Mustafa Akyol, academic freedom and self-serving bureaucrats

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Mustafa Akyol - Photograph: Malay Mail Online

The Malaysian Academic Movement (better known by its Malay acronym Gerak) is appalled and condemns in no uncertain terms the deplorable manner in which renowned author, journalist and scholar Mustafa Akyol was treated by the Malaysian religious and other authorities less than a week ago.

Gerak’s concern is in three areas.

First, the despicable, high-handed manner in which a respected visiting scholar was treated.

Second, the seemingly growing nature of outside interference into academic exchanges and intimidation against academics.

And, third, increasing intolerance, arguably based on the ignorance and arrogance (bodoh sombong) of those attacking academia and academics.

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish scholar and journalist, and Senior Visiting Fellow at the prominent Wellesley College, USA, was in Malaysia at the invitation of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF). This was the fifth time he’d come to Malaysia to speak, all at the invitation of the IRF.

He had a punishing schedule of three public engagements over two days.

On Sunday, 24 September, he started off in the afternoon by heading a roundtable discussion titled “Does freedom of conscience open the floodgates to apostasy?”

Later, on the same day, he gave a public lecture titled “Is democracy still relevant? The experience of Turkey, Malaysia, and other nations”.

His third engagement, due to be held at the KL Teaching Centre of the University of Nottingham in Malaysia was cancelled due to external pressures by religious authorities.

The questioning by the religious authorities actually began after his first engagement and culminated with his detention at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Monday, the flurry of activities that followed, and his release, after being moved like a common criminal from one holding centre to another.

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We can only imagine the agony he went through, not having access during this time to lawyers, his Malaysian hosts and his family. Only 24 hours after his detention was he able to catch his flight back to the United States.

What happened to Mustafa Akyol must never be repeated. He was arrested not because of any criminal act but based on wild allegations. And the manner in which he was detained – not allowing him access for quite some time to his contacts here and to legal representation – smacks of the ways of a police state.

It is ironic and reprehensible that, at the same time, we welcome with open arms wanted fugitives and alleged terrorists like Zakir Naik and dance intimately with them.

Akyol was arrested because some petty religious bureaucrats didn’t agree with what he had presented. Evidently they were uncomfortable with what he had to say about democracy, faith and justice. Or, perhaps more accurately, they were uncomfortable about what they perceived he had said about those issues.

Differences of opinion are the bread and butter of scholarship and academia. In the social sciences, especially, it is differences of opinion that result in the expansion of knowledge. Debates and discussions must be upheld for us to grow and mature as societies.

Gerak condemns and opposes this latest attempt at the policing of knowledge and opinions and the intimidation by faceless and, evidently, clueless bureaucrats.

It is bad enough that academia in Malaysia is predominantly directed by individuals and institutions that often have no idea what quality education is all about. It is worse when these same self-serving groups chastise and punish academics (and students) for providing alternative viewpoints.

READ MORE:  Stop the intimidation

With this latest dark episode, a new element appears to have crept into the picture. According to news reports – and even the statements provided by the authorities – speakers (including academics evidently) now need to apply for accreditation (sijil tauliah) from the authorities before they can speak on religion (Islam).

This is unprecedented and unreasonable, casting the net of authoritarian control over intellectual discourse way too far. Indeed, it now appears that we have religious bureaucrats directly wanting a piece of the action, demanding that they certify and sanction the work of academics before anything else.

Gerak opposes this dangerous and certainly undemocratic development, just as we oppose the policing and regulation of knowledge by the ignorant, the unwise, and the unjust.

Executive committee
Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (Gerak)/Malaysian Academic Movement (Move)

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