January 6, 2015

Borders Bookstore still exists, and it’s fighting Sharia law


The offending SKU.

The offending SKU.

Ten years ago, Sin City had just hit theaters and Borders Bookstore was going strong. The muti-national book chain had just opened a 60,000 square foot franchise in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The company’s international operations president stated that they would “specifically block” any titles offensive to Muslims, which would also be the same books targeted by the country’s stringent laws regarding criticism of Islam. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Well not really. In 2015, Borders is but a memory. Their former stores only exist in abandoned real estate and horror stories swapped by former employees.

Or do they?

Not entirely! Many Borders Bookstores still exist, including several in Kuala Lumpur, under the aegis of various foreign companies who had purchased them before the dissolution of Borders Group. This is interesting enough. What’s even more surprising is the story of one particular store, owned by Malaysian conglomerate Berjaya Books and located in a development west of the original flagship.

The Star reports the latest development in the tale of this Borders Bookstore at the Gardens Mall, which was raided in 2012 by agents of the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (commonly known as JAWI). JAWI seized copies of the book Allah, Liberty, & Love, written by Canadian author Irshad Manji, a popular advocate for Islamic ideological reform.  The store manager, Nik Raina, was subsequently arrested and charged by the Sharia court with distributing literature critical of Sharia law, which if found guilty can carry a sentence of up to two years in prison.

Now, after several years of court battles, Raina has won the civil case against JAWI, in which she, Borders, and her legal team claimed that the raid was illegal. Malaysian Muslims are subject to both civil and Sharia law, and JAWI enforces the latter only against Muslims (in theory). Berjaya is a corporation and not seen as religiously affiliated, but Raina is a Muslim, and therefore subject to prosecution by the Sharia court.

However, the raid was carried out before the book was banned by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which along with several other actions by JAWI during the raid (including the questioning of a non-Muslim manager) prompted Raina’s civil case (and victory) against both the raid and subsequent prosecution.

Though the book’s ban was lifted in 2013, the Sharia court continued to pursue the case against Raina, despite the civil court’s ruling that the raid was illegal. The Malay Mail Online provides a handy timeline for legal battle, the final appeal of which the Sharia court now appears to have lost, in the sense that the civil court has now unreversedly ruled that JAWI acted in bad faith.

However, this is not a final verdict for Raina, at least not yet. Though the civil court has roundly criticized the Sharia court and JAWI for overreach, and urged them to drop their case against Raina, the Sharia court is yet to do so.

“We need support. I know I did not do anything wrong,” said [Raina], who was accompanied by her colleagues and friends. [She] thanked her bosses for their support in fighting the case. “I really hope JAWI will reconsider the benefit of prosecuting me. There is none,” she sobbed.

In a 2013 statement, Borders stood behind Raina’s assertion that a judgement in JAWI’s favor would discourage Muslims from applying to jobs at bookstores for fear of overly aggressive treatment by JAWI.

[Raina] and her family had to suffer great humiliation and trauma. She is a Muslim and like many Malaysian Muslim women, she wears the tudung as respect for her faith. However, her image as a respectable Muslim woman was severely tarnished because the charge made by JAWI against her was that she distributed a book that defiled Islam. In a majority Muslim country like Malaysia, an allegation that a person has defiled Islam generates all kinds of negative implications.

This is a fascinating look at the twin justice systems of Malaysia and how they play off of and control each other’s oversight, especially when it comes to free speech. If you want to learn more, or you’re looking for bunch more reasons to support Raina (who has continued to work as the manager at the Garden Mall Borders throughout her legal battle) check out this 2013 article from the Malaysian Insider, and visit the Justice For Nik Raina Facebook page.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.