PETALING JAYA: Authors whose books have been banned by the previous government for ostensibly promoting a view of Islam that is different from official interpretation are hoping the ban can be lifted by the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, and to ultimately stop book banning, calling it a form of intellectual repression.
One of them is US-based Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol, who has written extensively on the need for the Muslim world to allow freedom of speech.
A frequent claim by Akyol in his works, that Muslim governments were guilty of denying freedom of speech, played out itself when he was arrested last year by Malaysian religious authorities during a lecture tour to speak about the same subject.
Days later, his book which called for greater freedoms in the Muslim world was banned by the home ministry, adding to a list of thousands of titles which lumps together serious works such as Karen Armstrong’s A History of God and trashy paperbacks bordering on pornography.
“This not a mere personal issue,” Akyol told FMT recently, referring to the ban on his book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case For Liberty”, and its Malay translation.
“I have a bigger problem of books being banned in Muslim societies: It prevents Muslims societies from intellectual maturation,” said the New York Times columnist.
He said his book had merely provided a view from within the Islamic traditions.
“It is an Islamic book: It is a defence of Islam, while arguing for reinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence on certain issues. Those who disagree with this view should show why it is wrong with reasoned arguments, rather than silencing them.”
Still, he said it did not mean “un-Islamic” works should be banned, including books promoting atheism or “worldviews that Muslims cannot accept”.
“Because Muslims should be able to see un-Islamic ideas so that they can develop counter-arguments. If you instead ban ‘dangerous’ ideas, you end up being intellectually weak,” he said.
“Dangerous” was the line of excuse often given by the previous government in banning books, by citing a section under the Printing Presses and Publications Act, defining “undesirable publications” as those “likely to be prejudicial to public order, morality, security, or which is likely to alarm public opinion”.
Many local authors have challenged the government’s ban on their works in court, among them novelist Faisal Tehrani and Muslim activist Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa.
Two books by Farouk, under a series called “Wacana Pemikiran Reformis” (A Discourse on Reformist Thought), to make the case for a radical reform of approaching the Islamic texts, remain banned.
The senior medical lecturer at Monash Malaysia has challenged the ban in court, but said a change in the current government’s policy of book-banning will be more effective in the long run.
“I just hope that this will be academic,” he said, referring to the judicial review he filed in the High Court.
“My biggest hope is that this new government would honour the freedom of expression and celebrate differing views and ideas. And that they would end the anti-intellectual tendency of the previous regime.”
Cynics have in the past cast doubts that this would change, pointing out that book-banning was a practice rampant during the earlier administration of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
But Faisal, no stranger to book-banning – seven of his works have been deemed as “undesirable” – does not think this is necessarily true.
“During Mahathir’s rule, he did not ban creative works,” said the 44-year-old award-winning novelist, whose novels included one which tackled the sensitive topic of homosexuality among Muslims.
Faisal is also an academic at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and his revisionist writings of Malay history and culture do not sit well with mainstream scholars.
Speaking to FMT, he said even a novel which had openly insulted Mahathir at the height of the reformasi protests in the late 1990s had not been banned.
“The novel by Shahnon Ahmad was not banned although it was a direct and blatant insult on Mahathir,” he said, referring to the work titled “SHIT” by the late Shahnon, a national laurette who is also Faisal’s former mentor.
The government’s complaints against Faisal’s works are mainly inspired by the views of local conservative Sunni scholars, who say his novels promote Shia Islam, the school of thought labeled “deviant” by Malaysian Islamic authorities.
But not all books should be deemed sensitive to Malaysia’s religious fabric, which has been the result of decades of powers given to Islamic bureaucrats who control an array of Muslim institutions.
A seemingly “harmless” book on the role of Islam in nation-building was also banned, despite its foreword being written by former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has supported his successor Najib all along.
The government’s issue with the book, a compilation of essays by experts and former civil servants, could be attributable to the fact that it was published by a group that has constantly criticised the government’s policy on Islam.
G25, representing retired senior civil servants and diplomats, had filed a suit against the previous government over the ban on its book “Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy”.
The case is set for August, but with recent developments and the changing of the guards at Putrajaya, the group plans to take its case directly to the government.
“No word from the Ministry of Home Affairs for a decision to lift the ban,” said G25 spokesman Redzuan Kushairi, adding that the new leadership must now live up to its image as a “progressive government”
“They are so far doing the right things, all towards more freedom and a new Malaysia,” he said, adding that it would soon meet with the newly formed Committee on Institutional Reforms.
“We have submitted our collection of papers and proposals in advance,” said Redzuan, a former ambassador to Moscow.
Meanwhile, Akyol is hopeful that the ban on his work will be reviewed and ultimately lifted, adding that the developments have “raised hopes around the whole world”.
“I hope it is time for Malaysia now to save Islam from those who rule in its name,” said Akyol.
“If Malaysia can take this step forward, it will present a great example for the whole Muslim community.”