Experts: NK Taking Malaysians Hostage Unprecedented

North Korea’s ban on Malaysians from leaving the country is a rare hostage situation that has not happened before in recent decades since the Iranian Revolution, an expert said.

Hazel Smith, a professor at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, said North Korea’s holding of “completely innocent people against their will” would have its closest match to the Iran hostage crisis that happened from 1979 to 1981, where students stormed the US embassy there and people were held captive for more than a year.

“This is definitely a hostage situation and is a flagrant breaking of international law. It is quite unprecedented in peacetime. You have to go back to the Americans held hostage in Iran under Jimmy Carter’s presidency to find an analogous situation,” the director of the university’s International Institute of Korean Studies told Malay Mail Online when contacted.

“Although the individual Malaysians in the DPRK are probably not in immediate physical danger this will be a psychologically traumatic experience which will take them a long time to recover from once it is over,” she added, referring to the reclusive country by its official name as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Christoph Bluth, a professor of international relations and security at the University of Bradford in the UK, similarly noted the unusual nature of North Korea’s move, saying: “It is unheard of. I don’t know of any example except the Iranian hostage crisis which only affected US diplomats.”

“At this point, I would say there is no immediate danger to any specific person except being prevented from leaving the country. However, for the persons involved this is a very terrifying situation,” he told Malay Mail Online.

North Korea imposed Tuesday a temporary travel ban on all Malaysians there following soured ties over the February 13 murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother Kim Jong-nam here.

Malaysia later confirmed all 11 of its nationals in North Korea are safe. Two of them are UN employees there for a course related to the World Food Programme, while three are Malaysian embassy staff and the remaining six are their family members.

Academic Oh Ei Sun similarly called North Korea’s action a “highly unusual move”, saying it was “effectively a hostage situation” like how the now-deceased Iraqi president Saddam Hussein took Western hostages in 1990.

“You can never predict what they will do to the hostages,” he said, adding that Malaysians in North Korea have no choice but to obey whatever the regime orders in order to preserve their lives.

While Malaysia responded by similarly imposing a temporary ban on North Koreans from leaving the country, Oh said this was an “extraordinary measure enacted under extraordinary circumstances as you are dealing with a highly unpredictable regime and must have some bargaining chips in hand”.

When asked how long North Korea’s temporary travel ban on Malaysians might last, Oh noted that some Japanese hostages were held by North Koreans for many decades.

“Can ask neutral countries like Switzerland or neutral international organisations like International Committee of the Red Cross to mediate, to the extent they entertain this,” said the adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, said he was hesitant to call North Korea’s travel ban a “hostage situation”, although it had some hallmarks of such a scenario.

“Saying so might lead to us to draw false parallels between what’s happening now and the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-1981. The current situation is bad, not quite as severe. Diplomatic relations haven’t been cut and both countries are still in control of their respective embassies,” he noted.

Citing North Korea’s statement that Malaysia’s diplomats and citizens there may work and live normally under the same conditions and circumstances as before, Shahriman said he does not foresee any personal harm to Malaysians there beyond restrictions of their movement.

Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had said the government has been given an assurance that the stranded Malaysians are not in custody and can move about Pyongyang freely, with the exception that they cannot leave North Korea.

Secularism Is No Answer For The Muslim World

Two consistent themes in much of the contemporary analysis of world affairs have been the impending clash of civilisations and the need for the secularisation of the Muslim world.

Secularism seeks to make the temporal rather than spiritual the basis for all laws. It arose in response to a uniquely European Christian problem – the excesses of the church, the antagonism between the church and science, and the intra-Christian wars being fought at the time. The separation of church and state was a logical solution. In contrast, the periods of Muslim caliphate, particularly between 622 and 1492, were marked as periods of growth, intellectual advancement and social justice. The rights of minorities were protected, human rights were enshrined not just in law but in scripture, and a knowledge-centred society was fostered that was the intellectual well from which all of Europe came to drink.

Contrary to popular opinion, Islam, in its political manifestation, is democratic — if democracy means that people choose their own leaders and laws are passed through discussion and deliberation. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself refrained from appointing a successor, instead allowing people to choose the next ruler of the fledgling Islamic state. Umar, the second Caliph (ruler), said that the ruler can be chosen only through the consultative approval of the people. However, Islamic democracy differs from secular democracy in that the right of the people to legislate is limited by what they believe to be a higher law, to which human law is subordinate. There is no axiom that states that a democracy must be secular, in the same way that there is no axiom that states that a secular system is intrinsically democratic. The subordination of law-making to the Qur’an and Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) made Muslim society immune to absolute tyranny and dictatorship. Such emphasis also prevented absolute tyranny by giving Islamic scholars more legislative power than the ruler. It was their word that was final on many matters. If the ruler made a decision that was contrary to that of the ulema (people of knowledge), his decision was to be rejected.

There is a stark contrast between past glories and current reality.

Whereas once the Muslim world was ruled by a single caliphate, its post-colonial manifestation is a collection of weak, mostly secular, nation-states. Termed “bunker regimes” by Samuel Huntington, their guns face their own people, ruthlessly repressing dissent and committing some of the worst violations of human rights. It is a sad irony that in many cases, Muslims have more freedom to practice their religion in the secular democracies of the West than in the secular dictatorships of the Middle East.

