Power Relations and Public Activism: A Conversation with Norani Othman

NM: Good evening everyone. This is the Naratif Malaysia podcast series and video again. Today we will be having another session with scholars and writers who are active in the field of social sciences in Malaysia. With me today is prof Dr Norani Othman. She has previously worked at IKMAS UKM. She has written on extensive fields from politics, to economy, to religion which of course a focus on certain field but a broad range. We have prof with us here to share some of her views and ideas on the development and landscape of social sciences in Malaysia. Thank you for joining us.

As a start, I would like to ask you. You have a long and extensive experience and affiliation with many different groups and institutions. In your opinion, how do you see the social sciences now compare to the last few years or a decade ago? Can you share with us a broad development of how social sciences has come and reach today in Malaysia?

NO: I suppose you are referring social science in the university. I’m not particularly aware because I’ve left the university about 5 years. But I’m more familiar with universities overseas because I still maintain contact through some research or publication projects with people overseas. But I think in terms of the development in the country, social science is far more relevant now, particularly now, compared to before. But the role of current generation of social scientists whether sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, I am not too sure. Partly because with the advent and rise of the new social media, things are done in short time and the discourse or discussion seems to be very short and for me, almost superficial or trying to get onto the main bites. It’s very fast. And that I think will further undermine the role of social science in public debate and discourse. Unless the academics particularly take on the responsibility and the role of “public intellectual” of bringing some of their ideas, criticisms, and debates on the larger playing field–onto society. That, or secondly to take a bit more interest or give some input or play a certain kind of role in the world of social activism. I gave an example just now in my presentation. In the field of environment, I notice a number of very respectable researchers and scholars of environmental science playing that role of public space, taking up debates, advocacy.

NM: You have focused on certain particular themes throughout your research you’ve done like sociology of religion, politics and religion, or politics and Islam, as well as gender studies. How would you situate your work and ideas within the larger frame of social sciences in Malaysia? Or even at the international level.

NO: I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into one category or area. I began my career as an academic, as lecturer, in the field of family because my first thesis for my MPhil was on the socialisation of Malay youth in middle class families in PJ. But during that research, some questions that came up was the push or pressure by the parental generation for the children to be more religious or introducing informal religious education. They’re concerned about Islam. This was in in mid and late 1970s. And then as I teach and try to do whatever small researches at that time as a young lecturer on the field of family, I was concerned about gender relations within a marriage. Because when you talk of institution of family, it’s not just parents and children or the problem of the youth generation, but also marriage. So that sort of pushed me to broaden my reading, bibliographic – I call it my library research, and write small articles about gender roles. At the same time, by 1986, I joined this women’s professional group called the Selangor Association of Women’s Lawyers. Started by two Malay women. One of them, a lawyer, was the president of the association and the other one is my good friend, Zainah Anwar, who was at that time working at ISEAS as a research analyst. As we participate in that discussion, we have what we call our Monday meeting–every Monday, from 5-7–there was also the suggestion by the more religious people in terms of rituals saying we should end by having the maghrib prayer together rather than just focus on the intellectual discussion. Then as we talked about the problems of the family law… You must remember, we have a very good Islamic family law in 1974. It was looked as a model by various middle eastern countries as well as Indonesia because it recognises the rights of women. But in the political context of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, with the push from the main political party at that time ie PAS.. The Islamic family law is a state matter. So there are 14 states and 14 different set of laws including the written law. Generally, they have some basic common structure. But Kelantan and Terengganu for example would deviate a bit and impose certain other requirements of the duties of the wife or the wife need to seek permission from the husband if they want to go outside or continue their employment…

NM: It’s because of the interpretations are different?

NO: Interpretation, and it’s also the push came with Islamisation. Remember Dr Mahathir thinks he can outdo PAS by implementing Islamisation. To his credit, he had the view. When I interviewed him, he had the view that to introduce a modern version of Islam. But then the people that he entrusted to set up say institutions like IKIM or the various Islamic affairs, what we call various wings, new departments to do with administration of Islamic policy and laws. They recruited people who are not modernist. It tends to have been dominated by what I call a more traditionalist kind of view. So given that, a few of us especially we who are non-lawyers feel that we have to go beyond the law. Because there’s no point to just criticising the letter of the law or particularly Islamic family law in every state. So we have to go to the sources. Then we started to invite some scholars, whoever who was passing by at that time. One of the main scholars was Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd from Egypt, my good friend Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im from Sudan.. Abdullahi just came out with a book, Islamic Reformation. So we hold the breakaway from the association of women lawyers as the non-lawyers around 6-7 of us, we organised colloquium called Muslim law in the modern nation state. So that was the first publication of Sisters in Islam. I was the editor then. So that was the beginning, the stepping stone, of paying particular attention to the text and the interpretation of text. We set up study group and we look at various figures internationally who have come out with more interesting ideas that are relevant to modern life, and at the same time, as a sociologist teaching sociology of family, I was encouraging Malay and non-Malay students to do as their honour’s year thesis, to look at husband and wife roles under the rubric of sociology of family–also relations with religion and socialisation of children. So that’s how my interests sort of broaden and deepen.

