From My Detention in Malaysia, Thoughts on Islam and Tolerance

29akyol-inytWEB-master768I am writing this column from an airplane, on my way from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to my new home, Wellesley, Mass. I’m in a comfortable seat, and I’m looking forward to getting back to my family. About 12 hours ago, though, I was miserable, locked in a holding cell by Malaysia’s “religious police.”

The story began a few months ago, when the Islamic Renaissance Front, a reformist, progressive Muslim organization in Malaysia, invited me to give a series of lectures on Islam, reason and freedom. The group had hosted me three times before in the past five years for similar events and also published the Malay version of my book “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” I was glad for the chance to visit Malaysia again.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 22. The next day I gave my first lectureon 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.



Young Iraqi Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis are the seeds of dialogue in a Land broken by the Islamic State

6606442621494827991ERBIL: In order to overcome the murderous madness of the Islamic State, which has covered with blood a land already brutalised by years of wars and violence, it is necessary to start with “a plan of dialogue and outreach at the local level”, involving first of all children and young people, the new generations, “who will be tasked with building life together” beyond their respective religions.

Starting from such premises, Fr Samir Youssef, pastor of the diocese of Amadiya (Iraqi Kurdistan) who has long been on the frontline of the refugee emergency, is promoting a project to transform “young Muslims, Christians and Yazidis” into “seeds of dialogue ” to breathe new life into Mosul, the Nineveh plain, and Iraq as a whole.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the priest mentioned an initiative that is in its initial stage, but one that has already garnered “the enthusiastic participation” of some thirty of kids, aged 10 to 16, from various religious background. “We started with a group of about 30-35 kids,” Fr Samir said, “but we want to increase the numbers for the summer, involving young people from high school and university.”

The aim is to find youth “eager to talk, communicate, and bear witness” that living together is possible and that from this, a model can emerge applicable across the country, and beyond.

“We have already started to meet,” he added, “although getting the first results will take some time. At the moment, the first group, the base on which to start working, has been found. It includes a dozen Christians, eight Muslims and seven Yazidis. There are also Sabians and Turkmen.”

As parish priest in the diocese of Zakho and Amadiya (Kurdistan), Fr Samir is responsible for about 3,500 Christian, Muslim, and Yazidi refugee families who fled their homes and property in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain to escape Jihadis. Since the summer of 2014 and the start of the emergency, the clergyman has played a key role. Working with him and Iraqi bishops, AsiaNews has recently renewed its Adopt a Christian of Mosul campaign to provide refugees with kerosene, shoes, clothing, and school material for children.


Islam, ISIS and the violence against Christianity — Syed Farid Alatas

24-Christians-AP (1)NOVEMBER 11 — Forces fighting under the self-proclaimed caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, after having captured large areas of Iraq and Syria earlier this year, not only fought against and killed Muslims who stood in their way, but also began barbaric acts of violence against Christians and other religious minorities. Many Christians were threatened with their lives for not converting to Islam. They had to endure harassment, arrests, and various forms of violence. As a result tens of thousands of Iraqi Christian men, women and children have fled what had become a genocide against an ancient Christian community. Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod of the Syriac Orthodox church said that ISIS had burned churches, old religious texts, damaged crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary, and converted churches into mosques.

How is it that a group that claims to rule in the name of Islam can be so brutal to fellow human beings? Many would claim that Islam is a religion of peace and that violence perpetrated in the name of Islam is actually due to distortions or misunderstandings of the religion. There are those, however, who would say that Islam is not innocent of its militant and murderous adherents. They often cite verses of the Qur’an such Al-Tawbah [9]:5 which says: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)”.

To make matter worse, it is always possible to find historical cases of the brutal treatment of Christians by Muslims. A case in point is the 11the century Fatimid ruler, Abu Ali Mansur Tariq al-Hakim. Al-Hakim was known in the West as the “Mad Caliph” because of the brutal manner in which he treated religious minorities. The persecution of Christians and Jews began under his reign in 1004 AD when he decreed that Christians would no longer be allowed to celebrate Easter. Al-Hakim is also known to have forced Jews and Christians to become Muslims at the point of a sword, destroyed numerous churches and other Christian holy sites in Palestine and Egypt, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 1009.

How do we reconcile the verses of the Qur’an that appear to support the violence perpetrated against Christians such as during Al-Hakim’s and Al-Baghdadi’s reigns?



