My Malaysia ordeal shows how religion can fuse with populist nationalism to silence dissent

Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

I hadn’t expected my book tour in Malaysia to end with a confrontation with men who identified themselves as police in a Kuala Lumpur airport.

I arrived in the Muslim-majority country in early January 2024 to promote the Malay translation of my book “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment,” an academic analysis of the political and socioeconomic crises facing many Muslim societies today.

But my visit attracted unwarranted attention. Some conservatives and Islamists labeled me in social media a “liberal” – a term used by Malaysia’s federal agency administering Islamic affairs to denote those against the official religion, Sunni Islam. This was followed by the cancellation of my book launch event.

Nonetheless, I continued my program of other talks. Two men who identified themselves as police officers came to my last event and questioned my publisher.

The following day, the same men interrogated me and tried to seize my passport in Kuala Lumpur International Airport as I was due to embark on a flight to Pakistan. Concerned over my safety, I canceled a series of talks planned for Lahore and Islamabad and returned home to the United States.

When the incident became national news, Malaysia’s police inspector-general denied that officers were sent to confront me. Yet, a human rights group has called for a more thorough investigation into my case.


As a scholar of religion and politics in comparative perspective, I don’t see my ordeal as an isolated example of religious intolerance in Muslim-majority countries. Instead, it taps into something wider.

My research shows that there is a rising global trend against dissenting and minority religious views. Analyzing this trend is crucial to understand why right-wing populist leaders are now ruling diverse countries, such as Turkey, Russia, Israel and India, and how they may come to power in other places, including the United States.

All these countries have recently experienced the combination of three movements: religious conservatism, nationalism and populism.

In both Christian and Muslim history, nationalism emerged in reaction to the religious establishment. Scholars of nationalism such as Benedict Anderson explain its origins in Europe after the 16th century by the expansion of vernacular languages, national churches and nation-states at the expense of Latin, the Vatican and divinely ordained dynasties.


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