Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dr. Reza Aslan on BFM's Evening Edition (podcast transcript)

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I've transcribed the audio for BFM's Evening Edition in which Dr Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) was a guest on. You may know him from this this interview.

Or these tweets:

Read on for insights into what a theologian and Muslim scholar of religions thinks about Malaysia's role in the Muslim world (the answer might surprise you), the importance of culture and media in changing people's perception and the power of poetry and music in fueling revolution.

Oh, and of course the whole 'ownership of Allah' issue in Malaysia.

All content below transcribed directly from this podcast by BFM 89.9 and is correct to the best of my ability. Enjoy.


Umapagan: BFM 89.9, this is the Evening Edition. You're with Uma and Ezra and this evening we'll be discussing the role religion plays in politics, culture and democracy in the modern world. And with us this evening is Dr Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions. He's the author of #1 New York Times Bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan's first book is also an international bestseller; No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam. It was named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. It has been translated into 13 languages including Malay, "Tiada Tuhan Melainkan Allah" which is available in all good bookstores.

Ezra: He's also the founder of an online journal for news and entertainment about the Middle East and the world, Aslan's degree is, now wait for it, include a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University, Master of Theological Studies, history of religions from Harvard University a PhD in Sociology of Religions from University of California, Santa Barbara and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa.

Uma: You can take a deep breath now.

Ezra: In August 2000, Aslan was named visiting professor of Islamic Studies in the University of Iowa making him the first full time professor of Islam in the history of the state. Currently he is the associate professor of Creative Writing and cooperative faculty member in the department of religion in the University of California, Riverside.

Uma: We have Dr Reza who is based out in California with us on the line right now Reza thanks for taking the time to speak to us on BFM.

Reza: Oh it's a pleasure to be on the programme, thanks for having me.

Uma: Reza, just to get things off and perhaps provide some context: in this interconnected globalized world, how different are the conversations that are taking place within Islam and that which the West is having about Islam?

Reza: Oh well, night and day. I think if you talk to the general person in the western world in the US or Europe, uh, they would think that, you know, Islam is a monolithic thing. That it's just one version, you know, that all Muslims believe exactly the same thing. Of course the one thing that you hear over and over again from uh, a lot of westerners is that Muslims do not condemn terrorism. This is you know, couldn't be any further from the truth. I mean there are, for every single act of terror that takes place in the world in the name of Islam, there are thousands and thousands of uh, statements and declarations and fatwas condemning it, but the fact of the matter is that because Muslims spend so much time speaking, uh, with each other, you know, conversing with each other that, that sometimes that those conversations that I think that we are having don't always uh, you know, get communicated to the rest of the world and that, I think that's a real problem.

Uma: Right, but in the 12 years um, I guess since 9/11, there must have been some kind of progress that's taking place within these conversations

Reza: Well, there's an enormous amount of progress taking place between the conversations between Muslims, absolutely.

Uma: Right.

Reza: I mean you have a whole host of different Muslim organizations and groups. you have progressive Muslims groups, conservative Muslim groups, you have gay and lesbian Muslim groups, you have Muslim groups dedicated to democracy promotion, uh, Muslim groups dedicated to going back to the Quran and sort of the Quranist principles. A lot of these Muslims you see particularly in Indonesia and even in Malaysia who believe that you know, that Muslims should only follow the Quran and not the sunnah, these things did not exist 12 years ago to be perfectly honest. Or if they did exist, they were in the shadows and I think what 9/11 did is really allow these disparate voices to rise up, but have those voices been heard by non-Muslims? No, I don't think so.

Uma: Reza, just touching on what you mentioned just a little bit earlier, how does the Islamic experience differ between those in the Middle East and those in the West and of course um, for us here, where do you think South East Asia figures in the greater discourse concerning Islam?

Reza: Well frankly, I think South East Asia is not just the future of Islam but is the model of Islam. I mean what's remarkable about what's happening in South East Asia is that these experiments in Islamic modernity (however you want to define that) are taking place in what are enormously pluralistic societies. I mean if you look at a country like, let's say Egypt, the largest Arab country in the world. Egypt is something like 88-89% Muslim. You know, so.. even when you have these very important discussions about Islamic democracy, Islamic modernism you know, Islamic politics, they're being had in a society in which 9 out of 10 people are Muslim. You don't get that same kind of thing in South East Asia because of the enormous diversity of Buddhists and Hindus and Christians and Jews and that I think really makes it a much more robust discussion than you have in the Middle East, for sure.

Uma: Right, and you mentioned, uh, a pluralistic society now, but how does Islam function I guess in a pluralistic society especially one where say, freedom of religion is touted as a basic tenet?

Reza: Well you know, if you go back to the principles that were actually preached by the prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community it is all about pluralism and religious liberties. I mean what's remarkable about the time in which the Quran is revealed is that this is an era in which religion was a matter of state control. There's no such thing as pluralism in Christian Europe or in the Sassanian Empire that was Zoroastrian at the time of Muhammad, so for the Quran to talk the way that it does about the so-called 'peoples of the book' and to give them these rights and privileges under Islamic rule, you know, 1500 years later it may seem anachronistic, we may look back on it and say, "Well you know, this idea of (any?), enforcing non-Muslims to pay an extra tax? That shows that Islam is actually not tolerant," well, put it in context and you're talking about an era in which if you're a Jew in the Christian Empire you're burned at the stake, whereas if you're a Jew in the Muslim Empire, you pay an extra tax..

