Paulsen’s arrest and a government in a state of paranoia
The public contestation of ideas is a crucial aspect of a thriving democracy. While freedom of speech cannot be absolute, the rule of law must be sacrosanct and all organs of power must observe this principle of parliamentary democracy according to letter and spirit. Bereft of this, a nation runs the risk of being brought to the brim.
Hence, arbitrary arrests, selective prosecution and skewered court judgements run afoul of this doctrine and offend against our sense of dignity. These violations are no trifling matter in governance but indeed should be seen as capital crimes against the people of a civilised state, one that prides itself with a constitution that guarantees our fundamental liberties to be safeguarded by the rule of law.
The latest transgression committed in this regardis the arrest on Monday night and the two-day remand of Eric Paulsen over his tweet accusing Jakim (the Islamic Development Department) of promoting extremism in its Friday sermons. Both the act of arrest as well as the manner with which it was carried out is clear manifestation of the rule of law standing on its head and a government in a state of paranoia.
How else could one explain the despatching of a platoon of more than 20 police officers just to apprehend one man, never mind that he is also a prominent human rights lawyer? If that blatant show of excessive force was intended to be an act of state intimidation it has successfully demonstrated the gross imbalance between the overwhelming might of the state and the helplessness of the citizen. In the face of executive tyranny, our fundamental liberties fly out the window. One man’s tweet could indeed be another man’s poison.
Since he has not been charged, it remains unclear what specific offence Eric Paulsen stands accused of but as the IGP himself has indicated via his tweet, it will be under the catch-all Sedition Act, no doubt a relic of the British colonial era. Shortly after taking office, PM Dato’ Sri Najib swore on the altar of democratic reform that he would abolish this piece of legislation but not only has he reneged on this promise, he has outdone his predecessors by transforming it into a weapon of mass persecution in order to muzzle opposition leaders and those critical of the government.
Aside from the breakdown in the rule of law, the over-reaction to Paulsen’s tweet also signifies the rising tide of religious intolerance that appears to be engulfing our multi-racial multi-religious nation. And fanning the flames of communal suspicion, hatred and hostility are the usual suspects who owe their existence to political patronage. Many have jumped into the fray to call for the lynching of Paulsen audaciously on the lofty ground of defending the dignity of Islam and Muslims. It is indeed hypocritical and farcical that among the most vehement of those whose ‘dignity’ has been so assailed and are now baying for blood are those notorious for making racist slurs and issuing threats of violence.
Islam has survived for almost 1500 years without these self-righteous self-proclaimed defenders of the faith. It can certainly go on for another thousand years and more without them. Islam teaches tolerance and understanding. They preach hostility and bigotry. Islam enjoins reaching out and reconciliation. They urge discord and rejection. The twain shall never meet.
To some, Eric Paulsen’s tweet may well have crossed the line and some may take offence. To some others, it might be taken as legitimate criticism. In any event, Jakim is not synonymous with Islam. As an agency under the Prime Minister’s Department made up of ordinary mortals, it is not infallible. To suggest that criticism directed at them constitutes an attack on Islam is the height of audacity and indeed an affront to Islam itself.
Even if Paulsen had not tweeted about Jakim, the fact is that Muslims in this country know the worth of Friday sermons especially those delivered free of political slant and interference. But it is widely known that Jakim sermons have on various occasions made unwarranted attacks, albeit in oblique fashion, on the opposition and opposition leaders. Calling for moderation and mutual understanding among the communities and the diverse religious groups in the country has not been the practice of Jakim. But when it does do so, I have been among the first to commend it for doing the right thing – as I did on one occasion last year for an inspiring sermon on the need for the different communities to reach out and get to know one another.
To say that Islam is not an extremist religion and in the same breath calling for ‘stern action’ against Paulsen for his tweet is indeed a contradiction in terms. Just declaring that “Islam is the most moderate religion” is not good enough. We must walk the talk. Indeed as Friday sermons also deal with issues of society and humanity and if, as it is alleged by some, that Paulsen is not aware of this, then it is the duty of Muslims to enlighten him on the subject, not attempt to crucify him by the force of law.