By Mustafa K Anuar
19 Nov 2017
Contrary to the insistence of Malaysian religious authorities, freedom of thought was and is still celebrated in Islam, especially in its intellectual tradition, said Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) leader Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa.
Only when freedom of expression was encouraged, he said, that ideas could flourish for the betterment of humanity, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The concern expressed by Farouk emerged in the wake of the arrest on 25 September 2017 of Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol, who was an IRF-invited speaker.
Jawi had arrested the scholar for allegedly committing an offence under the Sharia Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act, which requires speakers on Islam to acquire tauliah or teaching accreditation, a rule normally applied to Muslim preachers delivering talks in houses of worship.
Tauliah is said to be an administrative measure to prevent deviant teaching on Islam. It is born out of a perceived need to regulate talks on Islam for fear of confusing Muslims, which may even lead to apostasy.
Fear of apostasy should be overcome through debate and discussion, and not through coercive means, Farouk said.
If there emerged confusion as a result of such discourse, he said it was up to Muslims to make their own conclusions.
Farouk said the possibility of confusion should be seen as the beginning of a noble journey in the search for truth.
Freedom of conscience, he said, was often feared by state religious authorities, particularly the Federal Territories Islamic Department (Jawi), because they felt it would lead to apostasy, an issue that touches a raw nerve with Jawi.
Farouk finds resonance with what was expressed by his friend AbdolkarimSoroush, an Iranian intellectual, who once stated in one of his incisive and thought-provoking writings that nothing is better for humanity than submission based on free will.
A state version of Islam that is being promoted in the country, Farouk said, would create a face of Islam that was intolerant and unable or refuses to embrace differences of opinion.
An intolerant Islam, warned Farouk, was detrimental to the religion itself, as it would lead to no intellectual growth among Muslims when you can’t listen to other ideas and views.
It also gives a bad image of Islam, especially to those of other faiths.
Religious authorities such as the Islamic Development Department (Jakim), he said, should be more accommodating and willing to indulge in debates and discussions, as these activities would be instructive to Muslims and people of other faiths.
As regards the tauliah, he said: “We need a clear line to demarcate religious talks from intellectual discourse.”
Intellectual discourse was vital to the intellectual development of the ummah of the country, and a curb on such activities would do a disservice to Islam and the ummah as a whole, he added.
A controlled environment would likely bring about a situation, he warned, that was akin to the proverbial “katak di bawahtempurung” (a cocooned worldview), especially in the 21st century where there were many challenges that needed answers and solutions, and also at a time when more people were demanding their human rights.
The actions of the religious authorities, like Jawi, have also caused deep concern among other academics and public intellectuals in the country.
Dr Wong Chin Huat, fellow and head of the political studies programme at Penang Institute, felt: “Greater than the institutional power and administrative budget of the religious functionaries like Jakim is the political correctness of anything Islam.
“Criticism of anything that bears the name Islam, Islamic or Muslims, never mind even if it is not about Islam itself, is treated as offending the faith and the entire ummah. Internal criticisms from within Muslims often invite accusations of lack of religiosity, deviation, betrayal, dividing or confusing the ummah or even apostasy.
“On the other hand, external criticisms from outside the ummah are seen as hostile or Islamophobia.”
Farouk fears that the siege mentality that had been developed within the Malay-Muslim community was in line with the government’s political narrative. That is, the government paints itself as the saviour of the ummah through the control of the Muslim mind.
Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of UniversitiSains Malaysia thinks that the actions of Jawi are a reflection of not only the religious authorities’, but also of the larger Malay-Muslim society’s aversion to frank discussions on Islam, especially when it involves differences of opinion.
his exclusive approach to Islam, he said, was not conducive to the intellectual development of the ummah, which had brought about a situation where the conscience of Muslims is heavily regulated, and not one that is guarded by the love for, if not fear of, the Almighty.
He says restrictions via the mechanism of tauliah would only make intellectual discourse elitist in nature.
Political scientist Dr AzmilTayeb of USM’s School of Social Sciences said: “It’s all about political dominance and social control, the ends of which are achieved through religious justification. In short, there’s nothing religious at all concerning these coercive efforts.”
He said the restriction imposed by the tauliah was a violation of Article 10 of the constitution that protects citizens’ right to freedom of speech.
“Only Parliament has the authority, bestowed by the constitution, to restrict the said freedom,” he said.
“It’s obvious then by expanding the definition of tauliah to include academic and other non-religious seminars, the religious authorities have overstepped their authority.”
In less charitable terms, Professor Zaharom Nain of Nottingham University Malaysia asserted: “Especially given how spiteful and vindictive they have acted so often, these institutions, like Jakim, are only happy with their interpretations of the religion and have no inclination to consider others. It is a fascist approach that brooks no dissent, no alternative.
“It is one that is not caring and worried about the ummah, as it is concerned about maintaining power and control over the ummah. The root cause, in other words, is the need of these institutions to maintain (and extend) their power.”
However, Dr MohdFaizal Musa, research fellow at Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation of UniversitiKebangsaan Malaysia, argues that what is being practised now was opposite to how the Malay world perceived differences in opinion.
He said freedom of expression was celebrated, as evident in a Malay pantun found in Riau:
(It’s the nature of a brave male
To acquire an assertive attitude;
Accustomed to travelling places
To freely speak without restrictions)
The novelist, whose many books have been banned by the Malaysian government, stressed that Islam placed great importance on freedom of expression as well as conscience, given that there is no compulsion in the faith.
As for the impact of the religious authorities on the country’s intellectual development, particularly in Islam, Chin Huat expressed his concern: “When universities need the approval of religious departments before inviting any speakers to intellectual discussions, universities are effectively controlled by not just the Education Ministry, but also Jakim and state religious agencies.
“The question is: are the religious institutions full of experts in every academic discipline to lead universities? In the Golden Age of Islam, Muslim scholars (ulama) were often experts in many fields.”
Similarly, Zaharom warned: “It would seem that what these authorities wish for is conformity and compliance to a particular – their particular – mode of thinking and system of beliefs.
“Any society that allows that kind of leadership invariably is a society doomed to be pulled by the nose in directions determined by these arrogant – and often ignorant – thought controllers.”
Farouk lamented the apathy among the Malay intelligentsia that, to his mind, had partly led to this situation.
“They failed to rally around the call for freedom of thought and expression.”
Farouk felt that the label “liberal” that was stuck onto IRF had alienated it from moderate Malay groups.
In a sense, the authorities had succeeded in demonising IRF, he said.
Given the events that ensued from the Akyol incident, many of them felt that Malaysia had squandered any attempt at becoming the leading light in the Islamic world.
As things stand now, Chin Huat said Malaysia would only catch up in freedom of thought with Saudi Arabia.
He longed for the day “when Islam shines as ‘Rahmat Al Lilalamin’ (blessings to the universe), whose rays shower on even non-Muslims, instead of being appropriated by Pan-Muslim nationalists as merely an identity marker to police the believers and to discriminate against the non-believers.”
Azmil, who has done a comparative study of religious education in Indonesia and Malaysia, said what happened to Akyol had tarred the image of Malaysia as a moderate Muslim country.
To the best of his knowledge, no such arrest had ever happened in Indonesia, nor did he see it happening in the near future.
Faisal said he never remembered Malaysia being a leading light in the Islamic world.
“We’ve always been a pengekor (follower).” – November 19, 2017.
Dr Mustafa K Anuar, the honorary secretary of Aliran and co-editor of our newsletter, is concerned about issues of press freedom and freedom of expression in our society. He is also a senior journalist with an online media portal.