Uma: (laughs)

Reza: ..and you can go about living, you know, (chuckles) however you want to.

Uma: It's all relative, I guess.

Reza: Yeah, exactly. So, I mean, we have to remember that, that this is the foundation of Islam as a religion to begin with and it's something that unfortunately uh, has been forgotten by a lot of Muslims.

Uma: So, correct me if I'm wrong, I mean there is a perception that, and I guess Islam was not set out to work this way but there is a perception that Islam grows out from the center, in the sense that I guess the Middle East as being the home of Islam because of um, it's home to Islam's greatest monuments, if you will.

Reza: Yea.

Uma: ..and then everything else, everyone else in the outskirts are followers, right? But like you said earlier, South East Asia is the face of modern Islam, um, is there a sense that the Middle East can learn from South East Asia?

Reza: I think that most people outside the Middle East would say 'Yes'. Most people inside the Middle East would say 'No'.

Uma: (chuckles)

Reza: You put it perfectly, there's this idea that somehow the Middle East, and particularly the Arab world is synonymous with Islam. Well frankly, Arabs make up about 15% of the world's 1½ billion Muslims. That's it! Of the top 10 most populous Muslim countries on Earth, only 3 of them are Arab countries.

Uma: Mmhm.

Reza: Uh, the other 7 are non-Arab countries. So, I mean it's just, the days in which the Middle East was the heart and soul of Islam are long gone. Islam now exists primarily on the outskirts of the Middle East. Not just in South East Asia by the way, but also in the West. I mean look, the numbers of Muslims in the United States is still very very small, it's about 1% of the population..

Uma: Right.

Reza: In Europe it's anywhere between 4 and 7% of the population so it's still very very small, but you have Muslims who are living in societies in which they are much more encouraged to be individualistic, to experiment with religion, to experiment with different political ideologies and most importantly, they have access because they live in a sort of wealthy, developed part of the world.

They have access to communication technologies, they are able to get their ideas on television, on radio, on the internet. So even though the West has very small numbers of Muslims, they, I think, are far more influential than the Muslims in the Middle East and certainly Muslims in South Asia, South East Asia where the core, I mean the bulk of the world's Muslims live are also having a far greater influence on the interpretation and the evolution of Islam than the people in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, all this sort of political and economic and social conflicts within Islam are taking place primarily in the Middle East and so that's where everyone's focus and attention is. But, you know, Egypt again, the largest most important Arab country in the world barely has 80 million Muslims. I mean, that is a small number when you look at Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Turkey, you know, we always have to remember to keep that perspective in mind.

Uma: We'll be back right after this. More with Reza Aslan right here exclusively on the Evening Edition. BFM89.9

Uma: BFM89.9 this is the Evening Edition with Uma and Ezra on the line with us right now from California, we're speaking to award-winning author, scholar, theologian, Reza Aslan about a range of issues concerning religion, politics, culture, democracy. Reza, I guess, uh, keeping to conversations in the Middle East, what is the role of aslanmedia? I know it's a journal/web/social media platform for discourse, on such issues?

Reza: Right, so aslanmedia was created right after the Green Movement in Iran precisely to give, young people especially, an opportunity to join in the conversation about the religion, politics, culture, art, film, music.. we have probably the best music reporting about, uh, music from the Middle East and the larger Muslim world, that you'll find anywhere..

Ezra: Fantastic.

Reza: ..books, you know, it's an opportunity for young people to sort of understand that there's a lot more going on in this part of the world than just the sort of conflicts over religious and political identity. You know, again, from the outside world you would think that that's all anyone ever talks about in the Middle East, you just sit around all day you know, uh, smoking shishas and talking about politics and religion..


Reza: they do *not* (chuckles). You know, they talk about art..

Ezra: What? You mean they don't?

Reza: ..and music

Ezra: No, you're absolutely right, and I guess it's an old, it's an age old myth isn't it? It's promoting soft culture again.

Reza: Absolutely, and you know what, it is also, it's still as relevant today as it has always been, I mean, just look, just very very quickly look at the so-called Arab Spring. What I think has been very poorly reported about, about the Arab Spring is precisely the role that art and music and poetry, that these things played in these revolutions.

The people who are out on the streets were not chanting Quranic verses, they were chanting bits of poetry. There were rock stars out there, hiphop artists, you know, who actually fueled this movement and who continued to do so, who are still sort of the primary cultural critics. You know, that's something that definitely been lost, I have to say, in the West, where music and especially this sort of alternative music like hiphop or punk rock or heavy metal is all about you know, making money and selling records.

It used to be about a political and social message. It's just not anymore in Europe and the United States, but it still is in the Middle East. You know, when you can write a poem and be executed for it, when you can write a hiphop song and be thrown in prison forever, it, all of a sudden, art matters, you know what I mean? Like, it *matters*. It's not about selling records, it's about changing the world again.

Uma: And I guess, Reza I mean, very much a part of what you're talking about in terms of the arts and the music and people going to prison for these things, um, I'd like to talk about freedom of expression and about how fundamental of an idea it is in Islam, according to the Quran or the prophetic traditions, the hadiths, and if so, when can freedom of expression be legitimately curtailed in Islam?

