PETALING JAYA: An academic has urged religious authorities to consider debating Muslim speakers they disagree with instead of clamping down on them.
Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, told FMT he believed it was always better to engage with people one disagreed with than to resort to legal action.
“What is wrong in engaging with these so-called liberal Muslims?” he said. “A lot of the forums they speak at are open anyway. Authorities can send their own scholars who are able to converse in the English language and engage actively in the question and answer session and debate them there and then.
“That’s better than listening through the grapevine and placing restrictions before you even hear them out.”
He said resorting to restrictions would not only discredit those who put the controls in place but would also dishonour Islam.
“You are portraying Islam as a religion that obstructs or avoids discussions when the truth is that it is not such a religion.
“Prophet Muhammad engaged with Christians in a very famous dialogue. Although the Muslims and Christians could not come to an agreement about Jesus, the Prophet still accorded them respect and even allowed them to pray in his mosque.
“We’re speaking there about people of different religions. Here, we’re talking about views which come from within Islam. And these Muslims, no matter how liberal you think they are, have their own references and sources from reputable scholars, even if those scholars come from the West.”
Fauzi’s remarks followed a statement from the Royal Selangor Golf Club (RSGC) that it had decided against hosting a forum featuring US-based scholar Nader Hashemi so as not to be seen as going against religious authorities.
RSGC, one of the oldest elite clubs located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, has played host to several events organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) and G25, an activist group of former civil servants, some of whom are members of the club.
Last August, Indonesian scholar Mun’im Sirry gave a lecture at the club and the Department of Islamic Development (Jakim) subsequently labelled him as a deviated Muslim.
A month later, officers from the Federal Territory Islamic Department (Jawi) arrested Turkish author Mustafa Akyol following his speech on apostasy at a forum organised by IRF and G25.
Jawi said Akyol had violated an offence under the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act, which requires speakers on Islamic themes to have officially recognised credentials. Before the Akyol incident, it was generally thought that the rule applied only to speeches in mosques and suraus.
Fauzi said it was important to ask whether the authorities were being fair in applying the rule on credentials.
“You may disagree with Akyol, but if you want to apply the law of credentials, then apply it on the preacher Zakir Naik as well.
“Has Naik applied for credentials? Has anyone questioned whether he has credentials or not? Not only do we not question that, we even grant him permanent residence.
“Don’t be selective just because we have a prejudged view of some people. If you want to apply a law, apply it fair and square, including on people who are invited by government bodies.”
He said Islam in Malaysia was in danger of becoming Islamism if the authorities persisted in using legal means to suppress views departing from their own.
“It can become an Islam that you adhere to because you’re being watched by the legal apparatus, not out of your conscience or conscious decision.
“Why isn’t the spirit of Islam being applied instead of using an arbitrary yardstick to take action on people we may not like. This doesn’t mean that I agree with Akyol, but he has the right to say what he says and I can debate with him if I want to.”
He also questioned whether Malaysian Muslims expected to be treated unfairly in countries like Iran, where the Sunni expression of Islam might be considered deviant.
“Once we apply our legal mechanisms, how do we expect the Shias to treat the Sunnis over there?”
International Islamic University lecturer Maszlee Malik also commented on the issue, saying the religious authorities’ attitude might “scare away foreign-based academics from Malaysia”.
This could impede the growth of intellectual discourse, he said.
“Islam was spread in the past, especially during the early days, through debates between our theological scholars and others,” he added.