NM: Would you say that… It seems and sounds like your foray into that field of studies, sociology of religion and Islam, also comes from a certain push from the outside, in the activism field…

NO: Yes. As we discussed just now in the workshop, there is a role for social scientists if you want to be relevant, to be in the public sphere. You don’t need to call yourself a public intellectual but playing the role when you are the source or you instigate new debates or put in new ideas. You can be a catalyst for certain interesting debates.

NM: Of course, there is a very close relation between social sciences and activism and public participation.

NO: Yes. For me, given my own situation and the socio-political development of Malaysia, the increasing rate of the so called Islamisation policies of Dr Mahathir, and him bringing in Anwar Ibrahim, and the introduction of new institutions that took on the role of deciding what kind of Islam.

NM: Some have called this bureaucratisation.

NO: Yes, some researchers and academics have written articles about the bureaucratisation. For me, it’s more than bureaucratisation. That’s only one dimension of it. That’s the Weberian dimension of it.

NM: In that sense, there’s always this assumption and impression we get that the field of social sciences and the practitioners from a certain time like 1990s or 1980s, as you mentioned the circle that you have moved to it is quite distinct and jarring with what’s happening. Do you see a certain disjuncture between the social sciences and what you say or do in public in terms of intervention and advocacy?

NO: I think there is less role for advocacy amongst practicing social scientists including academics from universities. I think partly you have to look at it in the context of the development of public universities and various competition with new universities. And the bureaucratisation and management of universities in the past two or three decades–emphasis on KPI, publication, the kind of careerist approach. As we discussed in the workshop just now, there is less of that critical approach of questioning the relevance and what kind of role social scientists as researchers, teachers, and academics should play in a developing country such as Malaysia. Of course, being a sociologist, I’m not content just by looking at religion and gender relation. I was also dragged to look at the political system. So I was very much drawn to the work other anthropologists and political scientists looking at the role of party politics in Malaysia particularly PAS and UMNO and the whole discourse of Islamisation. That’s when it pushed me to look at fundamentalism. One of the big projects I embarked on from 1995-1996 was challenging fundamentalism. In fact, that was when I first got to be quite well known amongst the bureaucrats in the university because the international workshop that I organised in 1995/96 called Challenging Fundamentalism, there was a push via a certain religious department in the state of Selangor to ban the conference. Mainly because Abdullahi was one of the speaker and the late Prof. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. Prof. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was a very well known, established, and respected scholar from Cairo, the Islamic university. But because of his critical stance and views, he sorts of suffered discrimination. So he was branded by our religious institutions here particularly the bureaucrats saying that we cannot have them. But I’m not one who gave up. So what I did was I said to the director of IKMAS to let go and I’ll do it as a free individual. I applied for leave for 10 days. And much to my surprise, all my general staffs said they will also apply 3 days leave. They kept working and organise as private individuals because it is important. I was very touched. These are the clerks, chiefs, the administrative officers.

NM: That kind of dedication and commitment or certain independence.

NO: Yes. I hope we still can find it in this age. So we held it in one of the private hotels. I got some funding from outside and managed to bring them in. They cannot speak at the conference because the ulama intervened by going to the Sultan of Selangor, whom the head of Islamic matters. The sultan bertitah that we can still have our conference but these two persons cannot speak. So they just spoke from the floor as participants, raising questions. But I kept telling them that they can spend at least 10 minute explaining their questions and giving opinions. What I’m trying to emphasise here is that you have to be creative in coping with this strong move to silence you.

NM: Now that you mentioned your projects and the kind of… As you said, trying to negotiate certain constraints in the 1990s… It’s very difficult especially within this context. Perhaps you could share with us. In this more contemporary, maybe in the last 5 years or a decade, and then going forward, what do you see as the critical points or the fault lines in society that should be given focus by social scientists, activists, or people who are just interested understanding society.

NO: I think if you go by the recent historical development of politicisation of religion or Islam, and by my own experience, there has been a consistent effort and move by the religious bureaucrats and institutions to silence you. So like declaring my international conference… Which is intimidating. I can understand why younger generation of scholars are not encouraged. You have to be a bit of a maverick and trouble to go against that. I’m sure it was not easy. I was lucky because I got various support–from various women’s groups like WAO, the organisation that tries to address the problem of violence against women even though they are predominantly led and many actors in there are non-Muslim, they have their concern as Malaysian citizens. They don’t see the split between Malay/non-Malay or Islam/non-Islam. It’s to look at the development in the nation state and to look at this role of religion. Because they said, ultimately, they will affect non-Muslim as well, indirectly. Of course, it can affect directly because in a multi-ethnic society, the inter-marriages. And you know the Lina Joy case. People wants to have their freedom to decide their own life trajectory. They don’t want to be forced.

