Monday, February 05, 2007

Who is Zulhaidi Omar?
This is a very good question. One way of answering this question would be to say that Zulhaidi Omar is 29. Another would be to say that he is a sales executive. Another would be to say he is a man. Yet another would be to say that he is a citizen of Malaysia. All are true and uncontroversial statements, but all also fail to fully answer the question. Many of us are 29, and many more of us have been 29, and 29 will not be, and was not, the same experience for any of us. As for being a sales executive, what does that really mean. I can conjure a picture of what a sales executive would do, but it is necessarily vague. Even if I knew the exact particulars of each and every one of his work days, would I really know very much about him? I suppose you could draw conclusions, but those conclusions would be inevitably based on so much more than the job. The gender issue I will leave alone right now, and not because I think it is inconsequential, but because there are a lot of men in the world and Zulhaidi's status as one just makes him one of many. As far as being a Malaysian, I am an American. There are over 300 million Americans. It is tempting to say that this commonality is especially meaningful. I don't think that being an American isn't actually that meaningful. The last two elections, the debate about the war, the reaction to movies like An Inconvenient Truth, the Arguably, coverage and debate on issues like abortion and assisted suicide all make me think that I have very little in common with the majority of other Americans. Being an American probably is, however, more meaningful than being a Malaysian. By saying this I am not making an assertion about the quality of life in America or about the quality of people in America (actually I believe that neither are especially extraordinary). Just as in America there are competing identities (Black, Christian, Southern), the same is true in Malaysia. It is even more true, or at least these identity cleavages are more severe and conflict ridden. The majority of the citizens of Malaysia are ethnic Malays, but a large and disproportionately prosperous minority is ethnic Chinese. So, to a citizen of Malaysia, telling them that someone is also a citizen of Malaysia is not really telling them very much. Of course, telling them that this person's given name would tell them quite a bit more. Zulhaidi Omar is a Muslim name. Most ethic Malays are Muslims and most Muslims in Malaysia are ethnic Malays. Zulhaidi is indeed a Muslim, at least for now. This, by itself, is about as informative as the designation of Malaysian. Americans think that all Muslims are identical, but the truth is about as far from that as one can imagine. Some Muslims do assert that there is one correct way to be a Muslim, but they are almost unquestionably wrong. It doesn't take too much research into Islam and Islamic law to reach that conclusion. Even they would agree that the practices of those claiming to be Muslims are far from uniform. Together these designations do begin to mean something, but one must correctly assemble them, taking into account the fact that these factors overlap and interact, thus altering each other and the whole. In the case of Zulhaidi Omar the whole is certainly much more than the sum of the parts.
Zulhaidi, who now prefers to be called Eddie, was apparently switched with another baby at birth. He was raised in Malaysia as a Muslim an an ethnic Malay. His biological parents raised as an ethnic Chinese Malaysian the biological child of the two people who raised him who raised him. Now he wishes to renounce Islam. In Malaysia, renouncing Islam is a crime. In Islam it is a sin of the highest order. It is one thing not to be a Muslim, but to have known the one true God and his religion and then to have forsaken it is a crime for which there can be no forgiveness, in this world of the next. Why is Eddie committing this crime. Why is Tian Fa (Eddie's double) not renouncing Buddhism and his Chinese Malaysian identity? I don't know, but I have to believe that the political and economic power, and social position, possesed by the Ethnic Chinese of Malaysia has something to do with it. These are additional aspects of identity that it is foolish to ignore.
Using only the article at CNN's website it is impossible to conclude who Zulhaidi Omar is. It is impossible to even hazard a guess. What I can do is conclude that our identities are constructed, and that our parents, our work colleagues, the books and websites we read, and the culture of our community and our state (I will save exploring this mess for another time) all play a role. We ourselves also play a role. There is a place for genetics too, but only a small one. And now even a penis doesn't mean too much.

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