Reza: Well, look, I mean, this is something for societies themselves to understand  because freedom of expression is a cultural construct. You know, even in the United States where we like to think that we have, you know, pure freedom to say whatever we want to, this is *not* the case. I mean there are libel laws that you have to deal with, you can get sued for defamation, certainly if your expression causes direct harm to someone or is interpreted as promoting violence against someone, we don't allow it! I mean, so there are curbs and limitations to what you can and cannot say in even the most open societies in the UK.

You have all the freedom of expression that you want to unless your expression is racist. And so racism, racist expression in the United Kingdom is illegal whereas in the United States you can be as racist as you want to and we may find you disgusting and despicable  but we're not gonna throw you in prison for it. So it's all about culture, but I think its important to understand that the freer a culture is, the more powerful it is. I think there's this idea that you know, if you curb freedom of expression, that you are sort of controlling people in some way or that it's a symbol of how powerful a state you are and the *opposite* is true.

If you are so worried about the things that people may say, that you think it might harm or damage society or the state and so you have to curb it, that means that your society, your state is weak. It's so weak that it can't handle, you know, the expression of its citizens. So, yes I'm not somebody who's just gonna stand here and say that there should be freedom of expression in all places of the world, and you should be able to say and do whatever you want to do no matter where you are, I mean that's not how it works, I get that. But at the same time let us not forget that the ability to allow your citizens to say and think whatever they want to is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness.

Uma: But Reza, I mean allow me to play devil's advocate for a second, but isn't religion all about that kind of control? In the sense that, um, it doesn't allow for such random and..

Ezra: Disparate voices.

Uma: ..and expansive, um, even, interpretations if you will?

Reza: Religion of course, as man-made institutions (and I use that term literally, because they're all man-made institutions), are of course all about control and power, that's absolutely right, but faith is not. And there is a difference between religion and faith. Faith is indescribable, it's inexpressible, it's deeply deeply personal.

Religion is nothing more than the language we use to express our faith, and that language of course is made up of symbols and metaphors and those symbols and metaphors are historical constructs, they come from a particular time and place and so those symbols can evolve, they can grow, they can mean different things to different people in different times, but again, let's not confuse those symbols and metaphors with the institutions of religion. If your faith is in an institution, then you're doing it wrong.

Uma: So, allow me to press you even further, how do we then reconcile, I guess, freedom of expression, with Islam?

Reza: Well, I mean, I think that you do so.. again it goes back to what I was saying about, you know, culture and society because there is no such thing as religion without culture and society. Islam is expressed and understood in 10,000 different ways around the world depending on the culture itself, and so the reason I keep bringing this conversation back to culture is because this is not a question about Islam, it's not a question about what does or does not Islam allow.

Islam allows whatever you think it allows. It's up to you as the individual to interpret the Quran according to your own needs, your own desires. If you're someone who needs an imam to do that for you, fine, but at least recognize that your imam thinks differently than my imam who which thinks differently than the other guy's imam, and in Islam, unlike Catholicism, we don't have a single authority.

We don't have a Pope who gets to say what is and what is not Islam, who is and who is not a Muslim. That has never existed since the death of the prophet Muhammad and it shouldn't exist. So this idea that 'Islam says X' or 'Islam says Y', I know makes people feel good, but it's nonsense.

Uma: After the 7 o'clock news, we'll speak about last week's Court of Appeals ruling on the "Allah" issue here in Malaysia. We'll be back. More with Reza Aslan right here exclusively on the Evening Edition, BFM89.9

Ezra: Good evening, I'm Ezra Zaid.

Uma: And I'm Umapagan Ampikaipakan.

Ezra: We're speaking to Reza Aslan, currently the associate professor in the department of religion at the University of California as well as a New York Times' bestselling author.

Uma: Earlier we spoke concerning developments taking place in the discourse of Islam in the West, the Middle East and South East Asia, now bringing the conversation closer to our shores is the court ruling that's made international headlines. Last Monday, the Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the 2009 KL High Court ruling that allowed the Catholic church to use the word "Allah" in the Bahasa Malaysia section of its weekly newsletter, The Herald.

Ezra: Reza, at the center of the current controversy here in Malaysia, um, is the word "Allah", and of course over here there have been many clerics, scholars, historians, um, who have given their two cents' worth on the origins and usage of the word. What is your take on it?

Reza: My take is the historical take on it. It's not an interpretation, it's a historical fact: "Allah" is a construction of the word "Al-ilah". That's what the word is. "Al-ilah" means "The God". "Allah" is not the *name* of God, frankly, anyone who thinks "Allah" is the *name* of God is not just incorrect, but going against the Quran itself. It's almost a blasphemous thought to think that God has a name.

"Allah" is just a word that in Arabic means "God". It means *every* God. In fact, we know for a *fact* that Christians and Jews in the Arabian peninsula before the time of the prophet Muhammad referred to their God as "Allah". Why? Because they spoke Arabic. That's why. Not because "Allah" *meant* a specific God, but because it is nothing more than the Arabic word for God. That's not an opinion, that is a *fact*.

Uma: So uh, yea, you tweeted with some amusement as to the absurdity of our recent court ruling prohibiting the use by non-Muslims, and you said that it's the equivalent would be for the US to ban the word "twerking" by anyone over the age of 17. (chuckles)

Ezra: (laughs)

Uma: Um, why do you find that, why do you find that so ridiculous?

