MUSLIMS constitute the majority of the Malaysian population and the country’s top leadership. Still, just how safe is it to be a Muslim in Malaysia? And can Muslims trust that their rights will be protected and upheld by a public administration that increasingly says it wants to uphold Islamic values and teachings?
The evidence is, it really doesn’t pay to be Muslim in Malaysia, not if the actions by state administrations are anything to go by. Worse, it’s not just state administrations – whether led by Umno or PAS – that make life unduly difficult for Muslims. Other Muslims, who take their cue from what the state allows them to get away with, also make being a Muslim in Malaysia a challenge.
How do we know this? Well, if you’re Muslim, you’re apparently not allowed to read widely, think and form your own opinions about how to live your faith. You’re not allowed, for example, to read Irshad Manji’s book, which was banned after it was translated into Malay.
And if you happen to be the publisher of the translated version and you’re Muslim, then you can expect religious authorities to raid your office and arrest you, even though there’s doubt about the constitutionality of these actions. And even if you’re not an employee of the publisher, and just so happen to be a Muslim sharing the same office space, the religious authorities can still call you in for questioning.
This is exactly what happened to the Muslims who co-rented ZI Publications’s office even though they had nothing to do with Manji’s translated book and informed the authorities so. Not only that, these Muslims were also compelled to go for Islamic counselling. Why? Because the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) decided it was empowered to treat all Muslims at the ZI Publications office as wayward Muslims who needed to be reformed or punished.
And in a disconcerting case of the religious authority’s abuse of power, if you’re Muslim like Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz, the Federal Territories’s Islamic Department (Jawi) can arrest and prosecute you for selling a book, that had not yet been banned, at your place of employment. Nik Raina has said this is the “most challenging time” of her life. That’s understandable. She had not broken any laws and was merely performing work she was hired for. Yet, because she’s Muslim, the authorities can arrest her, treat her roughly, deny her legal representation, and then have her charged in the syariah court.
Indeed, Nik Raina’s employer, the book chain Borders, has stated that if this is the way Muslims are going to be treated, companies may start reconsidering the hiring of Muslims. So, as a Muslim in Malaysia, your chances of private sector employment may also be threatened by state religious authorities’ actions.
Thinking among Muslims is especially frowned upon if it’s about Muslim women’s rights. That can be the only explanation why Sisters In Islam’s book, Muslim Women and the Challenges of Islamic Extremism, was banned four years ago. And even when the High Court rules the Home Ministry’s ban as unlawful, the Umno-led Barisan Nasional administration has no qualms appealing the decision. That speaks volumes, doesn’t it, about how the state thinks Muslims should be treated?
For certain, these two books are not the only ones that have been banned. There have been others, such as Kassim Ahmad’s book on the hadith, which Jakim has now been told to review. And John Esposito and Karen Armstrong’s books about Islam. And there will likely be many more banned books for Muslims, and by extension non-Muslims, in Malaysia.
If you’re Muslim in Malaysia, you will also not be allowed to show dissent against those in power, at least according to the National Fatwa Council. The council issued a fatwa that declared it haram to participate in gatherings that were unproductive, illegal or could cause chaos, citing Bersih 3.0. This is despite the fact that the right to peaceful expression and assembly is a guaranteed civil liberty under both the United Nations and our federal constitution.
It’s tough being a Muslim in Malaysia because the fact is, going against a gazetted fatwa is a criminal offence even though a fatwa is merely an opinion in Islamic tradition. What that means for Muslims in Malaysia is, if you exercised your democratic right to assemble and protest peacefully, the religious authorities can come after you.
And lest we think it’s just an Umno-led government that is responsible for denying Muslims the right to dissent, PAS is not very different. The PAS-led Kedah government, for example, passed an enactment that said no fatwa in the state could be challenged, despite such a move being unconstitutional and ultra vires of its powers.
Most troubling of all, if you’re Muslim in Malaysia, don’t expect any compassion. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself has purportedly announced that his administration will protect the sanctity of Islam. How? By singling out lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBTs) as threatening faith and morality in Malaysia.
As if the prosecution of this minority group isn’t already violent enough, Muslim LGBTs can now expect continued or further persecution and victimisation for merely being who and what they are. Imagine if women were still being victimised and villified by the state merely for being different from men, or blacks for being different from whites. And yet the principle involved in the victimisation of LGBTs is the same. And it’s being done in the name of Islam. So, if you’re Muslim and a member of the LGBT community, watch out.
The administration is also not averse to disadvantaging innocent Muslim children. Muslims who are born less than six months after their parents’ marriage are not allowed to carry their father’s name, making them illegitimate and denying them their rights. All this because of a 1971 fatwa. Better it would seem to be born a non-Muslim in Malaysia.
No personal liberties
And if you’re Muslim in Malaysia, you can forget about your personal liberties of enjoying a concert, doing yoga or poco-poco as exercise, or shaving your head. And if you drink alcohol, even if your drinking harms only your own liver, you can be whipped. If you’re dating, your room can be raided and you can be arrested and charged for khalwat even if you’re a consenting adult. And oh, unlike other Malaysians, you will not be allowed to choose your faith because in Malaysia being a Muslim is like being in Hotel California. And of course, there’s ever the threat of hudud.
For certain, it’s not Islam that is the problem. A look at the life of Sophia Loren will demonstrate what a Catholic state is equally capable of. Indeed, any religion, when practised conservatively and when allowed to inform and direct public policy and governance, is problematic. Theocracies are essentially undemocratic because divine law and/or God cannot be challenged. In Malaysia, even if we are constitutionally a secular state, great strides are being made to make us into an Islamic state.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the Muslims who are being unjustly persecuted and punished by the state just because in this country, the state can.
Editor’s note: ZI Publications is the publisher of The Nut Graph’s books, Found in Malaysia and Found in Malaysia Volume 2. ZI Publications also published The Nut Graph’s Understanding the Dewan Rakyat.
At one point in her life, Jacqueline Ann Surin considered embracing Islam and was exhorted by her Malaysian Muslim friends not to. She is alarmed at the targeted persecution of Muslims in Malaysia by the state and its agencies in the name of Islam.