Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Malaysia: Totalitarian Aspects of a "Moderate" Muslim Nation

Malaysia prides itself on its policy of "Islam Hadhari", or "civilizational Islam" which claims to use Islam to develop culture in the nation, and which should be exported elsewhere. This policy of "moderate" Islam is nothing of the sort. Malaysia in many ways resembles a regime with little difference to Stalin’s Soviet empire.
 All ethnic Malays are classified as Muslims, and from the age of 12, all citizens must carry a MyKad, or identity card, which contains details of the person’s religion. Details of the individual’s religious status are kept by the National Registration Department (NRD). Hindus, Buddhists and Christians can convert into Islam, and the NRD respects these decisions, entering them onto the MyKad.
 However, the NRD refuses to allow a person who abandons Islam to change their religious status. Each state in Malaysia has a Sharia Court (Syariah Court), and an Islamic authority. The NRD says that only an Islamic court can decide on a person’s religious status. The Islamic Courts have never allowed a living Muslim officially to leave Islam. The only time they allowed a person officially to leave Islam involved an 89-year old Buddhist Malay woman, Nyonya Tahir, whose conversion from Islam took place in 1936. The Islamic courts accepted her decision only after she died in January 2006.
 There have been famous cases of converts out of Islam, such as Kamariah Ali and Lina Joy. Kamariah Ali joined the "Sky Kingdom Sect" in 1998. She publicly renounced Islam in a Kota Baru Syariah Court in 1999. She was jailed by the Sharia courts in Terengganu state in 2005 for "insulting Islam". Last year, she was charged under Section 7 of the Syariah Criminal Offence Enactment (Takzir) Terengganu. It is alleged that she declared that she is saying that she is no longer a Muslim only because she is trying to evade punishment from the court for again "insulting" Islam by saying she is no longer a Muslim. Her trial should have been concluded in August 2006, but the state-supporting media has suppressed all news of her case.
 Lina Joy changed her name from Azlina Jailani to her new "Christian" name in 1998, to reflect her conversion. The NRD allowed her name change to be reflected on her MyKad, but not her change of religious status.
 The problems that both women have encountered are constitutional. Article 11 of the country’s constitution states that anyone can follow any religion of their choosing, but in 1988, this was undermined. An amendment (1A) was made to Article 121, which stated that the civil courts have no jurisdiction over "any matter" which falls under the jurisdiction of the Islamic Courts.
 When Kamariah Ali, then aged 54, and another Sky Kingdom Sect member, 63-year old Daud Mamat, went to the High Court on December 28, 2006 to register their apostasy from Islam, the judge cited Article 121 (1A). He said he had no power over the matter. Justice Mohammad Raus Sharif stated: ""The issue here is what is the effect of their declaration that they are no longer Muslims. They want this court to ascertain whether they had left Islam. To me, this is under the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court.’
 On the same day, the High Court decided that a Hindu mountaineering hero, whose wife insisted he had never converted to Islam, should be buried as a Muslim. The Syariah Courts had been told while Lt Cpl Manyan Moorthy was in a coma that he had secretly become a Muslim convert. The High Court claimed that legally it could not interfere with a decision of the Syariah Court and, despite protests from Moorthy’s tearful wife Kaliammal, the body was buried in a Muslim cemetery with Muslim funeral rites.
 Lina Joy is not allowed to marry her boyfriend, an "official" Christian, as she is still "officially" a Muslim. Under Islamic law, a Muslim man can marry out of the faith, but not a woman. She took her case of registering her conversion on her MyKad to the Federal Court last August, but instead of reaching a publicly proclaimed decision, the court and the Malaysian media became silent on the issue.
 Even Article 11 of the constitution, which states that a citizen can follow any religion of their choosing, contains a clause which shows that Malaysia has no concept of religious freedom. This clause states: "The law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam." In August 2006 the church which had baptized Lina Joy was subjected to a police report, for contravening this clause. The church of Our Lady of Fatima, Brickfields, was reported to the authorities by a Muslim. Both Lina Joy and her boyfriend have been issued with death threats by Muslims. The Federal Court has still not come to a decision on her case.
 The undignified spectacle of Islamic courts interfering with the burials of non-Muslims still takes place. On Wednesday November 29, 2006, a 71-year old man from Selangor State died of complications from diabetes in Kuala Lumpur Hospital. This man, Rayappan Anthony, was said by his family to have been a Catholic. The Selangor Islamic Religious Department disagreed, and Anthony’s body was kept in the morgue while a legal battle developed.
 On January 20, 1990, the man had become a Muslim in order to officially marry an Indian Muslim wife. He left his Christian family to do this, and officially had his name changed to Muhammad Rayappan Abdullah. The marriage did not last, and after eight years Anthony returned to his wife and family and renounced Islam before a Commissioner for Oaths. On May 10, 1999 he applied to the NRD for a new MyKad under his original name, and this was approved. After his death, the Selangor Islamic authorities said the family could conduct Catholic "last rites" over the body, but the cadaver would then be buried Islamically.
 Rayappan Anthony’s family had lodged a suit against Kuala Lumpur Hospital, naming the Malaysian government as one of the defendants. The Attorney General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail said: "Everyone must respect each other’s religion and try to solve it amicably without immediately taking any stand. I will be meeting with several Islamic religious bodies including the Majlis Agama Islam Selangor (Selangor Religious Affairs Department or MAIS)". He admitted that he had no power to rule on the case, but on December 7, the Selangor religious authorities dropped their claim to the body. Rayappan was buried according to Christian tradition.
