SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: September 25, 2017

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Travel Restrictions | Other

Institution(s):Nottingham University Malaysia

Region & Country:Southeastern Asia | Malaysia

New or Ongoing:New Incident

A lecture at the Kuala Lumpur campus of Nottingham University Malaysia on September 25, 2017 was cancelled just before it was scheduled to take place, after national officials insisted that it must be approved in advance by a government body. The speaker, Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer and journalist currently serving as a visiting fellow in the Freedom Project at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, was later detained at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and reportedly held for eighteen hours before being permitted to leave Malaysia.

Aykol had reportedly traveled to Malaysia on September 22 to give a series of three lectures sponsored by a progressive Muslim organization known as the Islamic Renaissance Front. After the second lecture, he was reportedly approached by a group of men who identified themselves as “religious enforcement officers,” and indicated that he should not speak again about religion without authorization from the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (JAWI). The officers voiced a particular objection to Aykol’s planned third lecture, titled “The Islamic Jesus: The Commonalities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Following his encounter with authorities, Aykol and the event organizers decided to cancel this lecture.

Later that day, when he entered Kuala Lumpur International Airport to begin his trip back to the United States, Aykol was reportedly stopped and taken into custody by federal authorities, who read him an arrest order and transferred him to a police station, then a second police station, and finally to JAWI headquarters. There, he was detained overnight. The next morning, he was reportedly taken to a Shariah court and interrogated for two hours, before being released and allowed to leave the country..

A few days later Aykol’s book, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case For Liberty, was banned by the Home Ministry. The book was said to likely “alarm the public” and was “prejudicial to public interest”.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about state attempts to cancel or intervene in peaceful on-campus events, and about detentions, restrictions on travel, and similar actions aimed at retaliating for academic, political, or religious expression on campus — conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with such activities, so long as they are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. State actions limiting the rights to free academic expression or association on campus have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally