SEPANG: Turkish-born writer Mustafa Akyol has warned of the evil of religious coercion, saying forcing Muslims to subscribe to only one understanding of their religion will bring more harm than good to Islam.
He gave the warning after the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) released him from detention for questioning. He was held over a suspicion that he spoke publicly on Islam without authorised credentials.
Speaking to FMT moments before his scheduled flight out of Malaysia, Akyol said there was something fundamentally wrong with the idea of a religious police.
“Instead of a religious police, you should have a religious council that gives advice and guidance,” he said. “If you use force to make people more religious or make them understand religion the way you understand it, then you are bringing more harm than benefit to the religion.”
Akyol said this was the first time he had ever been detained, adding that he never expected it to happen in Malaysia.
“I never got arrested before for anything, much less for giving a few talks. This was not something I could imagine. I could imagine this happening in Saudi Arabia maybe, but I thought Malaysia was a more open society.”
He said the Jawi interrogators asked him why he had taught religion without a permit.
“I told them I didn’t even know there was a law like that in Malaysia and apologised for my ignorance.
“On the other hand, I didn’t think that what I was doing was teaching religion because I didn’t speak as an imam or a mufti and I didn’t speak to a religious community. I spoke at an academic conference and I referred to different views on apostasy as someone who has researched the literature on this topic in the Muslim world.”
He pointed out that before giving his talks, he emphasised that he was not a religious authority.
He said Jawi also asked him why he had attempted to leave the country in spite of the summons it had issued.
“I told them that I honestly didn’t know I had a legal obligation to come and talk to them before leaving. They gave the summons to me in Malay and I didn’t understand it, but Dr Farouk Musa (Islamic Renaissance Front director) told me they would ask me some questions but I could answer those questions later in a written statement.
“I’ve never been asked to give a testimony before. So I didn’t know the procedures and it didn’t occur to me there could be legal consequences.
“I told them that my intention was not to break any Malaysian law and I apologised if I did. I only wanted to go back home.”
Yesterday, Jawi director Abdul Aziz Jusoh said Akyol was freed at 12 noon after the completion of investigation by the department’s enforcement officers.
He said Jawi was satisfied that Akyol had not been informed by the Islamic Renaissance Front, the organiser of his visit, that credentials were required from the religious authorities for anyone to teach Islam in Malaysia.
Referring to Abdul Aziz’s statement, Akyol said:
“My hosts did not tell me that I needed a permit because my hosts probably thought that this is not religious teaching in the way the law applies. Apparently Jawi thinks differently and maybe there can be different interpretations on what is teaching.”
Journalists have attempted to contact the Turkish embassy to find out whether it had intervened at any point to help Akyol, but the embassy has refused comment.
Akyol, however, believes that it did step in at some point.
“I got contacted by some of my friends in Turkey who told me that the Turkish authorities did get in touch with some Malaysian counterparts to help me on this issue. As a Turkish citizen, I appreciate that.”
He said the incident had not lessened his affection for Malaysia.
“I still love Malaysia and Malaysians. This incident was definitely rough and stressful, but I still don’t think this is the only thing that defines Malaysia. I understand that the people who arrested me were doing their job and they were very polite. I have no grudge against them.”
Asked whether he would ever come back to Malaysia, he said with a chuckle: “Not never, but not for a while. Even if I wanted to come back soon, my wife probably won’t let me. She’s also had a terrible night.”
Akyol, on his fifth trip to Malaysia for a lecture tour, had gone to KLIA on Monday afternoon to board a flight to Rome via Istanbul, but soon afterwards lost communication with his wife.
He was scheduled to board a Turkish Airlines flight to Rome at 11.35pm last night, before continuing his journey to Boston. He is a senior visiting fellow at Boston’s Wellesley College.