiritual emptiness” (“kekosongan jiwa penulis”) is so incredible that it is not worth arguing against it. It’s clear to me that Encik Affandi, the zealous champion of what he takes to be the true Malay concept of literature, has an incredibly rigid and closed notion of the spiritual in literature. And he clearly uses the word “secular” to mean anything he considers “un-Islamic”, and therefore “un-Malay.”

His weird concept of literature and writing in general is so closed that he even (not surprisingly, I’d say) questions the involvement of non-Malays (“kaum imigran” or “immigrant community”) in Bahasa Malaysia writing. Their motives he says, are highly dubious and the consequence of their involvement, together with that of the “total secularization” of literature, is a “new barbarism” (“kebiadaban baru”)! 

“Barbarism” indeed! I wonder which truly comes under that category – the target of his attack of the kind of thinking behind that attack. 

26 June 1991

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