How Muslim Governments Impose Ignorance

March 18, 2016

The Opinion Pages | Contributing Op-Ed Writer

How Muslim Governments Impose Ignorance

by Mustafa Akyol

I recently spent a few days in Malaysia, where I was promoting the publication of the Malay edition of my book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”

The publisher, a progressive Muslim organization called the Islamic Renaissance Front, had set up several talks for me in Kuala Lumpur. As any author would be, I was happy to learn that the team was enthusiastic about my book and had been getting good feedback from audiences and readers. But I was troubled by something else that I suspect many Muslim authors have experienced: My publisher was worried about censorship.

The risk, I was told, was that the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), a government body that “was formed to protect the purity of faith,” could ban the book if it was viewed as violating traditional Islamic doctrine.

So far, the Malaysian government has not banned my book. But if it did I wouldn’t be surprised. The department has already outlawed more than a thousand books translated into Malay. Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was banned because, according to the Home Minister, it “goes against Islamic teachings,” and even “endangers public harmony” — whatever that means. “Islam: A Short History,” a fairly sympathetic study by the best-selling author Karen Armstrong, was similarly banned for being “incompatible with peace and social harmony.”

Malaysian Government-sponsored public display of Islamic Piety led by Minister of Home Affairs

Malaysia isn’t an anomaly in the Muslim world. In the more extreme case of Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Information can censor any publication it wants, and the religious police can confiscate books if they detect what they perceive as a hint of blasphemy. Even the Bible, the world’s best seller, is banned in Saudi Arabia — no matter that the Quran praises it. In Egypt, under the iron fist of President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, a range of literary works can be outlawed. Last month, a novelist was sentenced to two years in prison for “violating public modesty.”

None of this is news, of course. The scarcity of intellectual freedom under self-described Islamic states has received criticism from many corners, from Islamophobic conservatives to Muslim liberals. In response, the authorities who censor books or ban blogs usually shrug. They typically think that freedom of speech is a Western invention to which they don’t have to subscribe. In Malaysia, the government brazenly condemns “liberalism” and “human rights-ism.”

These censors like to think that by protecting believers from dangerous ideas they are doing a great favor to Muslim societies. They are doing the opposite. Their thought-policing only helps enfeeble and intellectually impoverish Muslims: When Muslim minds aren’t challenged by “dangerous” ideas they cannot develop the sophistication needed to articulate their own.

I first realized this limitation about two decades ago when Richard Dawkins’s books “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker” were first published here in Turkey. The books presented an aggressively atheist interpretation of evolution. As a faithful Muslim and an aspiring writer, I wanted to write a rebuttal. As I started to do research, I realized that all of the reasoned arguments against Dr. Dawkins and other “new atheists” had been written by Western Christians.

Since they lived in open societies where religion could be freely criticized, Western Christians had developed an intellectual tradition of apologetics. In Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and other countries suffering under the yoke of censorship, however, Muslims hadn’t tried to counter the atheists. The government solved that the problem for them — by banning atheist books, if not also punishing atheists.

This willful closed-mindedness is not an inherent feature of Islam. A thousand years ago, Muslim societies were open and curious, while Christian Europe was insular and fearful of “blasphemy.” Aristotle’s books were translated and studied in Baghdad and Córdoba, and banned in Paris and Rome. No wonder the Muslim world was then the home to groundbreaking discoveries in science, medicine and mathematics. In theology, too, Muslim thinkers like Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroës, developed sophisticated arguments that would inspire Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas — thanks to the Muslim engagement with Greek philosophy.

Today, many Muslims, including those who censor books or punish “heretics,” long for that “golden age of Islam” and lament that our civilization is no longer great. Few seem to realize, however, that the greatness of Islam was made possible thanks to its openness to foreign cultures and ideas. The Muslim world began to stagnate and then decline after the 13th century, as this cosmopolitanism was replaced with self-isolating dogmatism. In the meantime, Europe flourished as Europeans began to think more openly.

