KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 6 — The recent ban by Johor against two Muslim preachers from delivering religious lectures following the same move by neighbouring Singapore has reignited a debate: should controversial preachers be gagged?
Amid concerns over freedom of expression and the limits of hate speeches, several Muslim leaders polled by Malay Mail Online have come to this conclusion: yes, if their speeches incite racial tension or are political in nature.
Perak mufti Tan Sri Harussani Zakaria explained that in his state, preachers are free to give talks or speeches provided they do not sow discord or cause any racial tension.
“When they apply for permission to give ceramahs, there is a condition — no politics and no causing racial disputes,” Harussani said.
Last week, Johor Islamic Religious Affairs Committee chairman Abdul Mutalip Abdul Rahim said the Sultan of Johor had decreed that Zimbabwean Mufti Ismail Menk and Malaysian Haslin Baharim not be allowed to preach in the state.
Harussani said the decision was the prerogative of the Johor Ruler and its Islamic council.
“They have their rights and reasons. But in Perak so far there has been no complaints against the two, so there is no problem [for them to preach in the state],” he told Malay Mail Online.
Putting a lid on religious hatred
Independent preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin said he believes the authorities need to put a stop to religious speeches with elements of hate, or what he terms as “the Taliban approach” — a reference to the Sunni fundamentalists widely condemned for their brutal implementation of Shariah.
“If there are reports of anyone preaching messages of hate, slander or creating racial and religious tension, in other words the Taliban approach, the government should call these preachers in and educate and give them better advice.
“Explain to them the official guideline and find out why they are using the Taliban approach. If they remain stubborn, then by all means… ban them,” said the PKR Youth religious bureau leader.
Similarly, Muslim scholar and Universiti Sains Malaysia political studies professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid agreed with Johor’s ban, provided that studies into the respective preachers’ backgrounds had been conducted before the decision was made.
“I think JAINJ had its own reasons and justifications [for the bans]. We hope that it’s based on research into the various speeches and statements given by the preachers,” he said, referring to the Johor Islamic Affairs Department by its Malay initials.
“It’s safe to say that this decision is non-sectarian as Menk comes from the Salafist teachings while Zamihan is a traditionalist,” he added, referring to Sunni Organisation Malaysia president Zamihan Mat Zin, who received royal rebuke for allegedly insulting the Johor monarchy.
“JAINJ here is being fair that in the sense whether the preachers are from traditional school or Salafi school, if their speeches are found to be threatening to racial harmony than JAINJ should take independent stand to ban them.”
Salafism is a brand of ultra-conservative reform movement within Islam, with a stricter subset called Wahhabism endorsed by Saudi Arabia. Putrajaya has declared it to be against the traditional Sunni teachings.
Gagging preachers a bad precedent
Despite that, Islamic Renaissance Front’s Datuk Ahmad Farouk Musa said the recent trend of banning preachers may set a bad precedent, resulting in authorities using such bans to justify the banning of more progressive views simply if they disagree with it.
“If we agree for the ban against preachers like Mufti Menk for example, then we cannot be moaning against the ban of Mustafa Akyol,” he said.
Turkish writer Akyol was recently arrested while on the way from delivering a series of lectures here. He was only released after a former Turkish president intervened through a Malay Ruler.
Farouk pointed out that the issue is a double-edged sword as principally, the government should espouse the spirit behind Article 10 of the Federal Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression.
“The question that we should ask now is; are there limits to freedom of speech or freedom of expression?
“Documents such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented an attempt to create a shared global agreement regarding universal human rights and freedoms; but is it absolute?” he asked.
For Farouk, there should be a limit to free speech to exclude “hate speech that defames, belittled, or dehumanised a class of people on the basis of certain inherent properties like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion or as long as it does not incite violence and crime.”
Singapore’s Home Affairs Ministry announced last week that Menk and Haslin, nicknamed Ustaz Bollywood, have been barred from entering the republic purportedly for having expressed views that promote disharmony between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Despite Johor’s ban, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi, who is also home minister, had previously said there was no cause for Malaysia to ban the two preachers, noting they have not violated any laws or promoted views detrimental to national harmony.