The bookseller looks cautiously at the young man in front of him, sizing him up. He asks a few questions; most importantly trying to ascertain if the young university student is an informant for the police. Deciding he is not, there is a quick exchange and a book, covered in paper, is handed over. The young man delivers 20 ringgit and the transaction is complete.
Walking away, Mohamed quickly tucks the book into his bag, turning to give a short wave to the owner of the bookshop, who watches anxiously until the man turns a corner and disappears from view.
"This is the Irshad Manji book and it's banned right now," Mohamed said after arriving at a coffee shop in the popular China Town area of Kuala Lumpur, referring to Canadian author Irshad Manji's "Allah, Liberty and Love".
"The government doesn't want people to read the book because they are afraid it will make people turn gay." He laughs.
Shoring up the conservative base of the electorate
The bookshop has every right to fear a police crackdown. In late May, 36-year-old Borders bookstore manager Nik Raina Nik Aziz was charged in a Malaysian court of selling the banned book. If convicted, she could be fined up to $1,000 or jailed for two years.
For Mohamed and other young activists, the banning of the book over its message – one they say portrays Islam as a "tolerant and understanding faith" – is absurd, especially considering Malaysia's multi-ethnic make-up.
But with an election pending – the government must call for a general election by April next year – officials are seeking to shore up the conservative base of the electorate, and that means Manji's book has been barred from selling.
"They are doing this because she is a lesbian woman who is talking about an Islam that the conservatives don't want. They think she is dangerous and will have young people going crazy. Of course this is not really true, but it is why they ban it," added Mohamed, a political science student in the capital.
Officially, the home ministry banned the book after it was deemed offensive to Islam, arguing that it contained "elements that could mislead the public", and was "detrimental to public order".
According to Manji's website, the book "shows all of us how to reconcile faith and freedom in a world seething with repressive dogmas." Manji has been a longtime proponent of tolerance and understanding within Islam, and describes herself as a "practicing Muslim".
By Joseph Mayton
[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text]