ISTANBUL — I recently spent a few days in Malaysia, where I was promoting the publication of the Malay edition of my book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.” The publisher, a progressive Muslim organization called the Islamic Renaissance Front, had set up several talks for me in Kuala Lumpur. As any author would be, I was happy to learn that the team was enthusiastic about my book and had been getting good feedback from audiences and readers. But I was troubled by something else that I suspect many Muslim authors have experienced: My publisher was worried about censorship.
The risk, I was told, was that the Department of Islamic Development, a government body that “was formed to protect the purity of faith,” could ban the book if it was viewed as violating traditional Islamic doctrine.
So far, the Malaysian government has not banned my book. But if it did I wouldn’t be surprised. The department has already outlawed more than a thousand books translated into Malay. Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was banned because, according to the home minister, it “goes against Islamic teachings,” and even “endangers public harmony” — whatever that means. “Islam: A Short History,” a fairly sympathetic study by the best-selling author Karen Armstrong, was similarly banned for being “incompatible with peace and social harmony.”
Malaysia isn’t an anomaly in the Muslim world. In the more extreme case of Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Information can censor any publication it wants, and the religious police can confiscate books if they detect what they perceive as a hint of blasphemy. Even the Bible, the world’s best seller, is banned in Saudi Arabia — no matter that the Quran praises it. In Egypt, under the iron fist of President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, a range of literary works can be outlawed. Last month, a novelist was sentenced to two years in prison for “violating public modesty.”
None of this is news, of course. The scarcity of intellectual freedom under self-described Islamic states has received criticism from many corners, from Islamophobic conservatives to Muslim liberals. In response, the authorities who censor books or ban blogs usually shrug. They typically think that freedom of speech is a Western invention to which they don’t have to subscribe. In Malaysia, the government brazenly condemns “liberalism” and “human rights-ism.”
These censors like to think that by protecting believers from dangerous ideas they are doing a great favor to Muslim societies. They are doing the opposite. Their thought-policing only helps enfeeble and intellectually impoverish Muslims: When Muslim minds aren’t challenged by “dangerous” ideas they cannot develop the sophistication needed to articulate their own.
I first realized this limitation about two decades ago when Richard Dawkins’s books “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker” were first published here in Turkey. The books presented an aggressively atheist interpretation of evolution. As a faithful Muslim and an aspiring writer, I wanted to write a rebuttal. As I started to do research, I realized that all of the reasoned arguments against Dr. Dawkins and other “new atheists” had been written by Western Christians. Since they lived in open societies where religion could be freely criticized, Western Christians had developed an intellectual tradition of apologetics. In Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and other countries suffering under the yoke of censorship, however, Muslims hadn’t tried to counter the atheists. The government solved that the problem for them — by banning atheist books, if not also punishing atheists.
This willful closed-mindedness is not an inherent feature of Islam. A thousand years ago, Muslim societies were open and curious, while Christian Europe was insular and fearful of “blasphemy.” Aristotle’s books were translated and studied in Baghdad and Córdoba, and banned in Paris and Rome. No wonder the Muslim world was then the home to groundbreaking discoveries in science, medicine and mathematics. In theology, too, Muslim thinkers like Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroës, developed sophisticated arguments that would inspire Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas — thanks to the Muslim engagement with Greek philosophy.
Today, many Muslims, including those who censor books or punish “heretics,” long for that “golden age of Islam” and lament that our civilization is no longer great. Few seem to realize, however, that the greatness of Islam was made possible thanks to its openness to foreign cultures and ideas. The Muslim world began to stagnate and then decline after the 13th century, as this cosmopolitanism was replaced with self-isolating dogmatism. In the meantime, Europe flourished as Europeans began to think more openly.
The Muslim world today is in a state of malaise. Muslim societies are underdeveloped in science, technology, economics and culture. This will be overcome only with more freedom. Progress depends on more Muslims questioning whether policies that promote ignorance are really devised to protect their faith — or to protect the power of those who rule in its name.