The Malaysian government has banned a new book promoting a more moderate form of Islam, saying that the text is likely to “undermine order” and “alarm public opinion.”
Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi declared that anyone who violates the ban of the book, which was published in neighboring Singapore, risks a prison sentence of up to three years.
The authors of the text, a collection of essays titled Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation—Islam in a Constitutional Democracy, are a group of former senior Malaysian public officials and Muslim diplomats belonging to a group known as the G25, founded for the express purpose of fighting religious intolerance.
The ban reveals the government’s “authoritarian approach to Islam,” said Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, one of the authors of the collection. “It is a collection of essays that aims to demonstrate that extremists and bigoted thinking about Islamic issues in the country must be fought in an intellectual way.”
One member of the Malaysian parliament, Lim Kit Siang, spoke out publicly against the ban, asking if a book calling for a rational dialogue on Islam in a constitutional democracy could be banned, would G25 itself be banned next.
The MP described the move as “extraordinary and unbelievable,” and asked Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to confirm whether he had authorized the ban himself and why.
“Will G25 be next to be banned, signifying a major setback for the cause of a moderate Malaysia, and the triumph of extremist and intolerant forces in the country?” he asked.
Marina Mahathir, a rights activist and daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said that the purpose of the measure is to silence the critics of the administration.
“It is about silencing anybody who has a different view,” she said.
The government’s decision to ban a book promoting a more tolerant form Islam has stoked fears of growing conservatism openly supported by the state authorities.
Critics claim that the government has recently raised the level of censorship in the country, which has always been sensitive to materials touching on religious topics.
They also argue that recent government efforts to censor anything deemed “un-Islamic” reflect an attempt by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s party to appeal to his Malaysian Muslim base in preparation for upcoming elections.
In July, the administration banned the reproduction of the song “Despacito” on state radio and television, after an Islamic political party began denouncing the “racy” lyrics of the song and applying pressure to have it removed.
On The Late Late Show, British comedian James Corden made fun of the ban, suggesting it was virtually impossible to understand the song’s lyrics anyway.
“They could be right. I’ve heard this song 2,000 times; I still have no idea what it’s about,” Corden said on his talk show.
Muslims make up over 60 percent of Malaysia’s population of over 30 million, although the country is also home to significant numbers of religious minorities.
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