In Islam, there is no conflict between theology and science, between the demands of the spiritual and the temporal. However, one can draw parallels between Christian Europe before Enlightenment, and the intellectual stagnation, reactionary impulses and conflict that characterises the Muslim world today. Yet, what is required is not a wholesale adoption of secular democracy, but a uniquely Islamic reformation. Is it then unreasonable that Muslims, who have their own culture, values and history, can be allowed to choose their own future? Those who advocate Western secularism as a universal panacea, are akin to the child with the hammer who thinks every problem is a nail.

Indeed, the call to secularise Islam as a means of averting a clash of civilisations is really the first salvo in such a clash. Huntington wrote that the problem for Islam is not the CIA nor the US Department of Defence. It is the West, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture, and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West. What is needed today is a revival of the tremendous energy that propelled Muslims forward in history; the energy that comes from a clear sense of purpose and direction.

Muslim society must subject itself to critical self-evaluation, recognising the principles that made it great in the past, as well as drawing on the positive aspects of the West and other societies, adapting and improving upon them. From this may spring a profound sense of empowerment and a realisation that Muslims can make their own future.

The call to modernise Islam thus becomes a call to Islamisize modernity.

I Will Never Trade It For Another Country

If the principles of jus soli were strictly enforced in the country, I wouldn’t even be registered as a citizen of Malaysia. Thirty-one years ago, my father was working for a multi-national corporation based in the Silicon Valley and he brought his young bride along. I suppose I was conceived during this time. I was born in San Jose, California in the United States. I even have a US birth certificate and a US passport (expired in 1988) to boot. The US recognises dual citizenship so I have no doubt that I am already recognised as a citizen of the US.

If the principles of jus soli were strictly enforced in the country, I wouldn’t even be registered as a citizen of Malaysia. Thirty-one years ago, my father was working for a multi-national corporation based in the Silicon Valley and he brought his young bride along. I suppose I was conceived during this time. I was born in San Jose, California in the United States. I even have a US birth certificate and a US passport (expired in 1988) to boot. The US recognises dual citizenship so I have no doubt that I am already recognised as a citizen of the US. But because my parents had the foresight to register me at the US Embassy in Washington, DC using Borang W, I became a Malaysian citizen at birth. My father could have made the decision to stay. But he didn’t. He came home to Malaysia with his family in tow.

I grew up in a middle-class family and was for most of my life based in Penang, having been enrolled into a private school (Sekolah Sri Inai). The majority of students were non-Muslim Chinese, I was only one of the very few Muslim students around in the whole school. Regardless, I had a lot of inter-racial contact and I count a lot of non-Muslims and Muslims alike as among my closest friends during this time period. Back when we were children, the issue of race and religion did not count for much, not even during the 1990s.

However, my father decided to enrol me into a government school (to sit for the UPSR examinations) in 1992, where the racial balance was rather skewed and I saw some form of racism first-hand. There was even discrimination against me, even though I am constitutionally-defined as a Malay (although today, I do not see myself as such). Moving on to secondary school, I began to make more friends as I grew accustomed to the culture surrounding me and my family.

I was overwhelmingly pro-Umno throughout my earlier student years and saw everything through their lenses. Then 1998 came, when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was unjustly sacked and publicly humiliated, under dubious circumstances. This incident forced me to start see things through a wider lens. I learned over the years of the pervasive corruption within Umno, the excesses of their leaders and their unjust treatment of Malaysians — and even the Malays, those whom they claim to be protecting. I started to read up and learn about Islam, eventually embracing my religious roots and realised that the only way to achieve universal peace is through the justice of political Islam.

Fast forward to today, the political climate is far different from what it was during the 1990s. Barisan Nasional/Umno is now widely seen as corrupt and unjust, manipulating race issues for their political gain. The wealth of their leaders is unaccounted for, their continuous disregard for the livelihoods of the rakyat even more evident in the past decade. The economy is being managed badly and social problems such as baby dumping, promiscuous sex among teenagers and crime are on the rise and unlikely to be reduced significantly for as long as the current government remains in power.

With all these known excesses and problems in Malaysia, why am I still here? Why have I remained in Malaysia? I could have just as easily moved to the United States, where I would be welcomed as a citizen and, unlike others who choose to leave, have the right to vote and participate in the political process.

I remained in Malaysia because I believe that to achieve change, the only way to do it is with political change and that must begin with oneself. I translated this into action when I registered as a life member of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) in 2007. This belief would not have changed, even if the political tsunami of 2008 did not happen and the tripartite opposition did not make significant gains. Whining and groaning and voting with your feet will not bring about change, it will only bring further apathy to those who stayed behind. The lack of patriotism from those who discarded their vote should not be a reason for anyone to leave the country and never come back.

On a more personal note, I am doing reasonably well with my own SEO and Internet business, and I am consistently obtaining clients from the US and the UK & Europe. Although there may be a higher income if I were to leave the country and start living elsewhere, the cost of living in other countries is relatively higher than what it currently is in Malaysia. Also, I believe that my wife would be able to wear the hijab freely in public, and I will be free to practise Islam openly, without anyone on the street harassing us or calling us “terrorists.” Despite what one may be led to believe, xenophobia and religious bias is not absent in the US, the UK, Europe or anywhere else.

Malaysia is my home, and for better or for worse I will never trade it for another country.