Ezra: Uma's referring to the prohibition, not so much twerking.

Uma: (laughs)

Reza: (chuckles) Yeah, let me just be clear, I think the word that I used was not 'ridiculous', but 'stupid'.

Uma: That's right.

Reza: And I use this word, I mean, I am, I am deadly serious about this. To think that somehow Muslims own this word "Allah", that somehow "Allah" refers to a specific God. "Allah", as I said, again, is just the word for "God". And this idea that not only should, you know, this, Christians not being able to use the word, but that using the word is somehow a threat to Islam, that Malaysians are so stupid, that if they hear a Christian use the word "Allah", they'll accidentally become Christian! I mean the idiocy of that statement speaks for itself.

And frankly, I think it's a, I think it's an embarrassment, it's an embarrasssment to a modern, constitutional, democratic, and yes, deeply Muslim state like Malaysia, that belongs in the first world, not this kind of idiotic stuff that one would expect to see in a place like Saudi Arabia.

Uma: And, and that's the thing, I guess, trying to get into that a little bit more as read from the summary judgment by the Court of Appeals: "The Court ruled that the use of the word 'Allah' was  not an integral part of the faith and the practice of Christianity and as mentioned if such use was to be allowed it would inevitably cause confusion within the community and henceforth threaten the peace of the country."

Reza: (laughs)

Uma: Now, in Malaysia, the Malay Muslim--

Reza: How can you read that and not laugh?

Uma: Well..

Reza: How can you read that and not start laughing?

Uma: I'm a professional that way but--(laughs)

Reza: (laughs)

Uma: But the point is in Malaysia, the Malay Muslim community had appropriated the word "Allah" for themselves now, I guess, does the idea of a community taking ownership of a word supercede the historical and etymological context behind said word?

Reza: Historically the answer is 'No', culturally and etymologically the answer is 'No', but most importantly for Muslims, theologically, the answer is 'No'. Any imam that tells you that God has a name, is blasphemous. It's as simple as that. "Allah" is not God's name. Muslims do not own the word itself. Allah is if you look at the Bible in Arabic, God is referred to as "Allah". I mean it's just, and even in Iran, which doesn't speak Arabic, God is referred to as Allah as much as it is refers to as "khoda".

It's just, the notion that you can control people's ideas, their behaviour, their faith, their minds, simply by trying to control the word that they use is absurd. And the other thing, I just have to come back to this again, it's an embarrassment. I mean, it's, it's shameful. Really, more than anything else. It's not worthy of a great country like Malaysia.

You know, this idea which is beyond the pale of what a modern democratic state should be discussing even, just casts this negative light on a country that, as I said earlier on, is a model for Muslims around the world. And yet, this has made it a laughing stock. And I want to be as clear to your audience as I possible can: We are laughing at you.

Uma: Um, when you draw comparisons to what the court's decision is saying of course, say, a foreigner comes in to the country and has been using that word because they know no other word to describe God, then of course it is absolutely crucial and essential to their faith (whatever that faith may be) whether it's Christianity or Sikhism, for example, right?

Reza: Absolutely, yes.

Uma: ..and of course

Reza: Both of which, by the way, use the word "Allah".

Uma: That's right. Um, I think there's something like 56 instances of the word Illah, Allah --

Ezra: Yeah.

Uma: the Sikh book. Um, and, and in that context, the people of Borneo, which this, this..

Ezra: This ruling.

Uma: ..judgment, um, targets, knew no other word for Allah.

Reza: That's right, that's right. And, you know, again, I have to come back to this sort of, this one thing because there's obviously.. Look, I get it. There are political machinations taking place here, I understand that this court is not exactly independent of the executive branch. I get a little bit about how Malaysian politics work, I get that.

I know that this was a political decision more than anything else, but I want to talk about the other aspect of it. Which is that this notion that somehow Muslims in Malaysia need to be protected, "Oh, you poor poor people, you need to be protected by the court because you can't think for yourself, you can't make decisions on your own," I believe that one of your justices said something to the affect of, of a threat to Islam. And, you know, my response of course, this decision came out the same exact day in which we had this horrible Eidul Adha massacre in uh, in Pakistan.

Ezra: That's right.

Reza: Where a Taliban member put a bomb inside of a Quran, took it into a mosque, on one of the holiest days on our calendar and slaughtered Muslims. And you want to talk about a threat to Islam? That's a threat to Islam. A Christian in Malaysia using the word "Allah" to mean God is not a threat to Islam.

Ezra: Uh, Reza, speaking of um, I guess, ownership, history and Christians and of course yourself as author or Zealot, the New York Times bestseller, is it tough nowadays for a scholar who happens to be Muslim to write about Jesus in the United States?

Uma: (laughs)

Reza: (laughs) Look, it's tough for Muslims in the United States for a whole host of reasons..

Everyone: (laughs)

Reza: A lot of anti-Muslim activity and sentiment going on here in the United States and frankly it's a profitable venture, I mean that's the thing is that there are a great great many people in the United States who have become enormously wealthy by trying to convince Americans that Muslims are out to get them. Any minute now, the 1% of the population of the United States that's Muslim is going to rise up and take over the country

Uma: (chuckles)

Reza: You know, a lot of that idea is starting to dissipate, I think people are starting to recognize the absurdity of it, but you know, it's an idea that is born of fear. And America  is dealing with a serious identity crisis right now, I don't know if you've noticed.

