NOT long ago, Turkey and Malaysia were often bracketed together as
countries that inspired optimism about the Muslim world. In both lands,
Islam is the most popular religion. In both, democracy has been
vigorously if imperfectly practised. And both have enjoyed bursts of
rapid, extrovert economic growth.
In their early days in office, people in Turkey’s ruling Justice and
Development (AK) party always found plenty of friends in Malaysia:
allies who shared their belief that governance with a pious Muslim
flavour was compatible with modernising, business-friendly policies and
a broadly pro-Western orientation.
Last month Mr Akyol was invited to Kuala Lumpur by a reform-minded
Muslim group and asked to give three lectures. In his second talk, he
warmed to the non-coercion theme. As he insisted, people who fall away
from Islam or “apostasise” should not be threatened with death, as
happens under the harshest Islamist regimes, or even sent for
re-education, as can happen in Malaysia. (For its all terrible
human-rights abuses, nothing of that kind happens in Turkey.)
Afterwards, Mr Akyol was approached by members of Malaysia’s
religious-affairs authority and told that he had done wrong by
lecturing on Islam without their approval. Mr Akyol’s hosts reluctantly
decided to cancel his third and final lecture. This would have
highlighted Mr Akyol’s latest book, which is about Jesus of Nazareth
and the common features of the Abrahamic faiths. The religious
enforcers made it clear that the subject matter was not to their taste.
Matters did not end there. As he was about fly back to the United
States where he currently lives, Mr Akyol was detained at the behest of
the religious-affairs authority and interrogated. His detention lasted
a night and a morning. It could have been a lot longer, but for the
intervention of Turkey’s former president, Abdullah Gul, who still has
friends in high Malaysian places.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the story is that Malaysia’s
authorities particularly objected to Mr Akyol’s views on coercion. As
was noted by the late Patricia Crone, a professor of Islamic studies,
that Koranic verse about “no compulsion” has been subject to many
different interpretations, both in Islam’s early years and recently.