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Malaysian Muslims protesting the Catholic Church for using the word 'Allah' (Photo: Themalaysianinsider.com)

Banning Thoughts

OurIndonesia – In 2013, Malaysia made it to the international headlines when its government banned Christians from using the word ‘Allah’ to denote God. While there is something frightening in the state authorities’ efforts to deprive a language of certain words, it becomes even more scary when they attempt to ban thoughts.

The latter incident took place in October 2014, when Malaysia’s Home Minister confirmed he had barred the Indonesian Muslim intellectual, Ulil Abshar Abdalla, from entering the country. The scholar was invited by a Malaysian think-tank, the Islamic Renaissance Front, to take part in a panel on the threats of religious fundamentalism, but instead he was labelled a threat himself.

Ulil Abshar Abdalla is a scholar and an activist, a co-founding member of the Liberal Islam Network, an organisation or rather a movement established by a group of Muslim intellectuals to accommodate liberal Islamic trends which have been flourishing in Indonesia.

The ideological strategy of Malaysia has since a few decades been premised on a policy of discrediting and banning interpretations which are incongruent with the version of Islam managed by the ulama from the governmental institutions. They are endowed with authority to declare which Islamic teachings are authentic and which are not.

The authenticity here translates to government-sanctioned Islam which means only the Sunni Islam, only the Shafi‘i madhhab, and only one particular interpretation thereof. All other variations are considered a threat. While Malaysia is not the first country to close its borders to scholars, the explicitness of the Home Minister for whom thinking constitutes a national threat, provokes a whole set of considerations.

A renowned scholar is labelled a threat. A threat to the limits of what is allowed to be thought and how it can be thought. One cannot resist paraphrasing here the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic: a state which closes its borders to thoughts and ideas is like a puppeteer who tries to convince the citizens that the shadows cast on the wall of the cave are real beings. Yet then, can you actually close the borders to thoughts? Incorporeal as they are, they do not require visas.

To carry further with Plato, two and a half millennia ago a scholar was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by inciting them to exercise the power of reason, to deliberate, to examine, to think. He believed in the same gods as his accusers and for his knowledge he was respected by their priests. Socrates. What we know about him is all subject to disputes but his influence has been present in every age, in philosophy and beyond it.

Most of what we know comes from Plato’s dialogues and Apology – his version of Socrates’ speech given during the trial. Many sentences from this speech have been quoted in various forms and contexts, yet one remains remarkably powerful whenever attempts are made to deny the flourishing of others ethical and intellectual capacities, and wherever there are efforts to ban thoughts or to confine thinking: “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”.