Malaysia and Apostasy

A couple of days ago, I put up a post with the title “Thirteen Countries Execute Atheists.” I put a link up to my source, a UK site, Channel 4, although I saw the number in several places when I was looking it up. I used that particular source because the list was easy to find on the page and gave a quick and convenient summary beneath a graph. In my post, I put a caveat regarding Nigeria being on the list, but I didn’t put any notes about any of the others. There were a couple of comments, so I thought I would take some time to elaborate about Malaysia. From the site itself:

Every Malaysian citizen over the age of 12 must carry an identification card, a “MyKad”, which must state the bearer’s religion.

According to Sharia law within most Malaysian states, apostasy or conversion is a punishable offence, either with a fine, a jail sentence or the death penalty.

I’ve had a slight interest in Malaysia for many years partly because one of my close friends from college was born there, although she grew up in Brooklyn. However, I have never been there. The friend in question often referred to herself as “indigenous Malaysian” and told me that she followed the indigenous religion. Her description of it made it sound polytheistic or animist, with nature spirits. There is an interesting article I came across some time ago, “Native Religion in Malaysia: An Introduction.”

It is a comprehensive system of beliefs closely connected to nature and the earth. Elements of nature are often included in its rituals and symbols. In general, nature is often regarded as the base of life, as the earth where the soil, rivers, trees, rocks and animals are seen to possess a form of “life” that is similar to human beings. Nature is even regarded to have its own language that only the followers of the native religion can understand, even though this “language” is not verbally communicated in words of human understanding. The practitioners of native religions believe that nature is moved by a very powerful cosmic energy. Humans cannot live without nature but nature will endure even without humans.

My friend told me that she learned about the native religion from her grandparents when her mother sent her back to live with them for a time because her mother was afraid she was becoming too Americanized. Although she usually referred to herself as indigenous Malaysian, her father, it should be noted, was ethnic Chinese. Her parents came over here in 1969 during a period of political upheaval and inter-ethnic violence.

One of the things that makes Malaysia interesting in regards to the rise of political Islam (Islamism) and the increasing conservatism of Islam more generally, is that Malaysia is an multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

Graphic: Ethnic Groups - Malay 50.1, Chinese 22.6, Indigenous 11.8, Indian 6.7, Other .7, Non-Citizens 8.2; Religions - Muslim 61.3, Buddhist 19.8, Christian 9.2, Hindu 6.3, Other Chinese 1.3, Other .4, None .8, Unspecified 1.

Source: Graph created from information found on CIA World Factbook

Malaysia was part of the British Empire until 1957 when the country gained its independence. The Constitution written at this time, guaranteed that Malay political power would have a special privileged position. It should be noted that the Malay ethnic group is a different group than those considered “indigenous Malaysian,” who are also multiple groups. Malays and the indigenous Malaysians are all considered “Bumiputera,” or “Sons of the Land.”

In the 1970s, the Malaysian government implemented policies which The Economist called “racially discriminatory” designed to favour bumiputras (including affirmative action in public education) to create opportunities, and to defuse inter-ethnic tensions following the extended violence against Chinese Malaysians in the 13 May Incident in 1969.

Religion mostly coincides with ethnic groups. It should be considered that the demographic numbers hide the existence of mixed-race individuals. I was looking for some information and came across this interesting video on YouTube:

Until September 2001, Malaysia was generally considered a secular country. On the Wikipedia page about Secular states, Malaysia is in the category labeled “ambiguous.”

In Article 3 of the Constitution of Malaysia, Islam is stated as the official religion of the country: “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” In 1956, the Alliance party submitted a memorandum to the Reid Commission, which was responsible for drafting the Malayan constitution. The memorandum quoted: “The religion of Malaya shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religion and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.” … This suggestion was later carried forward in the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals 1957 (White Paper), specifically quoting in paragraph 57: “There has been included in the proposed Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State….” The Cobbold Commission also made another similar quote in 1962: “….we are agreed that Islam should be the national religion for the Federation. We are satisfied that the proposal in no way jeopardises freedom of religion in the Federation, which in effect would be secular.” In December 1987, the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas described Malaysia as a country governed by “secular law” in a court ruling. In the early 1980s, the Malaysian government led by Mahathir Mohammad implemented an official programme of Islamization, which was manifested in the form of introducing Islamic values and principles into the bureaucracy, substantial financial support to the development of Islamic religious education, places of worship and the development of Islamic banking. The Malaysian government also made efforts to expand the powers of Islamic-based state statutory bodies such as the Tabung Haji, JAKIM (Department of Islamic development Malaysia) and National Fatwa Council. There has been much debate in public and political circles on Malaysia’s status as a secular or Islamic state in recent years. (Emphasis mine.)

In “The Threat To Secular Democracy In Malaysia,”  Farish A. Noor begins with “As far as complex plural societies go, Malaysia has to be one of the most complex and plural societies in the world at the moment. There are few countries with a racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious mix like Malaysia’s…” He goes on to note,

there is the emergence of an increasingly vocal, visible and powerful parallel civil society that operates along the basis of particularist religio-communitarian demands and which advocates the concerns of their specific targeted constituencies only.

With the rise of religious-based consumer groups, workers groups, professional groups, etc. it would seem that the space of secular civil society seems to be shrinking on all fronts. Issues such as workers rights, gender equality, environmentalism et al. that were once neutral issues in a secular public domain have now been “claimed” by exclusive religious groups instead…

He observes that “sectarian politics that was initially race-based and now increasingly religion-based” and wonders “what will happen to the very idea and ideal of a universal Malaysian citizenship.”