 While Muslims are allowed to proselytize and gain converts, many of Malaysia’s 13 states have adopted the " Control and Restriction of Propagation of non-Muslim Religion (Federal Territories) Bill l999", which gives a fine of 10,000 ringit ($2,653) or imprisonment for up to one year for "persuading, influencing a Muslim to leave Islam for another religion."
 The responsibility for the undemocratic state of affairs in Malaysia is entirely down to the ruling UMNO party. Malaysia gained independence from the British on August 31, 1957. For all of the time since then, the country has been ruled continuously by UMNO (United Malays National Organization), in coalitions with other parties. UMNO advocates the racially divisive policy of "ketuanan Melayu" a belief system in which Malays are regarded as the original defining populace of Malaysia, and should have special treatment and privileges. The party has used racial division to promote Malay Muslims above others, even though it is currently in an alliance with a Chinese party (MCA) and an Indian group (MIC).
 At UMNO’s 57th annual conference in November last year, some candidates threatened violence against non-Muslims. One of these, Education Minister Hishammudin Tun Hussein, even took out his keris, a ceremonial sword, and waved it in the air.
 Even the US company Motorola has bought into the country’s racist policies, last year offering scholarships to individuals, which were based on race.
 Muslims account for around 60% of Malaysia’s population of 26 million with Buddhists comprising 19.2%, Christians 9.1%, Hindus 6.3%, and Confucians (Taoists) 2.6%. The other faiths comprise only 2.8% of the demographic. Malays comprise 50.8% of the population, followed by Chinese 23.8%, Indigenous 10.9%, Indian 7.1%, and non-Malaysian citizens 6.8 %.
 In the past, the ruling party’s insistence on giving Malays special privileges led to race riots. On May 13, 1969, conflicts between Chinese and Malays began in Kuala Lumpur. These only subsided in late July, after at least 196 people had been killed and many women had been raped. As a result of the riots, parliament was suspended until 1971. The UMNO policies of "Islam Hadhari" and "ketuanan Melayu" are designed to stir up conflict and mistrust between Muslims and non-Muslims. At the annual parades of the Malaysian police, all women officers, non-Muslims included, must wear the Muslim headscarf, called a tudung.
 Such official attitudes foster a volatile climate. In November last year, an Islamist woman created a state of panic in Perak state by sending phone text messages. These began on November 2, and warned that 600 Muslims were to be converted to Christianity in Ipoh, main city of Perak. Several hundred Muslims converged on the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Silibin, Ipoh, presenting a real threat of violence. The "mass conversion" involved a mass baptism of 98 Christian children of Indian origin.
 The situation for non-Muslim minorities has become so oppressive and alarming that 30 Hindu groups have formed the Hindu Rights Action Force (HRAF), which aims to protect minorities from the encroachment of Islamism into their lives.
 Religious minorities are being made to feel their second class status by deliberate destruction of their places of worship. On Tuesday, April 18 last year, Hindus were worshipping in the 100-year old Malaimel Sri Selva Kaliam-man Temple in Kuala Lumpur, the capital. Police with bulldozers arrived and told the worshippers to leave. The temple was then demolished to make way for a building project. Hundreds of Hindu temples have been destroyed over the past 15 years. Christian churches are also destroyed, often without warning. Reasons cited usually concern a lack of "planning permission". When some of these buildings have existed for longer than Malaysia itself, such arguments are unconvincing.
 In March last year, Mohamed Nazri Aziz, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, announced that anyone who criticized Islam and the government’s policies on Islam would be tried under the Sedition Act. This law, a vestige from the British colonial past, can incur a three year jail sentence, as well as a fine of up to 5,000 ringit or $1,350. Aziz said: "I want to remind non-Muslims to refrain from making statements on something they do not understand. We do not want to take away your rights but religion is an important matter, especially to the Muslims."
 In August last year, Aziz stated that the "constitutional law" which bans non-Muslims from spreading their faith should be streamlined across the 13 states in the federation, claiming that "religion is a state matter". The prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said in the same month: "I have stated that there is no necessity to amend Article 121 ... there is no necessity to amend Article 11. These cause problems between one side and the other."
 The UMNO-led government is moving more towards totalitarian policies. On April 6, Bernama news agency reported that politically motivated blogsites must be registered. Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin said: "When people involved in politics want to use blogs for their political interest or when blog operators are politically-motivated, we have to know who they are... This is very dangerous as they are writing and taking steps to gain power. Their objective is to topple the government, widen the reach of their political doctrine and assist any parties for political purposes." The comments came as 40 bloggers, threatened by government policies, formed an alliance led by Ahirudin Attan to protect their rights.
 Malaysia’s deliberate promotion of Islam, and the prevention of apostasy is summed up by one Muslim scholar. Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad, Senior Fellow at the Center for Syariah, Law and Political Science, Institute of Islamic Understanding in Malaysia (IKIM), has written: "For Muslims, truth is light, falsehood is darkness. Therefore, it is a grave injustice to them if they were to deviate from that truth. Furthermore, the fact that Islam prohibits apostasy reflects the integrity and credibility of the religion. If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem. And people may then question its completeness, truthfulness and perfection... Muslims must understand that once they come into the fold of Islam, there is no question of leaving the faith or reverting to their earlier beliefs even if the very reason for one to come to Islam in the first place ceases to exist."
