KUALA LUMPUR, 6 May 2009: Muslims in a truly democratic country would allow other Muslims the freedom to leave Islam if they wished, said Muslim Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol.
“We are happy when non-Muslims like Cat Stevens embrace Islam, but what if a Muslim wants to become a Christian?” asked Akyol at a public seminar on Secular state, religious society: The role of religion in a plural country yesterday evening.
Akyol Akyol said the ban on apostasy did not originate from the Quran, but was rather a strategy to quell rebellion by the caliphs who succeeded Prophet Muhammad in leading the early Muslim community.
If apostasy was made legal, Muslims would not convert out en masse, he said.
“In Turkey, there is no law banning apostasy, but the conversion rate of Muslims to Christianity has been around 2,000 out of a population of 71 million,” he explained.
The Istanbul-based Akyol, who is also a journalist with the Turkish Daily News, said ideally the state should be neutral in regard to religious or ideological beliefs.
“In this case, I personally think that the secular state is ideal and compatible with Islam,” he said.
Akyol also clarified that the term “Islamic state” did not exist in the Quran, and that it was a political creation of Islamists in the postcolonial era.
The writer went on to explain that it was important to distinguish between a secular and secularist state.
“Examples of secularist states include Communist Albania, in which even belief in God was illegal,” he explained.
He said secular states, on the other hand, demonstrated neutrality and allowed citizens to practise religion according to their own conscience.
On this score, Akyol criticised his own country, Turkey, for having a history of banning women from wearing the hijab in public schools and offices.
Akyol stressed that leaving religion to the individual’s conscience also meant that personal sins could not be treated as crimes against the state.
“Even homosexuality, which many Muslims believe is a sin, should not be criminalised by the state,” he said.
“The rights of minorities must be protected, and human rights are not debatable in a democracy.”
Plurality vs pluralism
The other speaker at the forum, PAS Member of Parliament for Kuala Selangor Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, agreed that “the age of forcing ideas and beliefs through military and political power is over”.
Dzulkefly Dzulkefly said it was important for Muslims “to respect others as others, and that others have the right to believe the truth claims of their religions.”
He also said it was equally important for Muslims to respect differences among their co-religionists “as long as these don’t trample on the essentials spelt out in the Quran”.
However, Dzulkefly differentiated himself from Akyol on the issue of the state’s neutrality with regard to religion.
“As an Islamist democrat, I believe that a democracy with a multiparty system should allow the dynamics of society to determine the ultimate form of government, including being an Islamic state,” he said.
He agreed with respecting plurality, but differentiated this from what he called “the theology of religious pluralism”.
“Pluralism claims that all religions are equally valid paths to the same truth,” he said, adding that Islam does not accept this.
The seminar was organised by Malaysia Think Tank, a libertarian organisation promoting “free individuals; free markets; limited government; and rule of law”. It was attended by some 50 academics, activists, lawyers, students and journalists.