The Muslim world today is in a state of malaise. Muslim societies are underdeveloped in science, technology, economics and culture. This will be overcome only with more freedom. Progress depends on more Muslims questioning whether policies that promote ignorance are really devised to protect their faith — or to protect the power of those who rule in its name.

Mustafa Akyol is the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,” and a contributing opinion writer.





15 thoughts on “How Muslim Governments Impose Ignorance

  1. Its strange that Muslim governments and religi.ous authorities are fighting with all means to protect God from mere mortals when its actuallly them that require the Mercy and Protection of God.Strange but true.

  2. No offense meant. Every country has problems but looking at the 100 + countries that have Islam as their main religion, I see none are doing well. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain & Qatar -have money; others are struggling along-all these governments in Muslim countries are doing badly. Sad but true. I think its better to separate religion from government like the USA. We wont see an Indian becoming PM in Malaysia. But look at the US-200 years ago-Obama would have been a slave, 70 years ago would have been segregated on a bus and cant vote! Amazing USA! Every country should follow suit but tailor according to culture etc.

  3. “They typically think that freedom of speech is a Western invention to which they don’t have to subscribe,” Mustafa Akyol.

    It is closer to the truth to recognize freedom of speech is a Western creation and inherent to Anglo-protestants culture. It is closer to the truth that hadith (sayings and acts of Mohammad) and Islamic jurist consensus (ijma) are in agreement to uphold Islamic Slander law even up to this age. What Mr. Akyol said here is of course praise-worthy in general for being different, but his being a Muslim not able to recognize the cultural root of speech censoring but blaming on government alone is not real.

    Arguing the utility of free speech without reaching to cultural elements needed to make free speech happens is like praising the beauty of cut flower at the florist store without getting hand dirty with with dirt and earth worms of the farmer’s farm needed by the flower plant.

  4. The best part of this op-ed is the discussion about how keeping your mind open to all points of view leads to progress, and how closing your mind produces the opposite: “Few seem to realize, however, that the greatness of Islam was made possible thanks to its openness to foreign cultures and ideas. The Muslim world began to stagnate and then decline after the 13th century, as this cosmopolitanism was replaced with self-isolating dogmatism. In the meantime, Europe flourished as Europeans began to think more openly.”

    As we know, Malaysia’s education system, especially at the university level, is only getting worse. Where will “The Closing of the Malay Mind” take the country?
    Ambassador Malott,

    This is my answer to your question. “The Closing the Malay Mind” is the road to perdition. The inward looking Malay is easier to control than the one that questions its leaders.The day Malay leaders meddled in the education of their young that was the beginning of the end of Malay civilisation. I know I am making an outrageous statement.

    Allan Bloom who wrote the Closing of the American Mind made a strong plea for the liberal education of the young. His ideas are still relevant because he challenges us to think about the education of man.

    For the Malay community, we should start with Plato’s Republic, Ibn Khaldun’s Al-Muqaddimah, and Arnold J Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History (1934–1961). We need a new generation of thinkers, not of dogmatists.

    I chose Khaldun because Al-Muqaddimah is a gist of his wisdom and hard earned experience. It would summarize his ideas about every field of knowledge during his day. He would discuss a variety of topics. He would discuss History and Historiography. He would rebuke some of the historical claims with a calculated logic. He would discuss the current sciences of his days. He would talk about astronomy, astrology, and numerology. He would discuss Chemistry, alchemy and Magic in a scientific way. He would freely offer his opinions and document well the “facts” of the other point of view. He would illuminate the world with deep insight into the workings and makings of kingdoms and civilizations.

    His thesis that the conquered race will always emulate the conqueror in every way. His theory about Assabyiah (group feeling) is insightful. His theories of the science of Umran (sociology) are all pearls of wisdom. His Introduction is his greatest legacy that he left for all of humanity and the generations to come.

