KUALA LUMPUR, March 17 — Turkish author Mustafa Akyol, whose book on Islamic liberalism was translated into Malay in Malaysia, has criticised censorship here and in other Muslim countries that he said are now languishing intellectually.
Akyol, who was recently in Malaysia to promote the publication of the Malay edition of his book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, pointed out that Putrajaya has outlawed more than a thousand books translated into Malay, including Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species and Karen Armstrong’s Islam: A Short History.
“The Muslim world today is in a state of malaise. Muslim societies are underdeveloped in science, technology, economics and culture. This will be overcome only with more freedom.
“Progress depends on more Muslims questioning whether policies that promote ignorance are really devised to protect their faith — or to protect the power of those who rule in its name,” he wrote in an opinion piece on US paper The New York Times yesterday titled How Muslim Governments Impose Ignorance.
Akyol’s remarks come even as Islamic affairs minister Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom revealed today that the government was engaging in espionage and psychological warfare on “liberal” Malaysian Muslims.
The writer also noted that censorship was present in other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia that has even banned the Christian bible, and Egypt where a novelist was reportedly given a two-year imprisonment sentence for “violating public modesty”.
Akyol believed censorship was a disservice to Muslims, saying: “When Muslim minds aren’t challenged by ‘dangerous’ ideas they cannot develop the sophistication needed to articulate their own”.
He said he realised this two decades ago when prominent English atheist Richard Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker were published in Turkey, as he found that all the reasoned arguments against atheists were penned by Western Christians.
“Since they lived in open societies where religion could be freely criticised, Western Christians had developed an intellectual tradition of apologetics.
“In Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and other countries suffering under the yoke of censorship, however, Muslims hadn’t tried to counter the atheists. The government solved that problem for them — by banning atheist books, if not also punishing atheists,” Akyol wrote.
The writer noted that Muslim societies didn’t always used to be like this as they were “open and curious” a thousand years ago while Christian Europe was “insular and fearful of ‘blasphemy’”, pointing to the Muslim world then as home to groundbreaking scientific discoveries.
“Today, many Muslims, including those who censor books or punish ‘heretics’, long for that ‘golden age of Islam’ and lament that our civilisation is no longer great. Few seem to realise, however, that the greatness of Islam was made possible thanks to its openness to foreign cultures and ideas,” said Akyol.
He noted that the Muslim world started stagnating and declining after the 13th century as its initial cosmopolitanism was replaced with “self-isolating dogmatism”, while Europe flourished as Europeans’ thinking became more open.
He also said his publisher Islamic Renaissance Front, a progressive Muslim group, told him that the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) could ban his book Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, if they viewed it as violating traditional Islamic doctrine.
“So far, the Malaysian government has not banned my book. But if it did I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Akyol.
“In Malaysia, the government brazenly condemns ‘liberalism’ and ‘human rights-ism’,” he added.