We don’t need leaders who are anti-intellectuals – Mohd Nazari Ismail

Published: 5 July 2014

Anti-intellectualism is nothing new in the history of humankind. In 14th century Europe, Michael Servetus, the Spanish physician who discovered pulmonary circulation and wrote a book which argued for reforming Christianity, was also persecuted. He was eventually arrested, tortured and burned at stake together with copies of his book.


In the 17th century, Galileo Galilei wrote an article supporting the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun which meant that he was challenging the teachings of the Church and the establishment.

As result, his articles were banned and he was sentenced to house arrest, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Albert Einstein, the father of modern physics, irked right-wing members of German society with his pacifist politics. He was deprived of his academic posts and his membership of the Prussian Academy of Sciences was terminated. In addition his property was seized and his books were burnt in public.

In Argentina, in 1966 the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía persecuted many academics in an event called The Night of the Long Police Batons which led to many of them leaving the country.

In America during the 17th century, the persecution of intellectuals was less violent. However, the extent of hatred towards intellectuals by some groups was still very strong.

The puritan John Cotton for example wrote that “the more learned and witty you be, the more fit to act for Satan will you be…”.

In the Soviet Union, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks were very suspicious of Tsarist intellectuals. As a consequence, the leadership of the initial Soviet government consisted of people with low educational levels.

Vladimir Lenin eventually deported hundreds of intellectuals to Germany, Latvia and Turkey. However, the Bolsheviks later had to rely on educated people to manage the country and so intellectuals came back into favour. Nevertheless during the 1930s and 1950s, Stalin felt threatened by the Lenin-era intellectuals and replaced them with those who were loyal to him.

In imperial China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang (246–210 BC) also felt threatened by intellectuals and decided to suppress freedom of speech. Only selected books were allowed to exist. Others were banned. Those people who did not submit the books for burning were deemed to be in violation of his command and the punishment for that was death.

The Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea killed all educated citizens during their reign of terror in the late 70s. Intellectuals were among the groups which were considered enemies of the state and had to be exterminated at what later became famously known as the Killing Fields.

In the Muslim world, there have been countless cases of scholars being persecuted for voicing out the truth. One well known example is Nukman bin Thabit, also known as Imam Abu Hanifah, who was born in 699 C.E.. Due to his criticisms of the leadership of Caliph Abu Ja’far Al-Mansur, he was often subject to abuse by the authorities and was eventually thrown into jail until his death.

During the administration of President Jamal Abdul Naser in Egypt in the 1960s, Muslim scholar and writer by the name of Syed Qutb was brutally tortured for his writings. However, Qutb never wavered from his duty of voicing out the truth. He paid the price of his bravery with his own life when he was hanged in prison in 1966.

The above episodes in history were the results of an attitude among the ruling elites that their possession of political power is the most important agenda of their lives. As a result, any form of challenge must be eliminated. The inherent problem was that many of these elites were abusing their powers and inevitably any critical mind will find it unavoidable to criticise the status quo.

Rulers who care about society more than their own hold on power, however, will never have the aforementioned paranoid attitude. For them, the most important consideration is to allow the `truth of things’ to be investigated, discovered, disseminated and for policies formulated around them and later implemented.

These types of leaders will therefore appreciate and value intellectuals and academics who conduct research and publish their findings, especially those that are related to current social, political and economic issues in the country.

They realise that these research findings can help in the formulation of better policies for the benefit of society and humanity, even if the research findings paint them in a bad light.

Among Muslim leaders, these are the ones who are familiar with the concept of Maqasid Shariah which places the `protection of the mind’ as one of the most important objectives of Islamic teachings. These are the type of enlightened leaders that Malaysia need.

Members of our society must therefore be educated and enlightened to appreciate these types of leaders rather than those who are close-minded and self –serving, especially those that could not even accept the findings of objective opinion polls that are unfavourable to them. – July 5, 2014.

* Prof Dr Mohd Nazari Ismail teaches at a local tertiary institute, and heads the research unit of Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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Chaen’s view

Excellent researched article. Prof Dr Mohd Nazari Ismail cited good examples of Intellectuals from many countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America.

“And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country”. Luke 4:24.

Intellectuals around the world speak and write the truth on how they see it. They keep check and balance of powers to be. They play a vital role in societies where the majority are indifferent, or have no voice. They stood by their conviction, and had been tortured and were even killed.

It’s still happening in today’s modern societies. The intellectuals write online and inspire like-minded communities. The authorities and the rulers persecute, harass, bully, and control through sacking (Prof. Redzuan), character assignation, show cause letters (Aslam Abd Jalil, ANU), jail (Karpal Singh), suing (S’pore PM Lee sued blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling),silencing (Dyana Sofya – a young Intellectual in the making as she writes and speak up more)…