    The essence of the Quran is the quest for the Truth. The Islamic man is a thinking man, not a robotic ideologue. In my view, we must teach the Muslim to think before he is exposed to the difficult poetic text of the Quran. The ability to recite the verses of Quran in Quranic Arabic is not an end in itself. Understanding them is fundamental.

    I welcome Kassim Ahmad’s and Conrad’s comments.–Din Merican

  5. Totally outside the point.

    Yet, in a grand scheme of things, I definitely would not have expected Japan and China could be in anyways more industrious and economically stronger than Turkey, if I were to go back in time a hundred years, despite the fact that Turkey has been named the sick man of Europe for quite sometime.

    But, I guess if we were to go back a few more hundred years, I would not have expected Islamic Timbuktu that created the richest man ever lived would become such a wasteland in today’s Mali.

    I definitely do not see a world have to end with an Islam Civilization that must fight with a nebulous Christian/Secular West. Yet, there is much to fear, as I see fundamentalist Christians in America supporting Trump, calling him a leader that US needed, and Obama jokes about locking away the secret code to launch US’s nuclear warheads.

    There is much that we could not forsee. But,there is no reason to give up. There is a lot of work cut out for all of us to prevent a bleak future that would entail us fighting each other to death. It is not an option.

    Closed mindedness is indeed something that we all have to learn to deal with. Malaysia is in a crossroad of many cultures and belief systems.

    Yes, Malay can prevail! Malay has to wake up, and open up. No one would want to see a mythical city named MudCity in the future, just like how a world would learn about the term Timbuktu.

  6. On one hand we have Jakim and Arabised Malays, on the other side, we have these ideas among the urban Malay. Malaysia-Singapore, ASEAN in general has been at the crossroads of ideas for at least 500 years now following the increase in trade and technology. Like it or not, we will go where the ideas are clearly sound and fundamental to the future material well being, not political or what the religo-advocate want it to go.

    What is disappointing is to see no recognition, no daring by any Malay leader this is fundamental truth to confront the Arabised Malay. A truism that turns the table on them especially the likes of Hadi’s PAS and hence Najib would be done by now.

  7. Years of indoctrination have reduced Malay Muslims to what they are today. The culprits are none other than their own leaders themselves.

    I don’t wish to go far. Among my peers, who were once all singing and dancing, have now become born-again Muslims who would constantly remind me, via whatsapp, the meaning of Islam in all its glory.

    Come Friday it would be a different set of messages extolling the virtues of the Friday congregation. The messages sound not only condescending but outright threatening at times. It is as if the world would come apart for the unrepentant.

    The days of reasoning, I guess, are all gone for the thinking and opinionated Malay Muslims. Jibby is super-duper glad he has Jamil Khir to do his bidding. While the Malays cower in fear of “offending Allah”, he is free to enjoy the spoils of his office.

  8. Dear Pak Din, I have not commented on this blog for some time, as I thought I have said enough. You have kindly carried my long critique of Dawkins, my “A Short Note on the Medinah Charter” and many others. This essay by a Turkish writer speaks the truth about the current malaise in Muslim countries. Progressive Muslim governments, intellectuals and leaders must convene an international conference to break through this mental stranglehold on Muslim minds that is causing their backwardness. The sooner the better. Muslims once were the torch-bearers of world knowledge and civilization. The deen of Islam has from the 14th century onwards become ritualistic, dead! — Kassim Ahmad

  9. There are a couple of issues at play here worth considering. I think we can’t talk about “imposing ignorance” without talking about “choosing ignorance”. The author of this piece did well in reminding readers of Christian apologetics.

    More than imposing or choosing ignorance, what Islamists tend to do, is obliterate the question of “doubt”. Doubt is an extremely important component of faith. Doubt leads to questioning which either leads to reconciliation – of which folks like Hitchens, Dawkins et all call “dissonance” – or rejection.

    Reconciliation here means, reconciling ones faith, with the natural world and secular modes of government.