NM: The idea of choice, economy within the religious, political contexts are crucial concern.

NO: Yes, and freedom within the democratic framework. So that’s why it pushes a number of us in the field, academics and activists, to look at the notion of freedom—freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and then freedom entails rights to be recognised. So that puts another emphasis on gender rights again and the rights of citizens regardless of religious etc. As a Malaysian.

NM: I was thinking you’ve worn many hats, you’ve gone through many geographical boundaries, and you’ve done a lot of work with many groups at the domestic, national, and international levels. Could you share some of your experience and how do you see the importance of—I’m sure you believe and affirm local, national, and international collaboration and networking to…

NO: I think, again, I was lucky because during that time from mid-1990s until 2010, various groups of academics, activists, organisations, and funding bodies like the Canergy Foundation, Ford Foundation, German foundations such as Friedrich Nauman Foundation… Well, in Germany itself it’s all align to political parties. But they are more and more concern about the question of religion particularly Islam, of politicisation of Islam, because at the same time the global development was the migration movement–from Algeria, northern part of Africa–where you have more and more Muslim migrants in France, Germany, with the Turkish communities in UK, and in USA. At the same time in USA, the rise of the middle class Muslim of the second generation who are born in US and so they had the advantage of secular and democratic kind of perspective from their education but at the same time they had the personal interest of their own Islamic identity and conviction. Why should we be ruled by what those ulama in say Saudi Arabia or Egypt says. What Al-Azhar does may be relevant to Egypt. Or half of it may not even be relevant to Egypt. So you have all these convergence of global developments to do with Islamisation in various Muslim countries as well as the rise of globalised fundamentalist Islam.

NM: So it’s always within that current of movement. But not only…

NO: And then of course the tower. It gives a very bad impression on Islam.

NM: In that sense, your participation is a reflection but also an affirmation of need to have look at things at the global level and not just locally anymore.

NO: Yes, because of that time very few people talking, as a Muslim [00:24:52.08], from a so called new [00:24:54.02], claim to be an Islamist perspective. So I get invitation a lot overseas and I was able through this project whether publication or joint research or conference publication from workshop to involve various Muslim communities in western countries.

NM: How have you seen this development? Have they progressed positively? Are you optimistic with these developments?

NO: Well, part of the economic development has sort of delayed or slowed down. That kind of participation interest because various European governments are more concerned with issues at hands in dealing with political Islamists in their countries or states. So they are not paying much attention to us particularly the periphery in Southeast Asia. They may have some attention to Egypt and some middle eastern countries like Sudan but not us in the Southeast Asia. So I think it’s quite difficult for the younger generation of scholars to get financial support from these foundations—to hold a conference that address the issue within the nation state of Malaysia but then also the region. It’s a bigger challenge. So I understand the lack of such activities to be done. And of course the dominance of the political Islamist in the country itself. As you know, SIS—I shouldn’t be mentioning it—but we have an ongoing court case.

NM: As a wrap, for all these things happening at the global and national levels, where do you see the direction or what would be your references or sources for young scholars and activists in moving forward from now in facing this? As you mentioned earlier, where social media and technology where things are so fast, and things are becoming so connected but at the same time fragmented.

NO: I am not pessimistic about the younger generation because they are in the new digital era. They can do many things through social media. And I tried in my limited ways. First I hate being on Facebook and Instagram. I find Whatsapp is already enough intervening my life. They have all these social medias and I do follow to some extent. Some of the discussions and debates being carried out are all very short burst. But if only… There’s a potential role. For me, when I think about it, the younger generation of academics and scholars, if you are really serious to have a public intellectual space, maybe this is the area you should look at. What are the possible roles, a positive one, in encouraging democratisation of space, of greater participation by younger people in speaking out about their own religious identity, politics, about government using racism and Islam to divide people? But of course I know the challenge is that the country has not let up in terms of its ISA and various forms of… And it’s making a comeback ever since the take over… Since Sheraton. One more if I may add. Given that we may have an election, snap or whatever, it’s also important for young scholars to start looking at our electoral system. I started that project in 2006. Book on electoral system and democracy in Malaysia. People should begin from there and make that relevant because it is very crucial. We had certain euphoria after the last election but then now the whole prospect…

NM: But it’s always about starting again I suppose.

NO: Yes, the challenge is about starting again. I don’t mind playing a role… Not the trouble maker this time… But leading from behind curtain or helping younger scholars and researchers who want to have that public space of thinking through the projects… I don’t know whether I still have a bit of a clout internationally to get funding…

NM: So these things always come out… Research, collaboration, partnerships, etc. Making that space for everyone.

NO: Yes. But even on your own. If you manage… Your university have a collaboration with another university whether inside Malaysia or more so outside Malaysia, try to use that project to inject a bit more critical approach and looking at it in the globalised context of the interdependency of political development of one country and how it affect others, particularly the Muslim countries.



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