Coptic-and-Arabic-inscriptions-in-an-Old-Cairo-Egypt-churchThe “Allah” issue, which had a final hearing in the highest court in Malaysia, provided further evidence that Christian-Muslim tensions globally are on the rise. The Christian and Islamic worlds can contribute to global inter-religious harmony given their common Abrahamic roots.

CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM are two major religions embraced by more than half of the world’s population. With such a significant share of the global population, relations between Christians and Muslims will therefore have a huge impact on the state of religious harmony globally. Unfortunately, the world today continues to witness the rising global trend of Christian-Muslim tensions and even conflicts that seriously affect inter-religious relations.

One that is very near home is the “Allah” issue. It became so protracted that it created tension between the two communities in Malaysia. The recent verdict of the apex Federal Court to reject the appeal of the Catholic Church to over-turn the High Court’s earlier judgement in October 2013 disallowing use of the term “Allah” in its weekly bulletin The Herald will hopefully put a closure on the “Allah issue”.

Closest yet different

Fortunately, the “Allah issue” did not escalate into violent conflict, unlike the numerous Christian-Muslim conflicts in recent times. The bloody Christian-Muslim confrontation in Maluku, Indonesia a few years ago, in which many were killed, was a grim reminder about how tragic inter-religious strife could be.


Vatican envoy to Malaysia All About Dialogue

KUALA LUMPUR: The Vatican’s first Apostolic Nuncio (ambassador) to Malaysia, Archbishop Joseph Marino (pic) is eager to get to know Malaysia while encouraging dialogue among people and groups of various faiths.

Marino, 60, who arrived here on April 15, has lost little time doing that, making visits to Johor and Sarawak to celebrate Gawai with locals there.

“It is the people who are the primary actors behind inter-religious dialogues and my role is merely to encourage it,” he said during his first meeting with the media here yesterday.

He said such dialogues would help foster better understanding and goodwill between the various communities and should not be viewed as a threat to any particular religion.

“Inter-religious dialogue has nothing to do with trying to convert each other but more of as children of God coming together to talk about their experience of God,” said Marino.


Malaysia Detains Saudi Over Twitter Posts on Prophet

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Authorities here said they will likely repatriate a Saudi Arabian writer who fled Saudi Arabiaamid calls for him to be executed after he posted Twitter messages considered insulting to the Prophet Muhammad, Malaysian authorities said Friday.

Malaysian police detained the writer, Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old columnist for the Jeddah-based Al Bilad newspaper, when he arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Thursday, Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian Minister of Home Affairs, said in a statement.

“The police have contacted their counterpart in Saudi Arabia to determine the next course of action,” Mr. Hussein said.

Rights groups have expressed concern about Mr. Kashgari’s safety after religious conservatives in Saudi Arabia called for him to be arrested and executed after he directly addressed the Prophet Muhammad in a series of posts on Twitter. Amnesty International called for Malaysia not to deport Mr. Kashgari, to immediately disclose where he is being held and to grant him access to a lawyer.


Malaysia’s PM Establishes Ties with Vatican, Despite Religious Turmoil

Malaysia, where Muslims make up 60 percent of the population, has long been cited as an example and model of a progressive multiracial and multiracial Muslim country. However, its peaceful coexistence has been strained by interreligious tensions and conflicts between the Malay majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who are mostly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Decisions taken by the prime minister’s Department Religious Affairs have exacerbated the situation. A leading example is the ruling that Christians stop using “Allah, the Malay term for God, despite the fact that this has been an accepted practice in Malaysia as it is in Indonesia and the Middle East. Malaysia’s Home Ministry prohibited Catholics from using the word in their Malay-language publications since 2007. Customs officials seized 15,000 Bibles from Indonesia because they used the word “Allah” as a translation for God. However, Malaysia’s High Court overturned a government ban, ruling that the word Allah is not exclusive to Muslims and that others, including Catholics, who had been prohibited by the Home Ministry from using the word in the Malay-language edition of the Catholic monthly the Herald, can now use the term. Incensed by the decision, militants attacked several churches and pledged to prevent Christians from using the word “Allah.” In the aftermath of the attacks, the Malaysian High Court in response to a government appeals granted a stay order on Jan. 7; the government appealed to the higher Court of Appeal to overturn the ruling.