Thursday May 31, 2012
Bucking the set trend
Brave New World
By Azmi Sharom
There is a constant need to grow and push intellectual boundaries, without which there can only be stagnation and eventually regression.
THE recent ban on Irshad Manji’s book and the Kota Baru ruling that all future buildings must be Islamic in nature raise some disturbing issues. However, I realise that because both matters have an Islamic component to them, any rational discussion becomes difficult as emotions tend to subsume reason.
This being the case, I shall proceed to discuss both in a generic manner, being bored as I am with the ranting of the holier than thou. The topic of this week’s column therefore is “why book banning and architectural dictates are bad for you”.
Let us deal with the latter first. It is not unusual to have city councils make rulings on the type of buildings that they would allow to be built. This is especially true in towns with very strong historical and cultural flavours.
New buildings in Bruges (France), for example, have to fit the general architectural style of the town as a whole.
This is because Bruges is a Unesco heritage site and the town’s authorities want to maintain a certain uniformity to the place. No glass walled McDonalds. Merci.
However, any sort of control like this has to be for a jolly good reason. And there has to be a logic to it. Taking the Bruges example, the style in question is distinct to the town.
Architects and town planners have a clear picture in their mind when designing and approving buildings. This would not be the case, however, if the Bruges local government had demanded that their buildings be built in a “European style”.
What is “European” after all? Classical Roman? Ottoman (as long as it is west of the Bosphorus)? Russian Tsarist Onion Dome?
An order as vague as this, therefore, makes no sense.
Furthermore, one has to be very careful with edicts regarding architecture, lest they fall foul of cultural norms. This is particularly true in pluralistic societies.
Another concern is that such rules may actually stifle architectural innovation. In this day and age, where energy conservation is becoming imperative, innovative design would appear to be the way of the future and should not be limited.
And if one worries about ugly modern buildings, well, sometimes new things take some getting used to. After all, the much photographed Palace of Westminster (London, England) was considered hideous when it was first built.
Besides, if you are building an ugly (but environmentally clever) building in a less than attractive town in the first place, what is the big deal?
Now on to the second topic, book banning.
Book banning is the act of the despotic and mindless. It is an act of intellectual barbarism. Burning books in my view is a violent act against thought.
One counters bad ideas by confronting them with better ideas. If one reacts in a violent manner then one is little better than the Athenian government that had Socrates put to death or the Abbasid government that imprisoned and flogged Imam Hanafi on the mere premise that they disagreed with these philosophers.
In order for humankind to develop, there is a constant need to grow and push intellectual boundaries. Without this mental expansion, there can only be stagnation and eventually regression.
In this process, naturally, there will be new concepts that one might feel uncomfortable with; especially if they question the status quo, and if they threaten one’s intellectual comfort zone. Well, to these people, I have only one word to say: “tough”.
Banning books is only done by those without the intellectual capacity or the confidence to put forth a better counter argument.
They may hide behind supposed noble ideals such as “protecting the weak minded from such awful ideas”, but in the end this thin veneer of self-declared altruism hides an arrogance that the “common man or woman” is incapable of making rational decisions, and a fear of their own cerebral shortcomings.
The fact that book banning can only be done by those in power makes it all the more repulsive because it is these very people who have the resources and infrastructure to effectively put their own views forward to the masses.
At the end of the day, these recent developments indicate a mindset that favours form over substance and an anti-intellectualism that does not bode well for the progressive development of this country.
> Dr Azmi Sharom is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely his own.