Uma: Just a little bit.

Reza: The economy is in shambles, yeah. Our politics are as broken as they can possibly be, meanwhile--

Ezra: But hey, a debt crisis has been averted.

Reza: (pause)

Ezra: (chuckles)

Reza: Yeah, right once again at the last minute we hit the brakes before going off a cliff. Yea, congratulations to us. We'll just be right here again in probably four months. Uh, we also are dealing with some serious racial and cultural changes that are taking place. Demographers tell us..

Uma: Mm-hm.

Reza: In less than a decade, we'll become the first nation in the history of the world, to be majority minorities and that is remarkable.

Ezra: Yeah.

Reza: I frankly think it's something to celebrate, but as you can imagine, a lot of Americans do not feel that way.

Ezra: Oh, the Republicans have no idea what they're gonna do.

Reza: Oh yea, that's sort of the end of their political hopes, unless they figure out a way to, to stop being the party of angry white southern men. So in a sense, this is less about Muslims than it is about America itself.

Uma: Right.

Reza: This is about America's identity crisis and Muslims are simply the scapegoats for it, that's all.

Uma: And of course, Reza there's a tremendous opportunity to counter that, to have enough of people, making a lot of money saying, "Hey we're your buddies!"

Reza: Yeah well, listen, one thing I'll tell you about American Muslims is that we don't have a problem making money.

Ezra and Uma: (chuckles)

Reza: Uh, the Muslim American community in the United States is absurdly wealthy. In fact, an advertising group called JWT recently put the annual combined disposable income of America's Muslim and Middle Eastern community at 170 billion dollars

Uma: Wow.

Reza: I mean all you have to do is look at the founding members of eBay or Google or Yahoo, Apple. Just go look at it. Tell me how many Mohameds you see, you know, on that list. How many Alis you see on that list. I mean the community has managed to make an enormous amount of money. Now they have to figure out a way to spend it correctly. This is a problem and I think it's a generational problem, people don't understand because you're talking about communities that have come here from Iran like I did, or from Pakistan or from parts of the Middle East. Uh, these are areas that do not have a long tradition of civic engagement or  political participation.

So, you know, I think, unfortunately, many of these incredibly wealthy Muslims do not realize the power that they have to transform the society because America is a society that runs on money. I mean this is country in which your money is your voice. And, you know, I'm so sick and tired of hearing, you know, these guys complain about all the anti-Muslim sentiment in America and I think, "Well if you've got a problem with it, you've got enough money to destroy any politician that you want to that says anything about Muslims." That's how this country works, it's all about money.

They haven't figured that out yet. You know it's something that the Jews figured out very very early on. In the 1920s and the 1930s in the United States, anti-Jewish sentiments were out of control, I mean anti-semitism, you know..

Uma: That's right.

Reza: Some of the greatest politicians, business leaders were the most despicable anti-Semites. I mean Jews are seen as a fifth column in American society. 50 years later, they are so deeply a part of American culture and life that Americans constantly talk about the Judeo-Christian values of this country

Ezra: That's right.

Reza: Um. How did that happen? They were smart enough to realize that the way that you change the perceptions of Jews in the United States is by using your money to promote education, to promote relationship, in the arts, in film, in music, there are barely 6 million Jews in America. Out of 350 million Americans, 6 million Jews. And yet, they are all over television, all over radio, all over books, some of the greatest writers are Jews, some of the greatest artists are Jews, some of the greates architects are Jews. I mean people in business, people in politics, you know that they did is they actually integrated themselves fully into society so that despite their tiny tiny numbers, they have enormous influence over American culture.

Ezra: And I think that's a lesson--

Reza: We need to figure that out ourselves.

Ezra: I think that's a lesson for us in Malaysia as well.

Reza: Oh absolutely. I think it's a lesson for all peoples. It's something that we all have to learn sooner or later. Instead of sitting around complaining about how people see us.

Uma: Well, Reza considering that we are a business station I appreciate you ending on a financial analysis

Ezra: On an economical note. Great.

Reza: (laughs)

Uma: Reza, thank you for speaking to us in the Evening Edition. Hopefully you get to visit us here in Malaysia, it's, I understand it's equally as sunny in California, so uh, thank you for your time.

Reza: I hope to be there soon.

Uma: That was doctor Reza Aslan, scholar and New York Times bestselling author on the line exclusively with us from California discussing the many issues related to Islam, politics, culture and democracy. We hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as we did.

Ezra: And if for some reason you missed the interview, you can of course head over to to download the podcast, download the BFM app on your iPhones. We'll also be posting it up on the Evening Edition Facebook page as well.

Uma: That's on

Ezra: This has been the Evening Edition, BFM 89.9

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Mamak Beggars"

1 comment

One time I was eating outside at a mamak. It was cold and kinda wet since it's been raining.

I saw from where I was a couple of beggars several tables away. One was younger and a fair bit smaller than the other.

The older one was walking from table to table with packs of tissue and a walking stick. Her coming seemed to be met with at best a cursory wave away. She was in good spirits still, though.

The arrival of beggars always manage to unsettle me some no matter how good the table chat was. I'm never sure if I should give. On the one hand, charity is always good and people who beg are always people in need. On the other hand, the giving might be encouraging them to continue begging and not look for other opportunities to support themselves. Not to mention the alleged syndicate of beggars being used in groups as a form of organized panhandling. That's definitely not to be encouraged, right?