 Muslims are also denied rights under Malaysia’s Islamic regime. In June last year, it was reported that a 22 year old woman who was married and expecting a child, had her marriage annulled by a Syariah Court. The reasons were that she had not gained permission from her guardian, or "wali" before marrying. Her father had brought the case, knowing it would make his future grandchild officially illegitimate.
 Some states are draconian in their enforcement of Islamic law. One of these laws is against "khalwat", where two unrelated or unmarried people of the opposite sex are in close proximity. In Perak state in 2000, a Muslim couple who had been married for 21 years were arrested on suspicion of "khalwat" infringement. They were handcuffed and detained until someone produced their marriage certificate. In Kedah state, the Islamic authorities are assiduous in pursuing breaches of khalwat. In June 2002, 28 people were arrested in shopping malls and cinemas during a khalwat "swoop".
 Last year, on October 14, an American couple who had been married for 42 years fell foul of Kedah state’s Islamic enforcers, who assumed they were engaging in "khalwat". Sixty-two-year old Randall K Barnhart and his 61-year old wife Carole were staying at a vacation condominium in Langkawi island in Kedah state, a popular tourist venue for sailing. Six officials from Kedah State Religious Department arrived at the condominium in the early hours of the morning. Mr Barnhart said their manner was threatening. The officials demanded to see Mr Barnhrat’s "woman". When they had seen her, the officials then demanded to see a marriage certificate.
 "I told them I did not have it on me", he said. "Next, they demanded to see our passports, so I showed them. They took down our passport numbers and noted that we were from the US. Then one said ’thank you’ and shook my hand." Carole Barnhart was so upset by the incident the couple cut short their six week sailing holiday and returned home. Mr. Barnhart demanded an official apology and $1,183 compensation.
 Theoretically non-Muslims can not be targeted under Islamic law, but such niceties are not always followed. Kelantan state is the only state to be controlled by the PAS party. This extreme Islamist group believes that apostates from Islam should be given the death penalty. PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) gained control of the state in 1990, and has introduced sweeping rulings which affect all citizens. In 1996 the municipal council of the state capital, Kota Baru, ordered that supermarket check-out queues should be gender segregated. Lipstick-wearing was banned in workplaces, and all women were ordered to wear the tudung at work. In 2000, 23 women were given fines for breaching this rule.
 In Kota Baru’s cinemas, lights are kept on at all times, in case unIslamic activities take place in the dark. In May 2002 the head of Kota Baru council ordered that no advertising billboards should portray any women who were not wearing the tudung, to conform to a PAS ruling made in 1992. In December 2006 the council went a step further, and ordered all women, non-Muslims included, to not dress in a "sexy or indecent" fashion, on pain of a $145 fine.
 On March 10, an exhibition opened in southern Negeri Sembilan state, which was entitled: "Jin & Hantu?" (Ghosts and Jinns?...). This exhibition in the state museum claimed to be educational, and included items which could easily have graced Barnum & Bailey’s a century ago, such as "vampire carcasses" and a "phoenix". The exhibition ignited a controversy, after complaints were made by Malaysia’s culture secretary. The Mufti of Perlis condemned the exhibition. After less than a month of its 13-week run, the exhibition was closed, despite attracting more than 25,000 since it opened. The National Fatwa Council had decided the exhibition undermined Islamic faith.
 America has a "Free Trade Agreement" with Malaysia, valid as of March 2006, even though the US State Department noted its abuses against religious freedom in November 18, 2005The US is Malaysia’s largest trading partner, and Malaysia is America’s tenth largest business partner.
 Though the US Commission on International Religious Freedom aims to identify countries which abuse rights to religious freedom, Malaysia appears neither on its list of countries of serious concern nor on its watch list. The country is not mentioned on its 2006 Annual Report. Considering the religious restrictions in Malaysia are combined with blatantly racist policies, this is an omission which should cause all Americans some concern. Are "free trade agreements" more important than basic human rights?
 Recently, one particular case has highlighted how inhumane the religious laws in Malaysia can be. On April 6 Associated Press reported that the religious authorities in Malacca state took away a mother’s baby because she chose to be a Hindu. On March 26, the 15-month old child was confiscated from Revathi Masoosai, who had left Islam. The child was given into the custody of Revathi’s Muslim mother, while Revathi was imprisoned in a religious rehabilitation center for people who "transgressed" against Islam.
 This case became publicly known only because it was taken up by the main opposition party, the pan-religious and anti-racist Democratic Action PartyThe DAP chairman is currently fighting a similar case. On April 2 this year, the Selangor State Religious Affairs Department took away a Hindu man’s wife and six children, who were then sent to a "rehabilitation" center. The man, a rubber-tapper named Marimathu, had been married to his wife for 21 years. Because his Indian wife Raimah was officially a Muslim, according to her MyKad, the marriage was regarded by the state religious authorities as invalid. The couple are practicing Hindus.
 Perhaps it is time for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to re-evaluate Malaysia’s position as a country of "serious concern". To fail to do so renders its claims to uphold religious freedoms meaningless. Malaysia calls itself a "moderate Muslim nation". While people can not have freedom of religion in Malaysia, and families are deliberately broken up because of religious laws, then perhaps we should be redefining what "moderate Islam" really means.


