IS intellectual freedom shrinking in Malaysia, a country that prides itself on being a modern Muslim state that practises a moderate form of Islam?
Local academics are claiming this as a venue owner pulled out from hosting a forum on Islam in Kuala Lumpur after pressure from religious authorities.
“We will definitely go ahead. This is a battle for intellectual freedom,” said forum organiser Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa of the authorities’ attempt to shut down the event.
This is the second attempt by the Federal Territories Religious Authority (Jawi) to censor intellectual freedom in recent memory, after it leaned on a local university to cancel a talk by Turkish author Mustafa Akyol last month.
Experts say these attempts to restrict debate on Islam do not bode well for a country that seeks to develop a knowledge-based economy – an aim of the Najib administration.
“Censorship of intellectual discussions in the public realm impacts negatively on our societal development,” said independent political economist Dr Andrew Aeria.
“It undermines our efforts to become a vibrant, confident and progressive society that values knowledge. It hinders scientific investigation and undermines progress,” said the former Universiti Malaysia Sarawak lecturer.
News portal Free Malaysia Today reported that the Royal Selangor Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur had backed out of hosting Farouk’s event as “it is declining to host all religious events for the time being”.
The talk organised by G25 and the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) was to take place next month and feature US-based Islamic scholar Dr Nader Hashemi.
The talk titled “Is Liberty An Islamic Value?” was to take place a day after the launch of the Bahasa Malaysia translation of the book, “What I Believe” by British scholar Dr Tariq Ramadan.
Nader is adamant about attending despite the pressure from religious authorities, said Farouk, who is in constant correspondence with him.
Nader wrote on his Twitter account @naderalihashemi: “Despite this news, I'm still looking forward to my trip to Malaysia. The doors to dialogue & debate should be opened, not closed. Censorship/repression never works.”
“(Nader) knows what is going on, sometimes even before I do. He is flying here on business class even though we can only reimburse him for an economy class ticket.”
The IRF is looking for an alternative venue for the talk.In September, Mustafa was in Malaysia for talks organised by IRF and was afterwards detained on orders from Jawi, who questioned him for preaching Islam without accreditation in Malaysia.
Mustafa’s third talk, which was to be centred on Jesus’ place in Islam and which was to take place at Nottingham University Malaysia, was cancelled at the last minute.
Farouk said the talk was called off after pressure from Jawi.
The Home Ministry subsequently banned two Bahasa Malaysia volumes of IRF’s anthologies titled “A Discourse on Reformist Thought” and the Bahasa Malaysia translation of Mustafa’s “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty”.
The government’s actions against IRF have been criticised by academics and non-governmental organisations as an assault on intellectual freedom and freedom of expression.
In July, the ministry banned the book “Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy”, with a foreword penned by former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Dr Wong Chin Huat of the Penang Institute said that the biggest losers from the government’s thought-policing were Bahasa Malaysia speakers as many of the books that were banned and forums that were under scrutiny were in Bahasa Malaysia or on Islam.
In 2006, the ministry banned the Bahasa Indonesia version of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” because it proposed a view of creation that was against Islamic teachings, said Wong.
“It can never be stressed enough that the intellectual impact of religious policing is not felt across the board, but evidently focused on the Malay-speaking community,” Wong told The Malaysian Insight.
“This makes the Malay language intellectually impoverished, static and lethargic, in strong contrast to the rich, dynamic and vibrant Indonesian language.”
Lawyers and analysts have also criticised Jawi’s ruling that only those with “tauliah” or accreditation from religious authorities are allowed to speak on Islam.
They said the ruling was either not enforced across the board or it was ill-conceived as it was meant to be applied to teachers of Islam.
Debate on Islam, said Aeria the political economist, should not be restricted as the faith was a large presence in society.
Its influence is seen in the dual legal system that binds Muslims to both civil and shariah laws, clashes between which two have erupted in court battles for child custody and the use of the word "Allah".
“The moment religion is thrust into the public realm, then it is a valid issue to be discussed publicly; as long as it does not incite hatred and violence, it should not be censored.
“When ulama or Jakim or the government enforces censorship in the name of Islam, they stop us from thinking, discussing and exchanging ideas. Once this happens, science and knowledge sre stymied.
“Finally, despite what the ulama, Jakim and the government may think, Islam does not belong to them. “Islam belongs to the people of the world and the people of the world have every right to discuss Islam so as to enhance their understanding of their faith," said Aeria.