Cancellation of Ahmet Kuru book launch an affront to academic freedom

WE in the Malaysian Academic Movement (Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia, or Gerak) are extremely concerned about the recent treatment of Professor Ahmet T. Kuru. The cancellation of the launch of his book at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) is an affront to academic freedom.

A scholar and intellectual based at the San Diego State University in the United States, Professor Kuru was invited to Malaysia for five days earlier this month. He was to participate in a series of book discussions and forums, around the subject of Islam, development, politics, democracy, and history.

The highlight of his visit was to launch the Bahasa Melayu translation of one of his books, “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison” published by the Islamic Renaissance Front.

The facts of the Kuru case are confounding. He was accused of being a “terrorist”, a “liberal”, a “secularist”, and even a “fake” historian. While a terrorist is something to be wary of, it does not apply to Professor Kuru. Also, as usual, extremists and ignorant  conservatives in Malaysia, many of whom have fascist leanings, believe a secular liberal is bad for society. Furthermore, accusing anyone of being “fake” requires empirical evidence, which was not forthcoming in the Kuru case.

Throughout the history of human civilisation, there have been scores of ethical “liberal secularists” who have contributed to the growth and development of their countries. Many societies under liberal and secular leadership have succeeded in leading their nations out of poverty. Secular leaders have provided dignified lives for their people. There is abundant evidence out there, so readers please check these sources.

Similarly, many Muslim-majority countries today continue to be embroiled in class conflict, economic disparity, and unjust social inequality, where there is a huge gap between the very rich and the abject poor. A huge part of this sad situation is rampant political interference in education, corrupt Muslim leaders, and gender discrimination.

There is already a surfeit of laws in this country constraining constitutional free speech. Academics and academic associations already have difficulties navigating these limitations, making considerable sacrifices to their freedoms. Instances like the actions taken against Ahmet Kuru only deepen the confusion surrounding permissible speech – creating uncertainty about what can be said, when, and by whom.

It is very disappointing that under the current Madani administration, there is a continuation of this vile practice of blindly obstructing intellectual discourse. One would have expected the unity government to be more accepting of intellectual discourse given that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim himself was a concerned student leader during his university days.

Anwar has always been an advocate of academic freedom, critical thinking, and open intellectual discourse. He is articulate, well-read in history and Islamic civilisation, and very capable of engaging in intellectual discourse himself. Very rarely does Malaysia have leaders of this calibre.

Yet, under his watch, the cancellation of Ahmet Kuru’s book launch at IAIS was a regressive step. Whether the reason was due to pressure from the Turkish embassy, or not, there is a need for all the responsible parties to embrace the concept of academic freedom more deeply.

Education can be defined as a continuous dialogue comprising debates, probing questions, facts, and hypotheses. Education is about asking what-if questions. The goal is to arrive at answers through critical thinking, via the consultation of all forms of knowledge available.

Academic freedom allows for such a process, because it necessitates open intellectual discourse. This is the bedrock of a good education. The ultimate goal is that this process allows us to solve the problems faced by society. It is necessary for national development, cohesion, and individual dignity.

Therefore, the essence of academic freedom is to better the lives of everyone on this planet. How can this be threatening, or an immoral thing? If anything, it is the Islamic way.

Kuru is a trained political scientist, having obtained his PhD from the University of Washington. He conducted post-doctoral research at Columbia University, considered one of the best universities in the world. Ahmet Kuru is no fool, and neither is he a sloppy nor superficial researcher.

Contrary to the accusations thrown at him on social media, Professor Kuru is not a “terrorist”. Such accusations are based on ignorance and expose the fact that his accusers have not digested the contents of his scholarly writings. If anything, his accusers have shown how ignorant they are of Kuru’s history and scholarly analyses.

For example, Kuru’s co-edited book with the late Alfred Stepan, “Islam, Democracy, and Secularism in Turkey” (2012) has a chapter in it that they co-authored. The chapter criticises assertive secularism as a barrier against democratic consolidation in Turkey.

Ahmet Kuru obviously engages in critical thinking. He does not analyse the history and politics of Islam and Muslim countries in a superficial or flippant manner. Perhaps his critics have not read his works in detail because they are written in English. This is yet another reason our education system needs massive reform.

Nevertheless, the Islamic Renaissance Front’s decision to translate Kuru’s “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison” is a positive outcome. The translation should be publicised and read widely in Malaysia.

Gerak insists that the leadership under Anwar Ibrahim be sincere about ending the harassment of world-renowned scholars who visit Malaysia. It is bad publicity for the country. More critically, Malaysia will be increasingly perceived as a backward Muslim-majority country which will eventually hurt the future growth and development of the nation. – January 15, 2024.

* Statement by Gerak exco.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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