Dear Editor,

While Adrian Morgan's article highlights the problems in Malaysia, it does not go far enough. With the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Malaysia remains the only nation to discriminate against large communities living there under the Bumiputra system. And, unfortunately, the West has not called it's system racist, which is what it openly is, for reasons that only Western countries know. In fact, the religious discrimination of minorities in Malaysia comes side by side with economic and political discrimination against the Chinese and East Indian communities, making the nation as reprehensible a tyranny as the former apartheid South Africa.

In the past under Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia publicly forced Australia to grovel for raising human rights issues inside that country by threatening to ban the sale of all Australian products there, and the west chose not to do anything about it. Award winning movies like Schindler's List remain banned there and those who have an Israeli visa stamped in their passports are not allowed to travel to Malaysia. Malaysia is a Holocaust denier as a nation, a crime in most of Europe. And, despite that, the west does nothing to discipline this rogue nation for reasons that only it knows. Perhaps, it would not hurt now, for the west to re-examine it's approach to this racist nation and issue it a warning that failure to respect human rights could bring crippling sanctions against it. For all the illusions of wealth in Malaysia, it is a hollow economy, dependant on the West for it's prosperity. It would not, therefore, be difficult to get the Malaysians to behave if the West chooses to make them do this.

- Mehul Kamdar

Adrian Morgan is a British based writer and artist who regularly contributes in Family Security Matters. His essays also appear in Western Resistance, Spero News and He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society.

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