KUALA LUMPUR: Turkey and Malaysia were often thought of as countries that inspired optimism about the Muslim world.
In both lands, Islam is the most popular religion and democracy has been vigorously, if imperfectly, practised.
That is why, The Economist says, the treatment given to prominent Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol by the Malaysian authorities is “doubly depressing”.
It suggests that Akyol’s liberal interpretation of Islam does not sit well with the Malaysian authorities, and that was the reason for the bad treatment that he received.
It says Akyol, in his book Islam Without Extremes, argues that Islam should never use coercion either to win converts or to keep those who are already Muslim in order.
“In other words, he takes at face value the Koranic verse which says, ‘There is no compulsion in religion’.”
The Economist notes that, last month, Akyol was invited to Kuala Lumpur by “a reform-minded Muslim group”, the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), to give three lectures.
“In his second talk, he warmed to the non-coercion theme. As he insisted, people who fall away from Islam or ‘apostasise’ should not be threatened with death, as happens under the harshest Islamist regimes, or even sent for re-education, as can happen in Malaysia.”
It notes that “for all its terrible human-rights abuses”, nothing of that kind happens in Turkey.
The Economist says Malaysia’s Islamic religious authorities accused Akyol of lecturing on Islam without permission, and the IRF had to cancel his third talk.
“This would have highlighted Mr Akyol’s latest book, which is about Jesus of Nazareth and the common features of the Abrahamic faiths. The religious enforcers made it clear that the subject matter was not to their taste.”
The Economist notes that later still, Akyol was detained at the behest of the Islamic religious-affairs authorities and interrogated.
“His detention lasted a night and a morning. It could have been a lot longer, but for the intervention of Turkey’s former president, Abdullah Gul, who still has friends in high Malaysian places.
“Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the story is that Malaysia’s authorities particularly objected to Mr Akyol’s views on coercion.”
The Economist goes on to say that the verse in the Quran about “no compulsion” has been subject to many different interpretations, both in Islam’s early years and recently.
“For example, it has often been interpreted to mean simply that converts to Islam must adopt the faith freely, if the act is to have any merit. That does not preclude the use of state power to keep Muslims in line, and for example, punish them if they fail to fast or cover themselves properly.
“The Koranic verse has even been read in ways that are compatible with a harsh regime of Islamic enforcement. For example, it can be asserted that only a voluntary turning of the heart to God has any spiritual merit, but the state still needs to impose outward conformity for reasons of public order.”
The Economist notes that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) did something similar when she ended up persecuting Catholics who were seen as a threat to national security.
“In modern times, too, the Koran’s non-compulsion verse has been read in a variety of ways: either as an appeal for full-blown religious freedom, of the sort which Mr Akyol advocates, or else as a much more limited statement, that people who embrace Islam must do so spontaneously and wholeheartedly.
“This narrower reading is, apparently, the official line not only in full-blown theocracies like Saudi Arabia but somewhat milder places like Malaysia. And in Kuala Lumpur as well as Riyadh, other interpretations are excluded.”