The smaller beggar was met with better response. People smiled warmly, asked him how he was doing. Some outwardly generous people even offered their food which he gladly accepted.

The way the two of them were going about the tables it was clear that mine would be next soon.

The older one reached me first and held out her hand. I looked up, half expecting her to say something, but really more for me to take a good look at her face. I figure it's only polite.

She took my cash and gave me the tissues. None of us said anything to the other. Perhaps she knew my giving was clouded by the insincerity of not wanting to appear miserly in public. She'd be right.

The smaller came up to me almost immediately after. He looked up at me as I gestured apologetically to the lady.

I don't expect him to know what I meant. His charmingly nonchalant way of dealing with people is part of how his gig is so successful, I gather. He nodded away and turned to face the table next to mine, still unmoved from his spot.

With his head turned away I figure I had a good chance to, so I kicked him.

Sorry to say this, but I'm not a big fan of cats.

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Si Jimi"

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Kebetulan hari ini sewaktu Cikgu Harom sedang meronda koridor kelas, beliau melepasi bilik darjah tahun akhir "5 Meteor". Kelas ini, seingatnya, adalah kelas yang paling cemerlang sepanjang tahun. Dengan markah peperiksaan yang sentiasa 90 ke atas, hasil kerja tugasan yang berkualiti, tidak lupa juga pencapaian pelajar-pelajar kelas ini menjadi juara Pertandingan Gusti Raksasa Peringkat Negeri, kelas "5 Meteor" jelas sekali adalah kelas kebanggaan Institut Latihan Muda-mudi Unik.

Nyatalah waktu ini memang waktu rehat. Tiada seorang pun pelajar yang kelihatan di bilik darjah ini, fikir Cikgu Harom. Sedang beliau mula menoleh keluar kelas, beliau ternampak sesuatu di ekor matanya. Sangkaan Cikgu Harom silap. Ada lagi seorang pelajar yang masih berada di dalam kelas. Dengan perasaan sedikit malu, beliau menoleh kepada pelajar yang sedang duduk di mejanya tadi.

"Maaf ya, Cikgu cuma meronda sahaja," katanya.


Cikgu Harom berhenti. Beliau mendongak sedikit, menunggu pelajar tadi membalas tegurannya. Setelah beberapa saat, beliau berjalan ke arah pelajar tadi yang masih duduk selamba berseorangan. Mejanya kosong kecuali sepucuk beg pensel yang terbuka zipnya.

Wajah pelajar tadi kelihatan muram. Badannya lentok sedikit dan matanya kuyu, dia nampak samada letih, atau sangat bosan. Mulutnya terbuka beberapa milimeter, menampakkan dua batang gigi depannya yang megah terpacul keluar bibirnya. Rupa dan lagak pelajar ini yang bersahaja meragukan Cikgu Harom, menyebabkan beliau tersentak seketika.

"Kenapa dengan budak ini. Ada masalah peribadi mungkin," fikir Cikgu Harom.

Sebagai guru yang perihatin, beliau sudah biasa melayan kerenah pelajar remaja seperti ini..

Beliau mengambil kerusi berdekatan meja pelajar tadi lalu duduk bertentangan dengannya. Beliau mengecilkan matanya untuk membaca tanda nama yang tertera di poket uniform pelajar tadi: "Jimi".

"Jimi," kata Cikgu Harom. "Kenapa kamu masih di kelas? Kawan-kawan kamu semua di kantin, kan?"

Jimi mengelip matanya sekali.

"Tak lapar ke?"

Jimi mengelip matanya sekali lagi.

Cikgu Harom semakin risau. Beliau cuba mengimbas kembali ke zaman persekolahannya. Sangat jarang ada pelajar bersuperpower yang memilih untuk bersendirian di bilik darjah di waktu rehat. Lagi-lagi dengan perasaan murung sebegini rupa. Kalaupun mereka berasa sedih atau emosional, biasanya mereka hanya akan ke gim dan melepaskan geram menggunakan kuasa mereka.

"Kuasa.." kata Cikgu Harom dalam hatinya. Jimi masih tidak bergerak. Mungkin si Jimi ini masih belum timbul kuasanya. Terjadi juga kes-kes begini di kalangan remaja. Pelajar yang bijak dari segi akademik dan cemerlang dalam kegiatan kokurikulum lain, tetapi tidak menunjukkan apa-apa tanda kuasa luarbiasa.

Selalunya pelajar sebegini dimasukkan di I.L.M.U. kerana laporan kesihatan kerajaan mengesahkan mereka mempunyai DNA superhero, namun kuasa mereka lambat timbul. Mereka biasa diejek rakan-rakan dengan panggilan seperti "lembab", "stupidhero", dan macam-macam nama lain yang memanaskan telinga Cikgu Harom. Mangsa buli seperti mereka perlu dipupuk dengan baik, takut-takut bila kuasa mereka timbul kelak, mereka mungkin terjebak jadi supervillain pula.

Cikgu Harom menyeluk tangannya ke dalam beg pensel tadi, lalu mengeluarkan sebatang pen.

"Kamu pernah guna pen yang tiada dakwat?," tanya Cikgu Harom sambil meneliti pen itu.