He concludes with a statement whose relevancy extends well beyond Malaysia:

The challenge that stands before any government of a society as plural as ours is to develop a national politics that is inclusive and accommodating to all, giving every citizen a space and a place in the national narrative and national identity. The safeguard that ensures that such a politics of universal representation can take place is a secular democratic system where the state remains the honest neutral broker between all communities, and does not favour one community over others.

Any attack on the very idea of secularism is therefore an attack on the value of universal equality itself, and those who condemn secularism as being “un-Godly” or corrupt are really the ones who wish to destroy the secular basis of a free and equal society where every citizen is accorded the respect that she or he is due. When the attacks against secularism come from the representatives of the majority ethnic-religious community (such as was the case with the rise of Hindutva supremacists in India, and Muslims communitarians here in Malaysia), what we face is nothing short of the rise of the tyranny of the majority.

For all its weaknesses, secularism remains the only safeguard we have to keep our country on a democratic track. And for that reason, the democrats among us must be prepared to defend our secular democratic and plural public domain at all costs, come what may.

I think it’s hard for those of us who live in most Western democracies, where, whether we are talking about Catholic emancipation in the U.K. or the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., equality under the law for all is seen as a hard won achievement and is widely enshrined as an ideal, to understand laws still exist that depend on the ethnic background or religion of an individual. Although we my argue about whether or not it is honored in practice, the ideal is usually assumed.

In Malaysia, ethnic Malays must legally be Muslim. According to Wikipedia:

Attempts by Muslims to convert to other religions are punished by state governments, with punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment. The federal government does not intervene in legal disputes over conversion, leaving it to the courts. The secular courts of Malaysia have ruled they do not have the authority to decide these cases, referring them to the Syariah courts. These Islamic courts have unanimously ruled that all ethnic Malays must remain Muslims. Even non-Malays who have converted to Islam are not allowed to leave Islam, and children born to Muslim parents are considered to be Muslims. A non-Muslim who wishes to marry a Muslim must first convert to Islam.

It should be noted that Malaysia is a federation and some laws vary among states. This Wikipedia entry might be slightly out of date because I found a mention that in 2015 the state of Kelantan would be enforcing Sharia Law, including, possibly, the death penalty for apostasy.

Anniesa Hussain, on Infidels Are Us, writes,

I am witness to the alarming rate at which Malaysia sways towards religious oppression of its non-Muslims.

She goes on to detail:

This Kelantan bill which was initially passed in 1993 but prevented from being implemented on the grounds of its unconstitutional nature, has been passed yet again and now being set in motion. The Bill is an amendment of the 1965 Syariah (Sharia) Courts Act which currently limits Sharia penalties to a fine of 3,000 Malaysian Ringgits ($800), 5 years imprisonment and 6 strokes of a cane.

This PAS Bill states that Hudud can only affect the Muslim population of the state but it fundamentally strips away the right of anyone wishing to leave Islam for any other religion or quite possibly, to simply abandon it. …

It should be pointed out that this Hudud Bill is not unique to Kelantan alone, rather the state is just a latest example of the curtailing of religious freedom within Malaysia. Terengganu state for instance has also attempted to introduce similar legislation. I am still living in Malaysia until the summer and I can honestly say the country’s politics does not shy away from exclusively carving out a Muslim nation explicitly for the Malays and chipping away at non-Malay and non-Muslim freedoms.

As the original secular roots of Malaysia continues to be eroded and replaced with an ever-present, ever-pressing purer form of Islam, the nation continues to be plunged deeper into uncertainty for its religious minorities. Malaysia is becoming a country of increasing alarm, its politics increasingly embedded and infiltrated by hard-line Islamists. Personally speaking, it has become a country that has gained priority in my nations-to-watch list.

It has been for several years on my “nations-to-watch” list as well. Besides the laws, moderate or non-practicing Muslims have felt greater informal pressure to conform to the rules of strict Islam. However, I should note, that I have not yet found a case where anyone was actually executed, although people are imprisoned. In one case, a professing Hindu was forced to eat beef.

As far as what laws might affect atheists who are not ethnic Malays, did not have Muslim parents or did not convert, I have not been able to ascertain. Since non-Muslims are not allowed to proselytize to Muslims, I would assume there it would be illegal to try to convince a Muslim to become an atheist. Would simply talking about atheism be allowed? If not, what sort of laws would apply and what sort of punishment if they were broken? I have not been able to find out answers to those questions. It’s getting late and I’ll have to leave that for another time.

I think in the Western world, and possibly elsewhere as well, we are inclined to believe that there is a tendency towards progress, and that progress includes greater liberalization and secularization. Due to this, I think we often miss the fact that much of the Islamic world is becoming less liberal and less secular. Oddly, our own ethnocentrism leads us to the mistake of seeing as “traditional” developments that are in fact recent.

As far as traveling goes, it should be noted that Noel, as I mentioned, recently returned from Somalia safe and sound. I suspect, and perhaps he will tell us, that he did not engage in any public debates about the existence of deities while he was there. In all likelihood, I imagine in most places, if you don’t feel a need to talk about it, people will just assume that you follow one major world religion or another. That’s not exactly “freedom,” but one doesn’t usually presume that sort of freedom in another country. For those that live there, however, it must feel very different than it would as a traveler.

The situation in Malaysia is very complicated and I hope that I have done it at least some justice. I don’t think anyone should feel that it is dangerous to travel there on account of their beliefs and I’m sorry if my previous post gave that impression.

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