The indignity of 2016

JANUARY 2 — Some developments and incidents that took place last year serve as a grim reminder that the sanctity of human dignity in many parts of the supposedly modern world is nowhere close to being fully respected, promoted, protected and/or reinforced. 

In certain cases, we witness this human dignity being savagely desecrated, devalued and trampled upon with impunity to the point where you wonder whether the perpetrators concerned have indeed degenerated into something that is sub-human. I wouldn’t use the term "bestial" in this regard as this would do injustice to some animals. 

The barbarism, for instance, that is closely associated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – or Daesh, as some people would prefer to call it – has resulted in countless deaths, injuries, rapes and torture and the consequent exodus of refugees to other parts of the world, particularly Europe, where some perished from hunger while others died when their overcrowded boats capsized. 

As if this is not enough, some of those who survived were unfortunate enough to be welcomed by racist slurs and intimidation in the country of refuge. To be sure, the dignity of all these hapless victims was in general crushed. 

The mass killings in Aleppo, Syria are yet another colossal human tragedy that has prompted its citizens to flee the country for different parts of Europe. Of course we must not forget the neverending systematic humiliation of the Palestinians under the Israeli Occupation. 

And in this part of our world, we see the human calamity that has descended upon the Rohingyas of Myanmar. The vicious rape of many Rohingya women, for instance, certainly is an acute form of humiliation that corrodes the very essence of human dignity. 

Many have been brutally killed in the “grossly disproportionate” crackdown on the country’s minority Muslim community. 

Human dignity is the value and worth of human beings whose utmost potential can be realised if freedom of thought and expression flourishes, and essential resources are made easily available to those who require them. 

That is why human dignity is very much related to the issue of human rights. Only with the freedom to express, associate and assemble as well as the availability of justice and peace can people protect and promote their dignity as human beings. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 thus places great importance on certain rights that can enhance the dignity of human beings. A sample of the properties of this Declaration would suffice to give an indication as to why human rights are important to human dignity. 

For example, Article 3 of the Declaration states that, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” while Article 5 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Article 19 puts emphasis on an individual’s right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right, it states, includes “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Lest I be accused of borrowing only ideas from the West, there are religious injunctions in Islam that indeed indicate that human beings are placed in an exalted position compared to other Divine creations. 

From the perspective of the Maqasid Sharia (MS), some Islamic scholars argue that, for instance, in the maqsad (purpose, aim or intention) of life the preservation of life would mean, among others, the right to life and personal liberty; the provision of food, shelter and clothing to those who can’t afford them; the quality, availability and affordability of healthcare; and the protection of the environment. 

In terms of the maqsad of mind, there is concern for the access to quality education; the promotion of science, technology, research and development; free dissemination of knowledge; and freedom of expression. 

And in the maqsad of honour, stress is placed on, say, the protection of personal dignity and reputation against defamation; the protection of the right to privacy; the protection from racial, religious and gender discrimination; and the protection and promotion of human rights. 

These purposes of the Shariah clearly are meant to protect and boost the dignity of human beings. 

It’s noteworthy that the devaluation of human dignity may not necessarily be brought about in a violent fashion. Sometimes subtle and indirect transgression of human dignity can be equally devastating. And this can happen, and has occurred, in our very own backyard. 

Poverty experienced by the underprivileged, especially in a society where the gap between the poor and the rich is yawning wide and vulgar, can injure the self-esteem of the people concerned. This certainly goes against MS’s notion of preservation of life. 

Something is amiss in our society where social contradictions have become too glaring. For example, the rich don’t give a toss about spending thousands of ringgit on clothes, handbags and hairdos while there are those who get caught for merely stealing a tin of milk and school uniforms for the basic needs of their destitute kids. And there are poor kids who even have to live on the streets. 

This emerges at a time when prices of goods and services have soared, despite the insulting assurance sometime ago from no less a minister than the indefatigable Ahmad Maslan that the omnipresent Goods and Services Tax (GST) would keep the prices down. 

And it doesn’t help to maintain, let alone promote, the self-esteem and dignity of the poor when they are paraded at events where they are to receive in much gratitude cash or hampers as a result of the purported generosity of the rich. What is often exhibited is the ostentation of the giver to the point of hurting the dignity of the receiver. 

The struggle of the Orang Asli in Kelantan to defend their ancestral land, lifestyle and culture against the aggressive logging and consequent deforestation is yet another example of how human dignity is shredded. Their approach to life and Nature must be respected, and not encroached upon, which violates the MS’s principle of the right to life and personal liberty, and the protection of the environment.

As intimated above, freedom of expression and thought is integral to human dignity and the MS as well. Hence, it is indeed humiliating for cartoonist Zunar, for example, to be harassed by mobsters as well as the authorities simply because of expressing his views peacefully and in public. 

Similarly, it doesn’t help to dignify Bersih 5 chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah when she was hauled up – and, lo and behold, put in solitary confinement – after she successfully organised a peaceful rally to express the public demand for free and fair elections, among other important things. Criminalising freedom of expression and assembly is appalling in a democracy that relishes in being known as a moderate Islamic state. 

Attacking someone below the belt is not only unfair but indignified. Joking recently about the surname of MP Teresa Kok is not only a slur on her self-worth, but Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, the Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Agro-based Industries, also consequently debased himself in that otherwise august chamber of Parliament. 

Maqsad of honour puts a premium on the protection of personal dignity and reputation against defamation, and the protection from racial, religious and gender discrimination, as well as the protection and promotion of human rights.

Tajuddin, to be sure, is not the only politician and MP in Malaysia who has this penchant for ridiculing women – and consequently makes a mockery of the notion of robust and civilised parliamentary debate whereby laws and future of the country are shaped. 

Students in general are also treated shabbily as if they’re second-class citizens. The instance of the four Universiti Malaya students who were recently given harsh sentences by the university is a case in point. 

To rule them by fiat and with injustice and deny them their right to express their opinions peacefully is to indignify them in an academic setting that is supposed to promote and respect debate, dialogue and dissent with the underlying aim of producing wholesome and respectable human beings. 

The action of the UM officials goes against free dissemination of knowledge (such as ideologies of various political parties and other social groups in the country) and freedom of expression that are instead emphasised in the MS. 

To be clear, the erosion of human dignity is obviously not peculiar to 2016. There were many incidents and human calamity – some of which were of gigantic magnitude – that occurred in yesteryears. 

It is hoped that we, collectively and individually, would conscientiously try to further strive – in our own little ways – to reduce the various instances of corroding human dignity in the years ahead. 

May we have a better 2017. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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