    What Islamists do is rob believers of the opportunity of reconciliation because of their fear of rejection. So although Muslims go on about “choice”, there never really is any because rejection which is part of “choice” is anathema to most Muslims.

    I say “most Muslims” because although political elites use Islam to impose ignorance, there is also an element of self subjugation to the faith, which is rarely addressed in the discourse. In other words people want to believe but more importantly want to impose their beliefs on others.

    Ignorance (of anything threatening the faith) is considered a virtue and behaviour worth emulating, and ordinary Muslim citizens don’t see their political elites imposing this (ignorance) as an abuse but rather a responsibility.

    In other words its a two way street.

  10. 8 things you use everyday that are invented by Muslims:
    1. Algebra
    2. Coffee
    3. Clocks
    4. Camera
    5. Soap
    6. Surgical instruments
    7. Maps
    8. University (Fatima Al-Fihri (yes, a woman!) founded the first university in Fez, Morocco

    Unfortunately, since then, Islam seems to forsake science and technology.
    What Islam needs is a Reformation or Renaissance.

  11. Ottoman , Chinese and Indian empires were great those days but retreated. But today, while the latter two are modernizing-Islam is still living in ‘biblical times’. Times change and even till today a woman in Saudi Arabia cant drive a car. Development has been rolled back-religion is now a tool to stay in power.

  12. 1. I wish to comment on two things: the necessity for reforms, and the role of governments and intellectuals.
    2. There is not the slightest doubt that our inherited Islam (as opposed to the true Islam in the Quran, and the practices of the republican-democratic caliphates of early Islam) must be reformed. Yet the methodology must be correct. The fault of the reform movement so far has been that of carrying the baggage of the Hadith of corrupted Islam.
    3. Three authorities have called for re-evaluation of the Hadith: the Turkish Government, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who unfortunately died before he could do anything (although a Saudi scholar Sheikh Hassan Farhan Al-Maliki has come forward to condemn the false Hadith culture), and a professor in our UIA (International Islamic University). Recently even our own Malaysian government, drenched in the Shafi’e school of thought, has stated that it is going to make this re-evaluation.) Three cheers for our government!
    4. It would be unhistorical if, out of modesty, I fail to mention my own book in 1986 (“Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula”) that first made this call. This book has since been translated into English and Arabic. Our so-called ulama (priesthood) has of course banned the book. No thanks to them!
    3. Someone here objected to the word “imposing” by governments. He would rather have it as “acceptance” by the people, which governments must protect. Protection of ignorance! What a joke!
    4. Of course, governments has a big role in initiating reforms, as the Turkish government is now doing. But intellectuals, thinkers and philosophers play a leading role.
    — Kassim Ahmad

  13. /// Conrad March 19, 2016 at 8:04 am
    Doubt is an extremely important component of faith. Doubt leads to questioning which either leads to reconciliation – of which folks like Hitchens, Dawkins et all call “dissonance” – or rejection. ///

    Conrad, beg to disagree. You got it reversed – doubt is utterly absent in faith. By definition, faith if belief without proof. Faith is total certainty and entertains no doubt at all. The faithful knows god exists and knows what god commandeth. Doubt is an extremely important component of science. All scientists are doubtful which is why they propose theories, and then test those theories. They are not sure of things and are quite happy to say they don’t know everything. Check out Lawrence Krausse – he knows a lot about nothing.

  14. Apologies for the late reply, The. I missed this.

    “Doubt is an extremely important component of science.”

    Read any great religious philosopher , a few Christian apologetics…. anything by Nikos Kazantzakis and embedded in their works is the theme of doubt.

    This is probably why many religious people don’t have a problem with science. Because faith and science, to an intelligent person is riddled with doubt. I call this reconciliation. My fellow atheist brethren call it dissonance.

    Ultimately, Kazantakis’s rejoinder to the Clergy on their agenda to excommunicate him – “You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I” – is more powerful then anything Krause has to offer, even though I think Krause, is currently The Man.

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