Muslim academics blast PH govt for maintaining curbs on foreign speakers

(FMT) – A prominent Muslim activist and a US academic who frequently speaks to Malaysian audiences on Islamic topics have questioned the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s commitment to democracy and intellectual freedom, after Putrajaya said it would continue vetting foreigners before they are allowed to give talks on Islam in the country.

“If someone wants to peacefully and non-violently articulate a different point of view on matters of religion, they should allow this basic human right,” Nader Hashemi, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told FMT.

He was asked for his response to Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s statement that authorities would continue to vet foreign Muslim preachers, including requiring them to get special permits to speak.

Muhyiddin told the Dewan Rakyat yesterday his ministry would conduct checks with religious bodies to ensure missionary groups are free from “deviant teachings”.

“Whoever comes here, regardless of the form of talks, will be monitored,” he said. “For Muslim missionaries, there are the state religious councils. Those who are found without credentials will not be allowed.”

But Hashemi said Muhyiddin was sending a message that the “New Malaysia is not very different from the old Malaysia under Najib Razak”.

“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,” he said.

In the past, religious officers have detained or banned academics involving foreign Muslim speakers, saying anyone giving lectures that touch on Islam must get speaking credentials, or tauliah, from Islamic authorities.

In September 2017, the Federal Territories Islamic Affairs Department (Jawi) detained Turkish author Mustafa Akyol and forced the cancellation of a forum where he was to speak on religious freedom and apostasy.

His host, Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), was also summoned by Jawi.

Speaking to FMT, Farouk said the government was treading a “slippery slope” with Muhyiddin’s confirmation that policies by the former government would remain.

He said the latest announcement showed that the old guard was still in control of government institutions such as the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, or Jakim.

“When there has been no real shake-up in Jakim, the same people with the same mentality dominate Jakim,” he said.

Echoing Hashemi’s concerns, Farouk said Putrajaya’s refusal to lift the ban on several books published by IRF showed that nothing has changed.

“And knowing the reasons for their banning of the books by the IRF for being against their interpretation of Islam, the future looks gloomy for this country,” he said.

Farouk, whose group subscribes to Islamic reforms based on traditional scholarship, said Muslims in the past thrived because they had no problem with diversity in opinions.

“If the Islamic tradition of juristic scholarship is just monopolised by one school of thought, as what the government intends to do, this would be a gross injustice to the rich legal tradition in Islam.

“We only bring this religion to disrepute and ridicule in our quest to make the state sanction Islam as the only way to reach salvation,” said Farouk, a trained surgeon who teaches medicine at Monash University Malaysia.

Hashemi, an Iranian-born academic, said he could understand if authorities were concerned about hate speech, including restrictions on Indian Muslim preacher Dr Zakir Naik.

“I’m all in favour of putting limits on hate speech. However, this is where I draw the line,” he said.

“Muslims should not fear open, free and uncensored debate, especially if this is done with civility.”