Commentary Magazine


Karen Armstrong, Islam, and Intolerance

Writing in Saturday’s Guardian, Karen Armstrong, a popular historian of comparative religion, describes how she was invited by the Malaysian government last month to give two public lectures. On arriving in Kuala Lumpur, however, she was “surprised” to discover that this same government had banned three of her books as “incompatible with peace and social harmony.”

She does not mention the fact that the government in question is an Islamist one, which relentlessly persecutes the 40 percent of Malays who are non-Muslims. This is in spite of the fact that the Malaysian constitution, while establishing Islam as Malaysia’s official religion, also guarantees that “other religions may be practised in peace and harmony”—the same phrase that was used as an excuse to suppress Ms. Armstrong’s books.

Malaysia is sometimes cited as a model for a Muslim state. Yet it is a country where children have their identity cards stamped with their faith, which they are then not allowed to change for the rest of their lives. Malays must be Muslim, or else lose their legal status as Malays, which entitles them to preferential treatment. Some 9 percent of the population are Christians, but they enjoy no official status, and are subject to constant harrassment. Conversion to Christianity is a criminal offense in most of the country. Ethnic Indians, who are mostly Hindu, and ethnic Chinese, who are mostly Buddhist or Confucian, are also treated as second-class citizens. All other religions are persecuted by shari’a courts and by an increasingly intolerant government. Churches and temples are often demolished. None of this is mentioned in Karen Armstrong’s article.

Most authors react to censorship with anger and indignation. Not Ms. Armstrong, who says that “my books seemed so popular in Malaysia that I found myself wondering if the veto was part of a Machiavellian plot to entice the public to read them.” She blithely ignores both the censorship and the campaign of forced Islamicization of which it forms a part, and instead takes the opportunity to wag her finger at those in the West who defend free speech.

She chastises the Danish cartoonists and their publishers who lampooned Muhammad for “failing to live up to their own liberal values, since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others.” So free speech is only permissible as long as nobody raises an objection? One begins to see why Ms. Armstrong is so unconcerned about governments like that of Malaysia.