by Azly Rahman
On my Facebook page I had a most interesting conversation with one of Malaysia’s most prominent authors, a lawyer and human rights and intellectual activist who is also a columnist with a major online newspaper. The subject was rock music and why Isma is not happy that Amy (photo) and the rock group Search, called ‘hantus’ or ‘ghastly characters’, are still being honoured to perform for our youth, after 53 years of independence.
We exchanged views on the nature of discourse being used and attempt to provide a ‘deep analysis’ (borrowing Noam Chomsky’s term on linguistic analysis re: transformational grammar) of the matter. Below is what transpired:
Q: On the question of why Isma is branding others they do not like as ‘hantus’, here is our analysis:
A. I am quite sure many of them were also fans of Hantu Rock music in their younger days, before being born again and enlightened and the degree of Arabism swings like a pendulum. I blame the clever marketing of Islamic ACapella Balada Rock genre of the eighties as the reason for this battle of the bands; Hantu vs Malaikatu.
I blame groups such as El Suraya Medan, Raihan, Rabbani, and Brothers, and turbaned Malaysian kids of a capella music for creating this chasm.
Clever marketing in the music and cultural industry (smile emoticon). It’s all about music, as Paul McCartney reminded John Lennon on the latter’s passion for idealism and revolutions.
Q: On the question of why one the market for Islamic a capella or ‘gospel’ music wants to push its dominance over other genre such as rock and the reason behind it, here is what we proposed as explanation:
A: It’s called ‘post-industrial tribalism’, in which, as waves of change cometh, such as ‘Islamisation’ brought about by Parti Islam SeMalaya (PAS) and amplified by Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim), there is an opportunity for capitalism to create market segmentation and to sell ‘cultural creations/artifacts’ that go well with ideology.
Thus, sale of religious fetish objects improved because the politics of identity set in; those who felt that they have sinned began to clump together and try to repent and reform by attaching themselves to object, signs, symbols, signification, and representations of religiosity.
The issue of salvation and the need to save others from ‘western, liberal and therefore evil’, forces set in, dominating discourse in society. It works for the market, just like selling Coke, Pepsi, Levis, etc for different groups needing individuation and needing to subscribe to group psychology as well.
In this case, the image of religiosity based on Arabism is adopted, eroding the Malay culture that itself is rich, extremely rich, in creative elements rooted in traditions older than Arabism. So, you have Malays looking more Arab than the Arabs wish to look when they arrive in America, for example.
Religion is culture and culture religion and spirituality and institutionalised and commercialised religion - these are too complex for people to understand, yet, like the fish in the water they live in it and cannot live without the confusion and ‘white noise’. I have seen many ex-rockers, Mat Ganja, Minah JB, swing like pendulums joining ‘tabligh’ groups such as Al Arqam. To them, there is no experience of moderation, middle path, and evolving self.
Power and to control others with little knowledge is also the essence of the problem. I don’t know - as Socrates would say. But that’s the consequence of globalisation and hyper- or half-baked modernity, leading to the emergence of post-industrial tribes - the Hantus and the Malaikatus, in a Malaysian whose politicians are now like Kelkatus and the rakyat all ‘mati kutu’, as the Johoreans would say.
Fans of Rock, Rabbani, Raihan, and Orkestra Rebana Ubi abound.
Phenomena of ‘pious consumerism’
Q: On the question on the phenomena of the ‘pious consumerism’, that also helps expand the market for Islamic fashion, such as the women’s head-coverings that may cost as much as a thousand ringgit, we came out with this explanation:
A: Well, if we have a halal anti-hysteria kit about to sell well, what else ‘Islamic’ wouldn’t? We cannot blame people - different segments of society are also primarily class-based. How much can religion be used as ganja of the masses is also a key consideration in creating such market segments.
The Saudis are cleverly doing this with religious tourism, turning Mekkah and the surrounding area into a boogie wonderland better than Hollywood and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida combined. That is the ultimate Islamic image globally portrayed; never mind if it was alleged that the kingdom is now getting help from Israel and the USA to bomb Yemen into medieval times.
Yet Malaysians love this aspect of Arabism, because of the sense of ‘memory’: or ‘religiosity’ of somewhat an ‘imagined community’ borrowing Benedict Anderson’s term. Never mind if Tabung Haji is a coffer for the highly toxic investment firm 1MDB and all that is now representing corrupt-to-the core regime, Malay-Muslims will still patronise the ‘religious-savings body’.
Yes, ‘pious consumerism’ as you correctly called it. Because Malays especially are weak in philosophical reasoning and inquiry, their capacity destroyed by the feudal lords and the Malacca sultans, and now their own political leaders.
That is our story. And yes, why would one pay a thousand ringgit for a brand-name ‘tudung’, when you could buy a hundred no-logo Pekan Rabu Aloq Setaq kopiahs for your husband, and still feel and look Islamic together?
Q: On the concern where our country is going with this phenomena of ‘pious-isation’ and ‘Arabisation of the Malays’, and if being social commentators is adequate, and the picture emerging we had this as a possible conclusion:
A: I should say a picture of our own Dorian Gray; and yes, observing and commenting are also two good ways to exercise our rights as citizens, besides voting. To each his/own way of contributing. You yourself are doing a fantastic job educating others on their rights, privileges, and responsibilities. “Kipidap” as our own Ayahanda Rani Kulup will say! ; at least this guy is dead honest in not looking like an Arab; more like Borat in The Dictator.
As every society need clowns, and every court need jesters, we need many more Mr Kulups, else the rakyat will revolt and tear down the streets if there is no clowns, breads, and circuses offered. Else the rakyat will all be running down the street screaming like Mansor Al Hallaj - albeit for the wrong reasons.
At the end of this enjoyable conversation, we concluded that our society need people like Abdul Rani Kulup to ease the tension building up perpetually, in the manner court jesters and clowns are needed.