"Macam mana kamu tulis pun, dakwatnya tetap degil. Tak mahu juga keluar," sambungnya sambil membuat gaya menconteng pen di udara.

"Tapi pen ini masih berdakwat, kan? Nampak?," Cikgu Harom menuding jarinya ke kelongsong lutsinar pen itu. Jelas kelihatan dakwat biru yang masih banyak di dalamnya.

"Di dunia ni tiada benda pun yang sempurna, Jimi. Bersabarlah. Lambat laun akan keluar juga dakwatnya nanti."

Jimi tidak bersuara. Tidak tersenyum, tidak mengeluh, tidak juga mengelip matanya seperti tadi. Malah, dia tidak bergerak walau semilimeter pun.

Cikgu Harom mengerut dahinya. "Penat-penat aku bercerita, budak ini masih terlopong. Buang tenaga sahaja," kata beliau dalam hati. Cikgu Harom bingkas berdiri. Mungkin si Jimi ni sakit, fikirnya.

Dari jauh kedengaran bunyi tapak kaki pelajar yang riuh bergegas pulang dari waktu rehat. Baru sahaja Cikgu Harom menoleh untuk ke luar, tali lehernya terbang ke atas ditiup deras angin yang muncul lalu lesap secara tiba-tiba. Di hadapan papan hitam sekarang terpacak berdiri Mohd Farah, ketua kelas "5 Meteor". Dia sedang memegang sebatang kayu aiskrim.

"Kamu ni! Terkejut Cikgu," kata Cikgu Harom, hampir menjerit. "Tahulah kamu tu laju, tapi nak masuk bilik pun jaga-jagalah. Habuk ni!"

"Maaf, Cikgu.." kata Mohd Farah. Dia menunduk, matanya terhinggap ke batang aiskrim yang kosong di tangannya. Kepalanya terus menjenguk ke luar kelas mencari-cari, hampa.

"Cikgu nak tanya ni," kata Cikgu Harom sambil menuding pen di tangannya ke arah Mohd Farah. "Kenapa dengan Jimi tu? Kamu semua buli dia ke?"

"Mana ada," jawab Mohd Farah sambil membuang batang kayu tadi ke bakul sampah.

"Pelajar yang tiada kuasa hebat macam kamu, tak usahlah dibuli, faham?" ujar Cikgu Harom lagi.

"Mana ada kami buli dia," balas Mohd Farah.

"Habis tu kenapa dia duduk seorang sahaja di bilik darjah ni?"

Mohd Farah membelek ke arah meja Jimi.

"Oh. Tu bukan Jimi la Cikgu."

Cikgu Harom mengangkat keningnya tinggi. Dia menoleh ke arah "Jimi" tadi. Perlahan-lahan beliau mencucuk matanya dengan pen.

Pen tadi menusuki mata Jimi dan hujungnya tertembus keluar ke belakang kepalanya tanpa rintangan. Terasa seperti pen tadi menembus angin. "Jimi" mengelip.

"Tu klon dia. Jimi boleh buat klon guna cahaya."

"Buat apa?" kata Cikgu Harom yang terbeku di situ.

"Dah seminggu dah dia syak pen dia ada orang ambil. Dia buat klon ini untuk perangkap pencuri tu."

Bunyi tapak kaki pelajar semakin dekat didengari. Sepasang kaki yang melangkah cemas kedengaran. Dari pintu kelas yang bertentangan dengan Cikgu Harom, masuklah seorang pelajar bermata kuyu bergigi ke depan.

Jimi menuding jarinya ke arah Cikgu Harom dengan penuh semangat.


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Saturday, June 8, 2013

KIL, this movie.



To those who haven't seen KIL yet, go ahead and do so before reading this one. Come on. Be fair to yourself. You won't regret it. You *have* to watch this movie.

If you need more convincing, then you are the reason most local films are lousy. Watch it. Watch it now.




Kil is not a great movie. You won't leave the cinema feeling satisfied. It won't change the world.

Not immediately. (We'll get back to this later.)

In coming up with how to approach Kil, I'm gonna make some comparisons to another movie I've blogged about: last year's Looper (2012).

In Kil, a suicidal guy (Kil) enlists the help of a shadowy agency to help him kill himself. He then falls in love with a girl (Kris Cempaka Cristina Suzanne Stockstill) and decides not to die. But as Harun Salim Bachik says poetically, "tak boleh cancel-cancel".

Here we have a very clear conflict set up with solid expectations:
How will Kil get out of his suicide contract?
Why does Kil want to kill himself so bad?

Very clean.

In "Looper", the main character is a hitman (Joe) working for the mob who kills people from the future. He knows that one day his future self will be the one he has to kill. Future Joe arrives, but manages to escape Present Joe. Now that Future Joe is on the run, the mob is coming after Present Joe.

Clear question. Solid expectations:
How will Present Joe track down Future Joe and kill him?
How did Future Joe escape the assassination attempt? And Why?


These questions are important to set up the audience's expectations. What's even more important, is how to play it out over 90 minutes of movie time.

Looper did this by introducing Present Joe's motives. His backstory. How he got to where he is. We show the audience the consequences of what happens if you don't "close the loop", to clue the audience in on how high the stakes are.

THEN we hit the point of conflict where Future Joe manages to escape Present Joe.

