Law in the Internet Society
-- AlfianKuchit - 20 Nov 2008

This paper was a lament against the non-functioning elites that have ruled Malaysia since independence as well as the kinds of religious discourses that continue to dominate mainstream thought.

I was envious of the strength of US universities and the relative freedom of the professors. There is still space for dissent and competing or alternative views. Issues like privacy can be discussed without any repercussions.

In Malaysia, professors have to sign to a pledge of loyalty to the government and university students are told to sign a statement that they would not be involved in politics.

We have not even settled many of our problems and now we have to deal with the changes in an Internet society?

I despair but I am somewhat encouraged by the work of Muslim NGOs in Malaysia like MEGC and Sisters in Islam who have worked to go beyond textual Islam i.e. the obsessive focus on Qur'an and hadith and worked instead on development issues like strengthening capabilities.

In this sense, I agree with Prof. Abu Odeh that giving the Qur'an and hadith an overarching status is misplaced. After all, Malaysia is also a part of the capitalist world-system with all the trappings of a Westminster parliamentary system. So, no seventh-century Arabian thought there!

I know I have not addressed your concerns at all but I thought I'd start by at least explaining why I wrote that piece.

-- AlfianKuchit - 09 Feb 2009


Liberation and the Internet Society: The Role of Muslim Intellectuals in Malaysia

Do you think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm? - Malay proverb


Human history is shaped by the interaction of ecology, group interest and creative individuals. When habitual, routine thinking will no longer work, creative individuals are those who, at certain moments in history produce new alternatives (Hodgson: 1974).

For a developing nation like Malaysia, intellectual leadership is a significant development need. To lack a functioning creative and intellectual class is to lack leadership in (1) the posing of problems; (2) the definition of problems; (3) the analysis of problems; and (4) the solution of problems (Alatas: 1977).

As Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, Muslim intellectuals play a major role in social transformation and creating a progressive Islamic discourse. Without their intellectual leadership, traditional discourses on Islam will prevail and continue to produce a non-critical condition rooted in external dependence and internal submission (see Sharabi: 1992).

Reading the Text and Context

While Muslim intellectuals have focused their energies on the issues of human rights, social justice, authoritarianism and democracy, the issue of privacy and the Internet Society remains at the periphery of their consciousness. In a place like Malaysia where Muslim intellectuals hold a lot of influence, the responsibility of raising consciousness on issues of privacy and to speak out against new forms of exploitations must inevitably fall on their shoulders.

One of the urgent tasks of Muslim intellectuals in Malaysia, therefore, is to provide a progressive religious discourse which is both contextual and dialogical (see Engineer: 1990). The aim is to reflect upon concrete reality, raise critical consciousness and focus on pedagogical strategies to struggle against dehumanizing conditions. Religious commitments must therefore be anchored to the urgent issues of the society at large and centrally rooted to the idea of religion as a force for liberation.

Privacy and the Internet Society

Malaysian discourses on development have focused exclusively on technological advancements. Government-controlled media have often hailed the Multimedia Super Corridor as Malaysia’s ambitious commitment to transform its rubber and palm-oil plantations into Asia’s Silicon Valley (see

In many countries, the strength of civil society can be a bulwark against the erosion of privacy. Privacy is important because it protects one “from being misdefined and judged out of context” (Rosen: 2000). Unfortunately, in Malaysia where the government often bend backwards to accommodate foreign investments, privacy rights are given a short shrift. Furthermore, in Malaysian society, surveillance by the government in the name of crime-prevention and national security is a given.

While critics of the Malaysian government have focused on environmental degradation and displacement of indigenous tribes in its rush to achieve developed nation status by 2020, what is urgently needed is also a national discussion on privacy issues to limit the boundary of government and commercial surveillance. In the International Privacy Ranking released last year, Malaysia shared the last spot with China and Russia and was categorized as “endemic surveillance societies”. The U.S. did not fare much better either (see[347]=x-347-559597).

Muslim intellectuals together with other members of the Malaysian civil society must remain vigilant of the abuse and misuse of technology. Data mining technology in the U.S., for example, has allowed commercial entities to constantly monitor, store and analyze personal information of their customers. Zarsky (2004) raises the specter of price discrimination (where companies use personal information to create different pricing schemes for different types of customers) and the “autonomy trap” (where personal information can be used to manipulate the customers through the use of personally targeted advertisements).

Critical literacy

The transformation of human society into an Internet society means that there is an urgent need to not only have technical literacy but also critical literacy, allowing one to be able to read both the word and the world (Freire,1993). Critical literacy provides the intellectual tools to understand reality in favor of the permanent emancipation of human beings at a time where the commercialization of cyberspace has led to metaphors like “market for eyeballs” (which reduces humans into passive receptors) or “the Information Superhighway” (which reduces the Internet into a pathway of commerce rather than a tool for emancipation) (see Dahlberg: 2002, Moglen: 1997).

Without doubt, the Qur’an is greatly concerned with a just and egalitarian order (Qur’an, 49:13, 5:8, 28:5, 4:75, 2:219). But the implications for contemporary practice are much less clear.

Who are the oppressors and the oppressed in the Internet society? In Malaysia, this question needs to be answered by the Muslim intellectual and creative class. What they must bear in mind is that there is nothing inevitable about the erosion of privacy in cyberspace nor is privacy doomed in its battle against government intrusion and technology. But as Frederick Douglass has suggested, power concedes nothing without a demand.


1) Alatas, S.H. (1977) Intellectuals in Developing Society, London: Frank Cass.

2) Dahlberg, L. (2002) Democratic Visions, Commercial Realities?: The Corporate Domination of Cyberspace and the Prospects for Online Deliberation, Antepodium: Victoria University of Wellington.

3) Engineer, A. A. (1990) Islam and Liberation Theology: Essays on Liberative Elements in Islam, New Delhi: Sterling.

4) Freire, P. (1993) Pedagogy of the City, New York: Continuum.

5) Hodgson, M. (1974) The Venture of Islam, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

6) Moglen, E. (1997) The Invisible Barbecue, 97 Columbia Law Review.

7) Rosen, J. (Apr. 30, 2000) The Eroded Self, New York Times.

8) Sharabi, H. (1992) Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society, New York: Oxford University Press.

9) Zarsky, T. (2004) Desperately Seeking Solutions: Using Implementation-Based Solutions for the Troubles of Information Privacy in the Age of Data Mining and the Internet Society, 56 Maine Law Review 13.

Justify text

  • This paper follows a formula:
    1. write a paper about how important something is that you already know about;
    2. add that the particular importance in this instance is something I know about;
    3. put just enough of (2) in the text so it isn't purely a paper about (1).

But this doesn't really serve either of our purposes. If liberal Islamic thought can give us a new basis for government respect for individual privacy, what is that basis? Like many other possible outcomes of liberal Islamism, this one is easier to describe in general terms than to propose in a credible fashion. "Privacy," in our sense, requires some boundaries to exist, including the boundary between "public" and "private" as well as "state" and "civil society" that are not exactly evident on the face of the Qur'anic text or the hadith. So is this a sort of one-off inference from a general "liberal Islamism" that has domesticated post-eighteenth century European notions into the thought of seventh-century Arabia, reopened the closing of the books, and done all the heavy-lifting for you before you begin? This is the ne plus ultra of assuming the can opener, right? Surely something must be said on the subject, if the essay is to be credible.


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r3 - 09 Feb 2009 - 04:09:32 - AlfianKuchit
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