The illiberalism of Islam in Malaysia

This is just one more in my series of “Dear Reza Aslan” posts documenting that Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Indonesia—countries repeatedly touted by Aslan as being both Muslim and liberal (ergo that Islam isn’t always oppressive)—are not nearly as liberal as The Whitewash King maintains. The piece below (click on screenshot to go to article) was originally called “From my detention in Malaysia, thoughts on Islam and tolerance,” and I’m not sure the new title is better. But the point is the same: don’t expect “liberal” Malaysia to go easy on those who criticize Islam.

Akyol, an American resident, was in Kuala Lumpur to give a series of lectures on Islamic theology, and made the mistake of unpacking a statement that Islam-whitewashers love to use: “there is no compulsion in religion.” As he found out, this doesn’t mean what the whitewashers say it means:

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 22. The next day I gave my first lecture on the suppression of rational theology by dogmatists in early Islam, making the point that this “intellectual suicide” still haunts Muslim civilization.

The second talk was on a more controversial topic: apostasy from Islam. I argued that Muslims must uphold freedom of conscience, in line with the Quranic dictum “No compulsion in religion.” I said that apostasy should not be punished by death, as it is in Saudi Arabia, or with “rehabilitation,” as it is in Malaysia. The practice of Islam must be on the basis of freedom, not coercion, and governments shouldn’t police religion or morality.

It turns out all you have to do is speak of the police and they will appear.

At the end of my talk, a group of serious-looking men came into the lecture hall and showed me badges indicating that they were “religion enforcement officers.”

“We heard that you just gave an unauthorized talk on religion,” one of the men said. “And we got complaints about it.” They took me to another room, photographed me and asked questions about my speech.

When they were done with their questioning, they handed me a piece of paper with Malay writing on it and told me that I shouldn’t speak again without proper authorization. They also warned me away from my next planned talk, which was going to be about my most recent book, “The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.”

“We heard that you will speak about commonalities between Islam, Judaism and Christianity,” one officer said. “We don’t like that kind of stuff.” Then they left.

I didn’t know they had “religion enforcement officers” in Malaysia.

Wisely, Akyol canceled his last lecture, but when he tried to fly out of Kuala Lumpur, he was detained and then put in prison. He was then taken before a sharia court and interrogated, but eventually let off—thanks to the intervention of his native country, Turkey. He was later told that the court was “protecting religion.” But Akyol found out that that’s based on a particular interpretation of the Quranic dictum:

This incident showed me once again that there is a major problem in Islam today: a passion to impose religion, rather than merely proposing it, a mind-set that most Christians left behind at the time of the Inquisition.

Luckily, there are antidotes within Islam to this problem. One of them is the Quranic verse that the JAWI officers repeatedly chided me for daring to recite: “No compulsion in religion.”

In fact, mainstream Muslim tradition, reflecting its illiberal context, never fully appreciated the freedom implied by this verse — and other ones with similar messages. “The ‘no compulsion’ verse was a problem to the earliest exegetes,” as Patricia Crone, a scholar of Islamic history, has noted. “And they reacted by interpreting it restrictively.” The verse was declared “abrogated,” or its scope was radically limited.

This is still evident in a parenthetical that is too frequently inserted into translations of the verse. “There shall be no compulsion in religion (in becoming a Muslim).” I’d known that Saudi translations added those extra words at the end. Now I have learned that the Malaysian authorities do, too. They append the extra phrase because while they agree with the Quran that no one should be forced to become a Muslim, they think that Muslims should be compelled to practice the religion — in the way that the authorities define. They also believe that if Muslims decide to abandon their religion, they must be punished for “apostasy.”

It’s still not clear to me what the “no compulsion in religion” phrase (it’s “Al Baquara 256”; see some exegesis here) really means in the Qur’an.  Here’s one translation, but they’re all pretty much the same:

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.

It’s clear that this means that following the Qur’an is the path of truth, and those who reject it are in error. Presumably you could say that those who reject it aren’t to be punished (“no compulsion”), but throughout history, and not just recently, Muslims have punished nonbelievers in lands they’ve conquered. They haven’t necessarily forced them to convert, but have often denied them rights and levied extra taxes on them.

Yet even in Malaysia, where you can be a Christian and not be taxed, and have the same rights as everyone else, you don’t have the right to criticize Islam. And that’s a compulsion: a compulsion to avoid criticizing Islam (but not Christianity). And if you aren’t compelled to convert, why are you punished as an apostate when you de-convert? Why freedom to go one way but not the other? Clearly, the “compulsion” phrase isn’t what “reformers” like Aslan make it out to be.

Akyol’s “lesson” from his detainment—that Islam needs to chill out and stop being authoritarian—is trivial. The existence of “religion enforcement officers” already says that. There is a lesson for us, though: Malaysian Islam is not as innocuous as apologists make out. And perhaps there’s something inherent in the faith that gives it a tendency to be authoritarian.


  1. Craw
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    “I didn’t know they had “religion enforcement officers” in Malaysia.”
    I don’t recall Aslan mentioning it either. Odd that.

    Abrogation is a key point here. the Koran is not arranged chronologically. There are a few chronologies that are widely accepted in the Islamic world. These are based on the ahadith mostly, which are themselves all made up. But the point is that it is almost universally accepted in Islam that certain verses are abrogated by contradictory later ones. In almost all cases, including this one, the irenic verses are abrogated.

    This is a high barrier for Muslim reformers. Imagine trying to argue that the USA still has prohibition because of the 18th amendment, just ignore that later abrogating one, the 21st.

