Manufacturing offence as political strategy

APRIL 16 — Today, Turkey will vote in a referendum that has the potential of forever changing the democratic and secular nature of the country, even as it is still reeling from a failed coup and jihadist violence.

A vote for “yes” would see the country abandon a parliamentary system in favour of an executive presidency, where the head of state has complete power not only over the executive and budget, but also an influence with the judiciary. Proponents say this will at least offer security and stability for the country.

And yet, a vote for “yes” can also result in a devastating focus of power in just one man with corroded checks and balances. And that man is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who rose to power from Istanbul mayor to prime minister in 2003, and then president around a decade later.

When Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, took over administration, they had been a symbol of modern Islamist success. They brought economic prosperity, and put shared values above religious goals. There is a reason why the progressives in Malaysia’s Islamist party PAS were dubbed “Erdogans” at one time.

But now, Erdogan only serves as a cautionary tale of how devastating it can be if an Islamist party comes into power on the back of a cult of personality. There were already foreshadowings of autocracy before, but since the failed coup, Erdogan has abused his emergency powers to arrest nearly 50,000 people and sack around 100,000 more.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during an event ahead of the constitutional referendum in Istanbul, Turkey April 12, 2017. — Reuters pic
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during an event ahead of the constitutional referendum in Istanbul, Turkey April 12, 2017. — Reuters pic

Accusations of Erdogan trying to style himself as a so-called “Sultan Erdogan” rings truer with his call for more powers, and even more ominous with his penchant for neo-Ottomanism — probably the last Islamic superpower to ever reign.

And despite that, Erdogan has such a fragile ego. Ever since he became president, over 1,000 cases have been opened against the public for allegedly insulting him. Even a German comedian — in German, no less — did not escape, as the Turkish government requested for a probe after an expletive-filled satirical poem was aired on TV there.

If anything, Erdogan can find solace that he is far from alone when it comes to “sensitivity” among Islamist leaders. Recent years have shown that supporters of PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang are also prone to being upset when he is insulted.

In 2015, PAS supporters were enraged when Bersih 4 rallygoers stomped on photos of Hadi because of suspected collusion with the ruling party. Just weeks later, pro-Malay protesters gave a racial slant to the incident to fuel its #Merah169 rally.

And yet this month, PAS Youth wing had no problems crumpling and throwing sheets of Nanyang Siang Pau when it protested against the Chinese daily for mocking Hadi in a caricature.

What was in the cartoon? Titled “Monkey Act”, the cartoon featured a monkey with a songkok labelled “Speaker” while the other sported a turban and identified as “Hadi Awang” atop a tree named “Act 355.”

The cartoon was obviously lampooning the decisions in Parliament to allow Hadi to table and postpone, over and over again, his private member’s BIll seeking to amend the Act so Shariah courts can deliver harsher punishments.

But rarely does a mob see reason. And especially not when it comes to Islam, no matter how little the religion is involved in an incident. And in Nanyang’s case, Islam did take centre stage; instead of a satire against two politicians, it has been maliciously twisted to become instead an attack on Islamic leaders, and Islamic law, and on Islam itself.

In his book of the same title, regional journalism expert Dr Cherian George proposed a concept called “hate spin.”

The associate professor explained it as a strategy where political opportunists use hate propaganda against perceived offences that they themselves manufacture — later demanding government intervention, or resorting to vigilante reprisals, just to salve their wounded feelings.

And no surprise, George first thought of it years ago, when hardline Muslim activists disrupted a forum on religious freedom in Malaysia. And while police came to restore order, they did so by directing the organisers to abandon the event so the protesters will not be further provoked.

We see this calculated strategy again in use here against Nanyang — by manufacturing so-called insult against Islam when there is questionably none, to rile up mob that can be used to attack and ruin the paper, and by extension the media, the ethnic Chinese, non-Muslims, critics of Hadi’s Bill, and everyone not on PAS’ side... all in one stroke.

The result? Penang PAS commissioner Muhammad Fauzi Yusof reportedly warned the press that publishing cartoons that anger Muslims may result in a backlash like the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, where two terrorists killed 12 in retaliation for its depiction of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Luckily the police have stepped in with a stern warning.

Then we have Khairuddin Aman Razali, PAS’ Ulama wing information chief, who earlier this week invoked the story of Ka’ab ibn Ashraf, a Jew leader and poet in Medina in Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) days.

As narrated in several hadith, Prophet Muhammad had asked if any of his companions were willing to kill Ka’ab for his insulting poems. Ka’ab was later assassinated during a walk late at night.

“They succeeded in beheading the Jew and then they praised God. The echoes of their praise came to Medina. The harsh action was a reminder to Jews who insult Islam,” Khairuddin wrote on his Facebook page, a post which has since been derided by Muslims themselves.

Even as the Opposition, PAS has shown how dangerous it is to be the media when they are perceived as offending the party. Will we see another crackdown like Erdogan’s if they ever come into power?

Pakatan Harapan should also take note that the press does not take kindly to vindictive repression. A progressive government should protect free speech, and use its authority not to defend and empower “hate spin”, but to preserve space for open discourse, negative or otherwise.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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