Why stifling intellectual discourse is un-‘Madani’

The Kuru episode reminds us that proof of the pudding lies in the Madani government's actions when it matters

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A few days into the new year, an attempt was made to further suppress academic freedom and obstruct intellectual discourse in Malaysia.

The incident will perpetuate a myopic outlook among the people. It reminds us of the Malay saying “seperti katak di bawah tempurung” (like a frog under a coconut shell).

The Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies’ last-minute withdrawal as co-host of a scheduled book launch on 8 January was disappointing.

The book Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison was authored by American-based academic Ahmet T Kuru. The English edition had been published and released in 2019 with no fuss.

But it was only when Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), the other co-host, translated and released it in Malay this time around that objections were raised. The Turkish Embassy also objected to the book and the author.

Certainly, the intellectual and political environment was made less conducive for an academic discourse. Kuru himself felt it was unsafe to make a presentation of his book in Malaysia.

The cancellation of the original launch of the Malay edition was attributed to “pressure from conservatives” in the country.

Detractors claimed that Kuru was a “Muslim liberal” and “secularist”. These are buzzwords often used to demonise Muslims who have different views. Kuru was also accused of undermining mainstream Islamic scholars and institutions.

The academic, who is the director of Islamic and Arabic studies at San Diego State University in the US, rightly called on his critics to read his book before dismissing it outright.

It is outrageous if the call for the cancellation of the launch was made by those who had not read the very book they criticised. It is akin to a situation where a certain group of people push for a ban on a particular film without even watching it – a familiar phenomenon in our country.

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It is concerning that there are people – apparently including certain ‘intellectuals’ – who have chosen not to see beyond their navel. Worse, they seem to have encouraged others to adopt a similar stance. This has serious consequences for ordinary people who are genuinely curious and concerned.

Thankfully, the IRF managed to secure an alternative venue for the book launch at the Nottingham University Malaysia campus in Kuala Lumpur.

Not that the problem was resolved satisfactorily. IAIS’ withdrawal as co-host left a bad taste in the mouth. Despite being an institution tasked with furthering our understanding of Islam in a modern and challenging era, it succumbed to the shrill voices of discontent.

As the intellectual arm of the “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government, the IAIS should have been at the vanguard against the current wave of anti-intellectualism or obscurantism.

But it lost the opportunity to play a pivotal role in providing a platform for intellectual exchange that the Malay-Muslim community needs.

To its credit, Nottingham University Malaysia stepped in to save the day at the eleventh hour. The university was aware of the importance of providing an academic setting for a dispassionate discourse. Such a discourse values academic rigour and scrutiny while keeping emotions to a minimum.

Indeed, critics, particularly those with academic training, should be aware that demonising intellectuals by using negative labels does not cut ice. They should have instead armed themselves with data and proper arguments to confidently debunk Kuru’s thesis.

We need to have thoughtful discussions in academia to promote a culture of intellectual growth for nation-building.

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IRF founder Dr Farouk Musa couldn’t have put it better: “Before we reject any idea, we should understand it well first, and what better way than to give the author a chance to expound it in the public sphere so that we can then judge its merits and demerits?”

Critics do not need to agree with Kuru’s views, but the prerequisite is that they should at least explain the basis of their disagreement.

This is not the first time that a visiting scholar has been treated this way. It only reflects the mindset of certain local people who lack self-confidence and are fearful of views different from theirs.

Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol had his book, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, banned in Malaysia in 2017 by the Ministry of Home Affairs because “it is against societal norms”.

Not only that, after his 2017 lecture tour in Malaysia, the authorities detained him briefly for speaking without “religious credentials”.

Akyol was elated when Pakatan Harapan triumphed at the 2018 general election, expressing hope it would usher in greater freedom of expression. That hope was short-lived.

Regarding Kuru’s bad experience, Akyol reportedly said, “Sad to see some circles in Malaysia still trying to silence speakers instead of engaging with their ideas.”

Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil recently announced the government’s plan to appoint asatizah (religious leaders) as spokespersons to counter supposedly distorted Islamic views and teachings perpetuated by some opposition supporters.

Such engagement on the ground would be a positive move. Hopefully, this constructive strategy will pave the way for an Islam that is moderate, caring, inclusive and just.

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The Kuru episode, however, reminds us that the proof of the pudding lies in the Madani government’s actions when it matters.

Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
11 January 2024

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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stephen nah
stephen nah
11 Jan 2024 11.53am

Thanks for voicing out Mustafa, hope your highlights will provide some light for change – in our Madani Leadership… to be more open, confident, inclusive and persuasive