KUALA LUMPUR: Turkish author Mustafa Akyol has welcomed the historic win of Pakatan Harapan (PH), nine months after his lecture tour in Malaysia was abruptly ended after authorities detained him and his organiser for speaking without “religious credentials”.
The New York Times columnist expressed hope that the new government would ensure freedom of expression, a theme close to his work, including “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case For Liberty”, which was among the books banned by the previous government.
“One thing I certainly expect is more freedom of expression in Malaysia, because I personally suffered the lack of it,” Akyol told FMT, referring to his arrest by the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) on Sept 25 last year, and a ban on his book days later.
But Akyol is still cautious about returning to Malaysia after his experience.
“If there is a risk that I may go through the same experience, no. But if things are going to change for better, sure, Insha Allah,” he said.
He said with the victory of the alliance led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, there was hope for Malaysia to restore its image as a modern and progressive Muslim nation.
“Malaysia certainly had a better image a decade ago, both in my own mind and in the global scene. It lost some of that, unfortunately, due to the unholy alliance of corrupt politics and religious narrow-mindedness.
“Mr Mahathir has now the chance to reverse this toxic trend, and I am wishing him success,” said Akyol.
He said the task of restoring freedom for Malaysians also fell on Anwar Ibrahim, set to be freed today after being jailed four years ago.
“I believe Anwar Ibrahim, a politician unjustly persecuted merely for his views, would be sensitive to this need for liberalisation,” he said.
Akyol, a strong advocate of free speech in Muslim countries, has frequently criticised both the Islamists and secularists in his home country.
His trip to Malaysia last year, his fifth, drew protests from conservative Muslim groups and Islamic authorities.
The US-based academic was arrested at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) as he was preparing to board a flight to Rome, hours after Jawi officers forced a lecture programme at Nottingham University’s Kuala Lumpur campus to be called off.
Jawi, which had also summoned IRF director Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa for hosting Akyol, said the move was based on a “complaint from the public” over a speech titled “Does freedom of conscience open the floodgate to apostasy?” which Akyol had delivered at the Royal Selangor Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur.
PAS and shariah
Akyol said one of the priorities of the Mahathir administration should be the restoration of rule of law and freedom.
“And make sure that laws are about protecting human rights. Indeed, stop seeing ‘human rights’ as an erroneous doctrine that has to be rejected,” he said.
But Akyol is concerned about the electoral gains by PAS in two states, despite the party campaigning on the back of its promise to implement shariah which he described as “nothing other than an authoritarian attempt to impose a certain interpretation of Islam on society”.
“It is based on the gross mistake of trying to bring shariah to the modern age without any reinterpretation, and also combining it with the modern nation state which did not exist in classical Islam.
“If PAS had a setback with its shariah call, I would see this as good news. And I would urge them to focus on strengthening the Islamic faith through intellectual effort and presenting Islam to the world through admirable ethics, rather than trying to scare people away from Islam with a narrow agenda of more bans and punishments,” he said.
Akyol said there was a tendency to regard human rights as against Islamic principles due to misinterpretation of the shariah.
“We have self-righteous guardians of religion who fanatically go against individuals or minorities with merely different views. But they can’t say even a word to the powerful criminals on Earth.
“So the shariah, which must be a tool for serving justice, becomes a tool for serving power. We should correct this gross mistake all over the Muslim world. I hope Malaysia can now take a step forward and present an example.”