I 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.