Malaysia’s Islamisation

Kate Bystrova

Arena Politics

Sharia law is becoming more dominant in Malaysia, with Muslims no longer allowed to change their religion and non-Muslims feeling increasingly marginalised

Kuala Lumpur

The locale was a comfortable, dimly lit bar around the corner from London’s Green Park in England. Down the stairs in the basement we ordered coffee and pulled out our notebooks, hushing our conversation as the speaker we’d come to see looked around the room and began.

“In Malaysia, things aren’t well.”

A prominent Malaysian lawyer and politician, Zaid Ibrahim has been involved in politics for more than a decade. “Things have changed: there is a ‘new’ Malaysia. The civil law courts are no longer… we have the Sharia. Here, religion is negating the freedom of practising Islam. The rule of law is challenged every other day,” Zaid says. “People need to understand these issues.”

Zaid has had roles including Minister of Legal Affairs and Judicial Reform in the Prime Minister’s Department; a senator in the Dewan Negara (the Malaysian parliament’s upper chamber); a member of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO); and the member of parliament for Kota Bharu from 2004 to 2008.

The meeting had been organised by The Round Table and Commonwealth Journalists Association as an opportunity for Zaid to speak about recent and concerning developments in Malaysia, to which the West appears all but blind. This includes attempts to curtail freedom of speech, rising Islamism and a court ruling that has, in effect, banned non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ when referring to God.

One of the main problems is the implementation of a dual legal system. “The split of the court system into civil and Sharia, running parallel, is unprecedented. This has caused grave injustice in certain cases and made enforcement of court orders problematic for the police when there are conflicting court orders,” says Zaid. “You can’t have one set of rules for some people and another for another.” For example, in 2014 there was a custody dispute between a Hindu mother and a recently converted Muslim father. The mother was granted custody of both of their children by the Seremban High Court, while the father was similarly given custody by the Sharia Court, since he had converted the young children to Islam without the mother’s consent or knowledge the previous year. In this instance, the High Court overruled the Sharia Court and the children were placed in the mother’s custody. But when the father then proceeded to abduct his son, police refused to help, citing the Sharia custody ruling.

But even this is a symptom of a graver issue. “For the first time in our history, we have a Prime Minister and Home Minister who have publicly declared, many times over, that the Malays and Islam are under threat,” Zaid writes on his blog. “The threats are from within, of course; where else could they be? So the PM and his Home Minister are referring to non-Malays and non-Muslims as enemies of Islam and the Malays. In this environment, it’s better not to be too expressive.”

During the opening of the 57th national-level Quran Recital Assembly in Kuantan, May 2014, according to The Malay Mail, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak condemned humanism, secularism, liberalism and human rights as being threats to Islam. “They call it human rightism, where the core beliefs are based on humanism and secularism as well as liberalism,” said Najib. “It’s deviationist in that it glorifies the desires of man alone and rejects any value system that encompasses religious norms and etiquettes. They do this on the premise of championing human rights.”

Najib went on to say that the attempt to spread this “deviant” thinking is the most dangerous threat to the Islamic faith. “We will not tolerate any demands or right to apostasy by Muslims, or deny Muslims their right to be governed by Sharia Courts and neither will we allow Muslims to engage in LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] activities.”

Malaysia is among the strictest countries when it comes to media censorship, with many film scenes cut and around 100 films banned since 2003 on the pretext of upholding morality. Mainstream media is strictly regulated by the ruling coalition, the majority of which is controlled by the Malay party. In 2007 authorities banned the Malay-language section of Catholic newspaper The Herald due to its use of the word “Allah” – a term for “God” that had been used by Christians in Malaysia for hundreds of years. It was claimed that the use of the word would confuse Malay Muslims away from Islam. While the internet remains relatively free, some political sites were censored in 2014 and social media isn’t recognised.

“There are constant issues of sedition – there is always someone being charged for voicing their opinion,” says Zaid. “[In August] the Minister of Communication said ‘ban Facebook’ – I don’t think he was joking.”

And this curtailing of freedom doesn’t end with the media. While the Malaysian constitution provides for freedom of religion, the US Department of State 2006 Report on International Religious Freedom states: “In practice Muslims are not permitted to convert to another religion. In several recent rulings, secular courts ceded jurisdiction to Sharia courts in matters involving conversion to or from Islam… In practice Sharia courts routinely denied such requests.”

Although Islam is recognised as the country’s official religion, the practice of non-Sunni Islamic beliefs is significantly restricted, with those deviating from accepted Sunni beliefs frequently subjected to rehabilitation. Some high-profile incidents of people attempting to convert from the Islamic faith have made it into Western media. One such case was that of Revathi Massosai, a woman who was raised as a Hindu but whose identity card designated her as a Muslim from birth. Having unsuccessfully petitioned to have the ‘Islam’ label removed from her identity card, Massosai went on to marry a Hindu man in a cross-faith marriage, which is not recognised by the government as it is illegal in Malaysia for a Muslim person to marry someone outside of his or her faith. She was incarcerated as a result.

Leader of opposition party the Democratic Action Party Lim Kit Siang wrote about the trial on his blog: “[Sharia] High Court judge Radzi said Islam is not only between man and Allah but is also the responsibility between the community and country, and to come out of it is ‘treason’.”

