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Selective religious prosecution is shameful

  • The case of Mustafa Akyol illustrates yet another case of selective prosecution, this time by our religious police.

By Wan Saiful Wan Jan

Last week a friend of mine was stopped at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport by the immigration authority, and he was then passed to he police for detention.

He was supposed to take a flight back to his wife and two young children in Boston, USA, on Monday, 25 September. He just completed his lecture tour in Kuala Lumpur, and was excited to get back to his family.

Nobody expected that he would be stopped at KLIA and then forced to spend one night in police detention. But that was exactly what happened.

Apparently, the Department of Federal Territory Islamic Affairs (JAWI) accused him of breaching the law for teaching about Islam without firstly obtaining a permit from them.

Mustafa Akyol is a well-known Turkish writer and journalist. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, and his two latest books are Islam Without Extremes and The Muslim Jesus.

In Islam Without Extremes he wrote, among others, about the experience of Islamic movements worldwide. He argued that Islam is indeed a religion of peace that respects individual rights.

He also documented his visit to Malaysia in May 2009, during which he spoke on a panel with Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, formerly a PAS MP and currently Director of Strategy for Parti Amanah Negara.

That event was Mustafa's first exposure to the dynamics between conservative and progressive Muslims in Malaysia, and he wrote about it in one of the chapters in the book.

The 2009 trip was the first time Mustafa came to Malaysia and I was his host. But my acquaintance with Mustafa actually started well before that.

I have been reading his writings since mid-2000s and have been wanting to bring him to a Malaysian audience since then.

That eventually happened in November 2007. I was still living in the United Kingdom at that time, and I managed to bring Mustafa from Istanbul to Dublin, Ireland, to speak at his very first event targeted at a Malaysian audience. At that time, the participants were Malaysian students studying in Ireland.

I am really glad that after introducing him to Malaysians twice, once in Ireland in 2007 and then in Kuala Lumpur in 2009, the baton was picked up by Datuk Dr Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front, who continued to invite Mustafa to Malaysia until now.

But I am deeply disappointed that his latest visit ended on a sour note. The irony is, just two nights before his ordeal at the hands of Malaysia's religious police, he was telling me how much he enjoyed coming to this country, over a sumptuous Nasi Padang dinner in Kampung Baru.

Mustafa was joking about perhaps applying for a Malaysian citizenship because he has been coming to Malaysia so many times and he greatly enjoyed every visit.

We also discussed about how the Malaysian government is championing the moderation agenda globally. Clearly there are elements within our government who are working very hard to sabotage the moderation agenda. By arresting someone who is a staunch champion of Islamic moderation at the global stage, our religious police are basically rubbishing the moderation agenda that we keep hearing about.

I should say here that there is indeed a law that enables our Islamic religious police to act on people who deliver talks about Islam without official permission. If we want to strictly go by the book, then, yes, the religious police was indeed acting within the law when they detained Mustafa. The problem however is the inconsistency in how they apply the law.

In this particular instance, Mustafa was speaking in hotel conference halls and he was also scheduled to speak at a university. Previously, the religious police has taken actions against speakers who speak in mosques without a permit. But, Mustafa was not speaking in a mosque. Is the religious police saying that you need a permit to discuss Islam outside of mosques too?

Many Islamic authorities own Islamic primary and secondary schools. Their teachers almost certainly teach Islam on daily basis. Have the authorities issued permits to all the teachers? In fact, there are Islamic Studies teachers in all schools across the country. Will the religious police be arresting them too?

Is it now compulsory for all lecturers in all universities to have a permit before they can deliver the module on Islamic studies? Will all lecturers be facing actions if they don't have a permit?

Will a father be arrested for teaching his children Islam in their own houses? Or, what about when our politicians quote the Quran and the hadith in their many public talks?

Where exactly does the religious police draw the line?

I don't want to discuss whether or not we need the said law. That is a discussion for another time. My focus now is on how the religious police behave in implementing the law.

The case of Mustafa Akyol illustrates yet another case of selective prosecution, this time by our religious police. If this is a picture of how Islam will be implemented in Malaysia, then we have a lot of soul searching to do.

(Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, IDEAS)


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