In the 17th century, when some Iranian mullahs were trying to limit freedom of expression, Mulla Sadra, the great mystical philosopher of Isfahan, insisted that all Muslims were perfectly capable of thinking for themselves and that any religiosity based on intellectual repression and inquisitorial coercion was “polluted”. Mulla Sadra exerted a profound influence on generations of Iranians, but it is ironic that his most famous disciple was probably Ayatollah Khomeini, author of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

This type of contradiction is becoming increasingly frequent in our polarised world, as I discovered last month, when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur to find that the Malaysian government had banned three of my books as “incompatible with peace and social harmony”. This was surprising because the government had invited me to Malaysia, and sponsored two of my public lectures. Their position was absurd, because it is impossible to exert this type of censorship in the electronic age. In fact, 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.

Old habits die hard. In a pre-modern economy, insufficient resources meant freedom of speech was a luxury few governments could afford, since any project that required too much capital outlay was usually shelved. To encourage a critical habit of mind that habitually called existing institutions into question in the hope of reform could lead to a frustration that jeopardised social order. It is only 50 years since Malaysia achieved independence and, although the public and press campaign vigorously against censorship, in other circles the old caution is alive and well.


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