The recent clandestine detention of and questioning of Turkish author Mustafa Akyol by the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) has been very disturbing and must be condemned.
It was certainly a harrowing experience for Akyol and his loved ones and casts a dark shadow over the status of human rights and intellectual freedom in Malaysia.
Akyol was in the country at the invitation of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) to participate in a series of peaceful and civilised public talks and discussions on matters that concern, or should concern, ordinary Malaysians such as faith, democracy and justice.
And yet, Akyol, whose focus on intellectual inquiry and dialogue is well known worldwide, was summarily summoned by the Malaysian religious authorities in a way that can only be deemed anti-intellectual.
His incarceration, however brief, speaks volumes of the inability or refusal of the religious authorities to engage Akyol in a religious discourse – which is encouraged in Islam – that would certainly have been instructive for both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences in the country.
Such still-missing intellectual engagement would go a long way towards developing a society that appreciates mutual understanding and intellectual depth and freedom. To muzzle someone just because you disagree with him or her is, to put it simply, ridiculous especially in an era where information is easily accessible from the internet.
To do this to Akyol, a writer, speaker and thinker who consistently argues, with evidence, for understanding and mutual respect among people of different faiths, while legitimising and dancing intimately with the likes of the hate monger Zakir Naik speaks volumes about where this country is hurtling to, where the priorities of its religious authorities lie, and signals the need for concerned Malaysians to speak up and push back.
This awful incident also signals that it is time the dominant religious authorities stop acting in willy-nilly, vindictive ways and start presenting composed and well-argued viewpoints for the benefit of Muslims as well as people of other faiths.
Malaysians are not stupid, nor are we a confused lot, as we are often caricatured by the authorities.
To be sure, at the heart of all this is the arrogant refusal by the authorities to accept differences of opinions in society. It suggests the inclination of the authorities concerned to forbid differences of opinions and to bulldoze their own perspective, especially in matters pertaining to faith. It is Zakir Naik’s style and arrogance institutionalised and amplified.
Differences are bound to emerge, especially in a diverse society such as ours, now with more immediate links to other societies. It is something that should be regarded as an asset to us all because the blossoming of ideas often can bring about societal benefits, based on understanding and not fear and repression.
What is equally disturbing about Akyol’s detention is that it is being asserted by the religious authorities for the first time that an academic presentation or intellectual discourse of this nature requires prior permission and authorisation from these same authorities.
This assertion must be condemned and challenged because it does not augur well for academic freedom in the country. It provides power to faceless bureaucrats often lacking the intelligence and ability to decide justly. Unqualified organisations seeking to control what a person can think or the content of discussions bode ill for the general intelligence of the nation.
Akyol’s detention was – is – reprehensible. Engaging in intellectual discourse and exercising a democratic and human right to express one’s thoughts in public, as Akyol did, must never be grounds for detention.
Aliran executive committee
26th September 2017