Who gave you the right to define Islam, prominent Turkish author asks Putrajaya

Mustafa Akyol says even caliphs at the height of the Islamic empire had no authority on matters of religion.

KUALA LUMPUR: The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government continues to draw flak from Muslim experts abroad over its recent refusal to do away with restrictions on foreign speakers on Islamic topics.

Mustafa Akyol, a prominent US-based Turkish academic whose lecture in 2017 was forced to be cancelled by Islamic authorities in Kuala Lumpur before he was detained for speaking without “religious credentials”, said the excuse by the government that it wants to contain “deviant” teachings showed that not much had changed under the new Malaysian leadership.

“The Malaysian authorities still assume that they have a right to define ‘right Islam’ versus ‘deviant Islam’.

“But then we must ask, who gave the Malaysian government, or any government, the authority to define Islam?” Akyol, a strong advocate of free speech in Muslim countries who has frequently criticised both the Islamists and secularists in his home country, told FMT.

On Wednesday, minister in charge of Islamic affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa defended the home ministry’s move to vet all foreign missionaries including Muslim speakers, saying the authorities wanted to make sure their belief systems were “in line with the Malaysian context”.

Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin earlier said that foreign Muslim and non-Muslim speakers would be monitored to ensure they were “free from deviant teachings”.

“Whoever comes here, regardless of the form of talks, will be monitored,” Muhyiddin had said.

The statement drew strong response from US-based Muslim academic, Nader Hashemi, who has frequently addressed Malaysian audiences on Islamic topics.

“The vetting of speakers who come to Malaysia to discuss issues of religion suggests that authoritarianism is alive and well in Malaysia and that freedom and full democracy remain an ongoing struggle and aspiration,” Hashemi, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told FMT.

Akyol, whose book “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” is banned in Malaysia, said no government had the right to define what is “true Islam” as this would mean reducing religion to the “interests and whims of political powers”.

“With that logic, Iran can ban Sunni Islam as ‘deviant’, as Saudis can similarly ban Shia Islam and even non-Wahhabi Sunnism. Or India can ban all Islam saying that, according to its Hindu beliefs, all Islam is ‘deviant’,” Akyol said.

He said even at the height of the Muslim empire, political leaders had no authority over religion.

“Even caliphs did not have that authority. Islam, rather, was defined by diverse communities of scholars, believers, and evolving traditions,” he said.

“The truth that we must accept is that Islam is not owned by any government because it comes from an authority that is higher than all governments.

“The rightful duty of these governments is to know their limits, protect the rights and freedoms of their citizens, and allow their societies to freely practise their religious persuasions and have intellectual discussions about them,” Akyol said.

In 2017, Akyol’s Malaysian lecture tour organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front drew protests from conservative Muslim groups and Islamic authorities.

He was arrested at KLIA as he was preparing to board a flight to Rome, hours after the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department forced his lecture on the topic of apostasy to be called off.