    • freierfallmmxv
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 5:54 am | Permalink

      In Malaysia there is a 2 tier governing bodies for Islam. The federal authority is JAKIM, and all 13 states have respective state Islamic religious departments. Basically they enforce Islamic law in conjunction with Sharia courts (only for Muslims). Eg. Eating in public during Ramadan, premarital sex, consumption of alcohol, proselytizing to Muslims and apostasy may result in fines or imprisonment. Oh, and questioning/equalizing other religions with Islam.

  2. J.Baldwin
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t know they had “religion enforcement officers” in Malaysia

    In the U.S. we call it the Drug Enforcement Agency (and vice cops more generally).

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Religious enforcement officer. We have one of these coming to the Senate soon. The name would be Roy Moore.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted September 29, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      It ain’t over yet – that was only a primary. Alabama may still redeem itself.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted September 29, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        I’ll try to keep a good thought but…that is an uphill battle.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted September 30, 2017 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        This is Alabama we’re talking about. I suppose if any Republican could lose there it’s Roy Moore, but I won’t believe it until I see it.

  4. dabertini
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    “The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.”
    Really good for curing insomnia. As PCC(E)stated: “I find religious people rather thick.” As Jethro Tull states: Thick as a brick!

  5. Posted September 29, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    And perhaps there’s something inherent in the faith that gives it a tendency to be authoritarian.

    Perhaps?? PCC-E does understatement!

  6. Liz
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    This is why people tell me to be very careful in Dubai. *Very* careful three different people have told me. It’s more of a bucket list type of thing for maybe five or ten years out but I definitely want to go. I’ve talked with friends and family before, during, and after college. Also the evangelical hotlines in college. More recently in the last three or four years it has been more of the Mormons, the Muslim hotlines, and the homeless in Northampton, MA. They are usually already on the streets of this cute, hippie, hemp little craft town and are easy to talk to. Also, anyone I happen to encounter in my day trip travels for lunch in CT, MA, or PA. I just like talking to people about it. If I start talking about religion with the hotel staff in Dubai or anyone there I meet, I would love that. It’s naive of me, though, to think that I can talk and engage freely as I do here with zero chance of some negative consequence. And Dubai is a vacation city for tourists. Thanks so much for sharing. Good to know this.

  7. Sastra
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things.

    In context, this particular translation does seem to focus specifically on prohibiting forced conversions to Islam (Allah will know if the new “believer” is sincere or not.)It’s also not necessary, since Islam is clearly so true.

    But I am not a scholar. What I know of religion in general, though, is that the interpretation of any and every passage can only be checked by understanding God, because only God knows what it really means.

    • James Walker
      Posted September 29, 2017 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      A side note, but why is a text written in Arabic translated into early Modern English? I guess it sounds more authoritative if you stick an -eth on verbs.

      • Richard
        Posted September 29, 2017 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

        As when Joseph Smith “translated” the Book of Mormon into pseudo-Jacobean English – it sounds more biblical with a random scattering of -eth suffices and the odd thou, thy or thine.

      • Posted October 2, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        People used to do that with translations of Plato, too.

  8. Chris Swart
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    The lesson to me is that Enlightenment values are not a natural part of humanity.

    People the world over try to limit speech (as a proxy for thought), and use any pretext to do so.

    We must defend these values; most people in this world do not share them.

    • Craw
      Posted September 29, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink


  9. Rita
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    He wasn’t expecting the Muslim Inquisition!

  10. pablo
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Has Akyol been declared an Islamophobic extremist by the SPLC yet?

  11. somer
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me in Malaysia non Muslims face some explicit discrimination. Malaysias ruling party has since independence had a pro Malay basis. Since Mohair’s departure it has become increasingly pro Shariah and there has been increasing tension with minorities (introduced in large numbers due to British colonial policy) Malays came into the region after the now much less numerous indigenous people of the region who are only 130,000 on the peninsular (malaysia’s total population is 31 million). Indigenous people are found in Malaysian parts of the former Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak) or the Oran Asli on the peninsular (all originally and some currently animists). Some Oran Asli Christians have had their churches destroyed by Malays. The Malays, who are all Muslim, dominate political membership and together with indigenous have special status as “bumiputra” in the constitution and laws including explicit economic discrimination. Chinese and Indians (Hindus, Sikhs, Confucians, Buddhists) are discriminated against and of course do not follow an Abrahamic religion

    Country Report on Human Rights 2016 State Department – Malaysia – section on National, Racial, Ethnic Minorities

    Also regarding religious treatment of Non Muslims – From State Department Report on Religious Freedom in Malaysia 2016

    “The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, but allows and supports Muslims proselytizing others. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim, however, must convert to Islam for the marriage to be officially recognized. A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without the explicit permission of his or her guardian; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15.

    Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests and can impose penalties on apostates, including enforced “rehabilitation.” In the states of Perak, Melaka Sabah, and Pahang, conversion from Islam to another religion is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam, and sharia courts remain unwilling to allow such conversions for those who are born Muslims and reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam.”

    International Religious Freedom Report 2016 State Department Malaysia –

    The Costs of Malay Supremacy

    Also re discrimination especially re Chinese and Indians

    • somer
      Posted September 29, 2017 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

      Autocorrect again “Since Mohairs departure” should be “Since Maharthir’s departure”

    • Posted September 30, 2017 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      Could you please try not to write such long comments? this is an essay, not comment. Thank you.

  12. FB
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Without freedom to criticize religion you don’t have freedom of religion because the most illiberal and authoritarian members of the religion impose their view on the rest.

    And given that the majority of modern Islamic jurists continue to regard apostasy as a crime deserving the death penalty, shouldn’t criticism of apostates be considered a hate crime?

  13. Posted September 30, 2017 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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