A Turkish writer’s detention sends a sombre message about Islam

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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.

All that makes doubly depressing a recent incident in Malaysia involving a prominent writer from Turkey. Mustafa Akyol is an exponent, in snappy English as well as his mother-tongue, of a liberal interpretation of Islam. In his book “Islam Without Extremes” he argues that his faith should never use coercion either to win converts or to keep those who are already Muslim in order. In other words, he takes at face value the Koranic verse which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” 

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.

For example, it has often been interpreted to mean simply that converts to Islam must adopt the faith freely, if the act is to have any merit. That does not preclude the use of state power to keep Muslims in line, and for example, punish them if they fail to fast or cover themselves properly. The Koranic verse has even been read in ways that are compatible with a harsh regime of Islamic enforcement. For example, it can be asserted that only a voluntary turning of the heart to God has any spiritual merit, but the state still needs to impose outward conformity for reasons of public order.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) seems to have thought something similar. She said she had no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”, but nonetheless, after a fairly tolerant start to her reign, ended up by persecuting Catholics who were seen as a threat to national security.

In modern times, too, the Koran’s non-compulsion verse has been read in a variety of ways: either as an appeal for full-blown religious freedom, of the sort which Mr Akyol advocates, or else as a much more limited statement, that people who embrace Islam must do so spontaneously and wholeheartedly.   

This narrower reading is, apparently, the official line not only in full-blown theocracies like Saudi Arabia but somewhat milder places like Malaysia. And in Kuala Lumpur as well as Riyadh, other interpretations are excluded.

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