Taken to an Islamic rehabilitation centre, officials tried to force her to pray as a Muslim, wear a headscarf and eat beef, Massosai told the BBC. She was denied guardianship of her baby, forbidden from meeting with her husband and eventually released into the custody of her parents – despite being 29 years old.

Similarly, Lina Joy converted from Islam to Christianity, arguing that it came under her right to freedom of religion under Article 11 of the Constitution of Malaysia. She first attempted to renounce Islam and get her identity card changed in 1997. After being refused, Joy challenged the decision in the High Court. In 2001 it was ruled that she could not convert to Christianity as ethnic Malays are defined as Muslims under the Constitution. In 2005 the Court of Appeal ruled against Joy, saying that the Sharia Court had to settle the issue; in 2007 the Federal Court also dismissed the appeal.

The proselytising of Muslims by members of other religions is prohibited in ten of the 13 Malaysian states, where it is punishable by imprisonment and whipping, or rotan. As such, it is common practice for religious groups to put a disclaimer on their literature – “for non-Muslims only”. The Malaysian government is obviously working very hard to maintain a majority-Muslim population and there has been much debate as to whether Malaysia is technically a secular state, or whether it is, in fact, an Islamic state. To many people, whether or not Malaysia is an Islamic state, membership of a religion should be based on a person’s faith and devotion. Why, then, would a government make it so difficult for people to convert out of Islam, labelling this ‘treason’ and necessitating endless bureaucratic hurdles? Why would it censor and punish those who might convert Muslim people to another faith, or be afraid that followers could be easily ‘tricked’ away from Islam through simple linguistics? Why, unless the government is using the faith of the people to manipulate them?

Ultimately, these problems stem from those running the country using ethnic and religious differences to play Malaysia’s ethnic communities against one another in order to maintain control – and, unfortunately, the tension between Malaysia’s communities has been growing for some time.

Following independence in 1957, Malaysia’s population consisted predominantly of Malays, with Chinese people making up around 35 per cent and Indians ten per cent. There was disparity of economic power and educational attainment among the ethnic communities. Even following the expulsion of Singapore in 1965, the Chinese community achieved better results in education and this helped it to maintain an economic advantage. Malay political movements emerged around this issue and were contested within the UMNO–MCA coalition government, with UMNO leaders determined to level the playing field.

In 1961 the new Education Act made Malay and English the only teaching languages in secondary schools, with state-run primary schools only allowed to teach in Malay and Malay schools heavily subsidised. Chinese and Indian communities were allowed to maintain Chinese- and Tamil-language primary schools, although it was still compulsory for pupils to learn Malay and work from an established Malayan curriculum. Further to this, the entry exam into the University of Malaya was to be conducted exclusively in Malay, despite most of its subjects being taught in English. As a result of these changes, many non-Malay students fell behind or were excluded from ongoing education.

“Allowing religious institutions to dictate what education, what upbringing people receive will lead to militancy,” Zaid says.

The various national plans similarly favoured Bumiputera, or indigenous Malays, by concentrating resources on creating developments for the rural Malay community, agencies to aid Malay smallholders, incentives and low-interest loans to help Malays set up businesses, and so on.

These changes did work to reduce the gap between Malay and non-Malay standards of living, but they also bred resentment – something that the government has since been keen to exploit.

“The result is that the public is now more polarised than ever before. When Malays became more ‘Islamic’ and government institutions, such as schools and the civil service, ceased to be ‘national’ in character, the non-Malays started moving into their own spheres. Vernacular schools are now the choice of the Chinese, and wealthy Malaysians send their children to private schools and colleges. In politics the non-Malays, non-Muslims and Christians tend to vote for the opposition rather than the ruling Barisan Nasional.

“When non-Muslims gravitate to the opposition, it exacerbates the tension further. That’s when you hear that Islam, the Malays and Malay institutions like the Sultans are under threat. As the country embraces more Islamic precepts, then naturally fundamental rights and liberties suffer. The issue of freedom of religion has divided the people, especially in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, where Christians see themselves as victims of the Islamisation push,” Zaid says. “If you want to appeal to the population, you use religious issues.”

After the Iranian revolution of 1979, many Muslim countries saw a rise in political Islam – and Malaysia was no different. Malay and Muslim parties began to march for Islam in their search for votes. Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, Dr Mahathir, is an ultra-Malay nationalist who heightened Islamic bureaucracy in all spheres of government and declared Malaysia an Islamic state in order to cement the Malay parties’ grip on power. According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census, 61.3 per cent of Malaysia’s people practise Islam.

“The argument that the government uses is that Islam comes first: it is more important than human rights, democracy – everything else. Every mosque in Malaysia tells people to reject democracy and this message is from the government.

“It’s convenient for an authoritarian regime to use Islam as the weapon to control the largely Muslim population. Only when Muslims themselves are ready to depart from the politics of Islamic parties and willing to believe that the sanctity of religion does not depend on politics will we see a more liberal democracy back in Malaysia,” says Zaid. “The government is unwilling to deal with a difficult issue because they want to keep power. And it is a failure of the elite that no one speaks out.

About the author:

Kate Bystrova is the features editor at Global - the International Briefing


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