Movie then splits into Future Joe and what his motivations are. We get into the second confrontation, complications happen, movie ends.

Kil however, hit us immediately with the central conflict. It opens with Kil trying to kill himself already. This sets the audience up for something more.

"Oh. He attempts suicide right off the bat? Crazy. I don't even know why he's doing this yet."

Empathizing with the main character is important in the first few minutes of a film. We need to care for a character. Otherwise we're just watching a guy do stuff.

We (the audience) need to see the main character's goals and relate to them.

Showing the conflict at the start of a movie is not wrong, but it only works if the conflict is immediately relatable.

See: Iron Man (2008) where we open with Tony Stark being blown up and kidnapped before we learn anything about the character. This opener works because being kidnapped and blown apart is immediately relatable. You don't want that to happen to you. Now it's happening to this dude. Who is he? Let's find out. Simple progression of story there.

Joe's conflict in Looper is him not being able to kill a guy. Why would I (as the audience) care? Isn't it good that a guy escapes being killed? The guys behind Looper understands this problem of relatability, THEREFORE we open the movie by learning about Joe and his life. Once we learn how bad it is to not 'close the loop', THEN we see the conflict play out with the failed assassination. Straightforward story progression.

If "Looper" did what "Kil" did, it would have started out with the assassination attempt gone wrong, THEN we see his motivations. Clumsy, don't you think?

Now of course, films being an artistic medium, the rule of 'must learn about the protagonist in the first few minutes' is not a hard and fast, unbreakable law. There are ways in which a film can open on the conflict and still be engaging and entertaining.

My point at this part of the movie however, is that opening with the conflict should lead us into something more. He wants to kill himself and keeps failing. Why does he keep failing? Maybe we'll find out.

But not yet.

Kil instead finds out by chance of a shadowy organization that claims to 'solve' the problem of suicidal tendencies. He signs up and continues going about his life. While he does so, we see hints of Zara (a female character he will soon fall for) and his conversations with his brother and mother (who may or may not only exist in his dreams, we don't know at this point. Kil keeps waking up from things).

Kil also periodically checks up on this film director "Johan Iskandar" who is making a local film. I have no idea why this B story is here.

Zara and Kil have a connection, it is hinted that she works for Life Action Bureau and Kil sorta perks up a bit.

Also there's an Indian lady who talks to Zara. Zara then thanks her for her son's kidney that saved her from dying. I have no idea why this C story is in here either.

Kil gets kidnapped by a group of people, gets tossed around and sent back home safely (what) after which he gets mad and calls up L.A.B. to cancel his contract.

Keep in mind at this point in the film, we still don't know why he wants to kill himself so bad. The film almost doesn't want to tell you, by only hinting at a "maybe he killed his family by accident" answer.

Of course by this point, you don't really care what his motivations for suicide are, because his motivations *changed*. He doesn't want to kill himself anymore and instead wants to be with Zara.

At the end of the movie, as Kil is about to be murdered by Harun, it's revealed that the agency is actually one that concocts elaborate schemes to help suicidal people get out of their funk and find meaning in their lives.

It ends with a shot of him on the roof, not killing himself. No monologue. No tie-up. End.

The inclusion of the B and C stories that never converge into the main story makes it feel like the whole thing is a padded out short film.

Man, I really wanted Kil to be a good one. Then again, I also wanted In Time and Looper to be good.

Just as "Looper" failed in properly owning the central conflict of how to deal with your past self, and "In Time" failed to examine the consequences of wasting our lives, "Kil" never really looks at the issue it dances around: suicide.

"Kil" really should have been a short about an assisted suicide company that turns out to be helping people solve their suicidal tendencies. Flux visual lab is good at those.

Short films, by nature, force the viewer to fill in many of the gaps themselves, freeing the creator of the film to merely sketch and outline a theme and let the audience wring out the juice on their own.

Writing and crafting a full 90-minute film requires a different approach and merely scaling a short won't work most of the time. Trust me on that one.

The shots look good though. Shame about the story.


Now that I've finished being a critic, I must go on to congratulate flux visual lab on getting this film made and out in cinemas. The fact that a concept film like Kil managed to be completed and out in GSC and TGV alongside "Bro, Mana Motor Gua?" is commendable.

For all its flaws, Kil does one thing very well: It never insults the audience. It's a shame that this is the exception for our local films. If you're paying RM15 for a movie, it should challenge you. It should shape you and make you think of things. If you really want to just laugh for 90 minutes, pay someone to tickle you. Or go on YouTube.

Local pop culture needs more films like Kil to be made and seen by local viewers. Go out there and support our hometown boys. In cinemas. It's getting late to do that but there's still some time.

If you don't want Malaysian cinema to be filled with shit, you have to do your part. Go and see Kil.

And even if you're not satisfied with the ending, don't kill yourself.


random heckler observations:

  • So the chalkboard shots and the lying among photos shot are just for the trailer to look good I guess
  • Out-of-focus headcrop shot! Don't worry, we'll put awesome indie music as the soundtrack and people won't know because ART.
  • Indian lady bought 4 oranges and just one mango. What is this, Mr. Bean?
  • Cristina Suzooey DeschaStockstanell looks like Cillian Murphy. This is a compliment.
  • The girl in the office. What was she there for again? I don't blame her not knowing the kuih's name though. I don't know either.
  • The boss' front teeth. Yeesh. 

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