Editorial: Religious Credentials

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

Putrajaya, in spite of being under a new administration, old habits inherited from the decadent Barisan Nasional government are still prevalent. They are being actively pursued by the Pakatan Harapan government although it has promised a change for the better following General Election 14 on May 9, 2018. Muslim experts around the globe are up in arms over its refusal to do away with restrictions imposed on foreign Islamic speakers.

Mustafa Akyol, a prominent US-based Turkish academic whose lecture in 2017 in Kuala Lumpur was summarily cancelled by the authorities. And to add salt to wound, he was detained for giving a talk without “religious credentials”. The excuse by Putrajaya was it wanted to contain “deviant” teachings that could “confuse the ummah”. This showed that not much has changed under the new Malaysian leadership.

“The Malaysian authorities still assume that they, and they alone, have the right to define what is ‘right Islam and what is deviant Islam’”.

“I wish to ask who gives the Malaysian government the authority to define Islam?” asked Akyol, an advocate of free speech in Muslim countries who frequently criticised both the Islamists and secularists in his home country of Turkey.

Minister in charge of Islamic affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa defended the home ministry’s move to vet all foreign missionaries including Muslims, saying the authorities wanted to make sure that their belief systems were not eroded and were in conformity with standard Malaysian requirements.

Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin earlier said that foreign Muslim and non-Muslim speakers would be monitored to ensure they did not spread deviant teachings.

“Whoever comes here, regardless of the form of talks, will be monitored,” Muhyiddin had said.

The statement drew rebuke from US-based Muslim academic, Nader Hashemi, who has frequently addressed Malaysian audiences on Islamic topics.

“The vetting of speakers who come to Malaysia to discuss issues of religion suggests that authoritarianism is alive and well in Malaysia and that freedom and full democracy remain an illusion,” said Hashemi, head of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.

Akyol, whose book “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” is banned in Malaysia, said no government had the right to define what is “true Islam” as this would mean reducing religion to the “interests and whims of politicians”.

“With that logic, Iran can ban Sunni Islam as ‘deviant’, as Saudis can similarly ban Shia Islam and non-Wahhabi Sunnism. Or India can ban Islam saying that, according to its Hindu beliefs, all Islam is ‘deviant’”, Akyol added.

He said even during the height of the Muslim empire, political leaders had no authority over religion.

“Even caliphs did not have that authority. Islam, rather, was defined by diverse communities of scholars, believers, and evolving traditions,” he said.

“The truth that we must accept is that Islam is not owned by any government because it comes from an authority that is higher than all governments.

“The rightful duty of these governments is to know their limits, protect the rights and freedoms of their citizens, and allow their societies to freely practise their religious persuasions and have intellectual discussions about them,” Akyol said.

In 2017, Akyol’s Malaysian lecture tour organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front, drew protests from conservative Muslim groups and Islamic authorities. They were at odds with the scholar, fearing for the sanctity of the religion as a differing version of the Sunni-based belief is being preached and enunciated.

He was arrested at KLIA as he was preparing to board a flight to Rome, hours after the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department forced his lecture on the topic of apostasy to be called off.

The irony is there are several so-called religious zealots (ustazs, ustazahs and tuan gurus) who would impart their understanding of Islam during Friday prayers at mosques and routine prayers at suraus. Their interpretations may be skewed, cleverly hidden under lengthy Quranic verses, as few among the congregation speak or understand the Arabic language. And more often than not they are spared the inconvenience of having their credentials checked.

It is worrying but that is the truth of the matter. After all, who, in the right frame of mind, would want to vet what these Islamic experts have to say in order to ascertain their credibility.


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