The trouble with silence is that nobody knows what it means, so we can only make up reasons.
I READ a curious piece of news the other day where one of our bigwigs said that by not criticising us, President Barack Obama is actually supporting us with his silence.
I don’t even know where to start with this apart from it making a good Monday morning laugh. As some people have pointed out, since when do we need the United States’ approval for anything?
And secondly, when did we start reading people’s minds that we know what they are thinking when they don’t say anything? Could it be that we are simply number 1,000th on Obama’s list of priorities?
It just intrigued me, this line of thinking that silence means assent. You can extrapolate it to so many things.
If our leaders say nothing to cases of Bibles being confiscated or threatened with burning, does that mean they approve? When some people behave incredibly badly, making out that they are superior to other citizens and we hear nothing from our leaders, does this mean they agree with them? Or when they have absolutely nothing to say about the many abuses of the Sedition Act that are carried out, can we assume that it means they think there is nothing wrong with extending the jurisdiction of the Act way beyond what it is meant for?
This is the trouble with silence. Nobody really knows what it means. So we can only make up reasons, just as that bigwig is making for Obama. If I were the President of the US, I’d swat that nonentity away for his presumption.
Maybe there is a culture of “silence is assent” in our society. The best way to assure agreement in this way is by not telling anyone what trouble they are in. So that if they don’t speak up, it must mean they don’t have any objections.
Hence, perhaps, the reason why a state religious authority kept quiet about their fatwa that named Sisters in Islam as deviant.
If we didn’t find out before the three-month deadline, then surely we must agree to it! Ta da! Did they actually expect us to then go around introducing ourselves as “Sesat in Selangor”?
Silence equals assent speaks volumes, ironically, about the lack of transparency in lawmaking in our religious institutions.
Are laws made from whims and fancies of certain people? Should there not be more rigour in ensuring standards of justice are met before they can be passed? Should it not be so watertight that if it is met with so much negative feedback, the authorities can give their reasons why they passed it without much hesitation? Or what does silence mean in this case? Oops, maybe?
Malaysia is unique in the Muslim world in that fatwa can actually become law once gazetted. This means that if anyone contravenes them, you can be subject to some sort of punitive action. Which is why some fatwa, such as those against smoking or Amanah Saham, are not gazetted since it would mean an overwhelming number of people would have to be hauled off to jail.
Someone must have thought that with this fatwa, only a small number of people would be punished so why not? Except that the fatwa itself is very wide since it covers “organisations, individuals and institutions” that subscribe to “liberalism and pluralism”.
By that undefined measure, just about anybody who thinks differently can be caught by it. The courts will be kept very busy trying everyone, as if they didn’t already have a backlog of divorces and child maintenance cases that they haven’t dealt with yet.
If the message that differing opinions will not be tolerated is obtuse to some, there are plenty of young people who get it immediately. And they don’t like it.
We get letters and e-mails of support from so many young people who say that they can’t take all this repression any more. They have the brains to think for themselves, they say, to decide for themselves what they should or should not do in life. They want to learn more about their faith, but not in this sledgehammer style, through omission or silence, by simply not being allowed to talk about issues.
Every day our religious authorities make themselves less and less relevant to our young by their condescending attitude towards them.
In this case, it would be a mistake to think that the silence of the young means they approve or they agree with all that our authorities do.
If you look and listen carefully, they are speaking in many different ways, not necessarily in the bureaucratic way that our authorities normally do. Each attempt to clamp down on them only emboldens them more.
Perhaps if our leaders did some mind-reading, they’d see that the silence doesn’t mean anything they thought it did.
> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good”. Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.