Why Did Malaysia Censor a Book on Moderate Islam?

Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Malaysian authorities censored a book promoting moderate Islam written by prominent Malaysian academics. The book, entitled Breaking The Silence: Voices Of Moderation – Islam In A Constitutional Democracy was published in 2015 by a group of public intellectuals calling themselves the Group of 25.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in the order banning the book it “is likely to be prejudicial to public order, likely to alarm public opinion, and likely to be prejudicial to public interest” and therefore “is absolutely prohibited throughout Malaysia.”

Critics of the ban say it flies in the face of the government’s alleged campaign to support moderate Islam, especially since many of the chapters were written by scholars who support the same brand of Islam as Prime Minister Najib Razak.

“This is obviously an action intended to suppress free speech. The articles in the book were written by respected academics, lawyers and social activists,” G25 spokesperson Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin told Asian Correspondent.

“They are intellectual articles mainly discussing the place of Islam in the Federal Constitution. None of the articles have criticised Islam or touched on matters of Aqidah ( faith ).”

The book was written in order to “encourage an informed and rational dialogue on the ways Islam is used as a source of public law and policy in multiracial and multi-religious Malaysia yet within the letter and spirit of the federal Constitution,” according to the foreword written by previous Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

Banning the book is not the only censorship taking place in Malaysia this month. It followed a previous ban put out on July 19 which took the Spanish language pop hit Despacito off the airwaves due to its sexually suggestive lyrics.

Lyrics include the rather racy verse: “I want to strip you off with kisses slowly, sign the walls of your labyrinth, and make your whole body a manuscript (turn it up, turn it up, turn it up, turn it up).”

An explanation may be simpler than it first appears. Razak, of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is up for reelection next year. Despite the fact that the UMNO has ruled in Malaysia since independence, he is struggling to maintain popularity. In order to shore up support, he recently reached out to an unlikely ally, the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). PAS wants to see shariah law implemented for Muslims in Malaysia.

A so-called informal cooperation arrangement will enable Razak to boost support while giving PAS leader Hadi Awang an opportunity to influence policy in a more pro-Islamist direction.

“The issues of race, ethnicity, the Malay language and especially Islam are close to the heart of the Malays,” Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, a professor of politics and international studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia told Bloomberg about the cooperation between the two parties. “By working together to uphold Islam, either through the implementation of shariah law or strengthening the position of Islam within the administration, this serves both parties well.”

In Terrenganu State, the UNMO made sure infra-red cameras were installed in a cinema to monitor couples for illicit activities, as a way of appealing to conservative Muslims.

More than 60% of Malaysians are Muslims and 50% are ethnic Malays. Censoring a book promoting moderate Islam (and a raunchy pop song) may have been the price Razak paid for Islamist support.

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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.