US Report: Religious intolerance rising in Malaysia
The United States has expressed concern over growing religious intolerance in Malaysia as Islamic sects are being persecuted in public and in secret, along with abstruse laws aimed at blocking those wishing to leave Islam.
In the recently released ‘International Religious Freedom Report 2013’ the US noted that observers continued to express concern that “the secular civil and criminal court system had ceded jurisdictional control to syariah courts, particularly in areas of family law involving disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims.”
The report also raised alarm that the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), under the Prime Minister’s purview, now had full power to determine what was proper Islamic teaching and hammer away at those who did not agree.
“The government reportedly has a secret list of “sects” banned as “deviant” interpretations of Islam which included over 50 groups,” the report, submitted to the US Congress, said.
It notes that among those publicly banned were Shia, Ahmadiyah and Al Arqam believers. “Members of banned groups may not speak freely about their religious beliefs. The government may detain Muslims who deviate from accepted Sunni principles and subject them to mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices,” the report noted.
The report singled out Prime Minister’s Department Minister Jamil Khir Baharom (left), Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir as among government leaders who publicly backed and carried out the government’s policy to weed out Shia and Al Arqam followers in the country.
It added that these forced “rehabilitation programmes” could last up to six months.
The US also expressed concern that Islam was a one-way street in Malaysia. “The law strictly forbids proselytising of Muslims by non-Muslims, but allows and supports Muslims proselytising others.Neither the right to leave Islam nor the legal process of conversion is clearly defined in law,” it said.
This has led to the Syariah court having an bigger say on child custody issues when parents of mixed-faith divorce.
The US report noted that the case of M. Indira Gandhi, dating from 2009, remains unresolved. In another case, Siti Hasnah Vangarama Abdullah faced much difficulty in getting the courts to hear her case, challenging the validity of her conversion to Islam when she was seven years old.
“At year’s end, the police had taken no action to return the youngest child to Gandhi, and the case was ongoing,” the report stated.
“Religious NGOs contended that syariah courts did not give equal weight to the testimony of women. Several NGOs dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights continued to state that women did not receive fair treatment from syariah courts, primarily in matters of divorce, child custody, and enforcement of alimony payments,” it said.
The report also noted that there were stringent laws restricting the use of certain words exclusively to Muslims, including the controversial court case over use of “Allah” by Catholic publication, the Herald. Other restricted words included ‘baitullah’ (house of God), ‘Kaabah’ (location toward which Muslims pray) and ‘salat’ (prayer).
Meanwhile, under a section on “Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom” the US report singled out Malay rights NGO Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali as an unpunished violator.
“In January, Ibrahim Ali (right), President of the Muslim NGO Perkasa, called for bibles to be burnt… In response to his statement, lawyers and human rights activists called for action to be taken against Ibrahim Ali for inciting religious disharmony, hatred, disunity, and discomfort, which is punishable by law. The Attorney General’s Chambers noted that they would only take action against Ibrahim Ali if the bibles were actually burnt,” the report said.
Other incidences of religious bigotry in Malaysia cited in the 13-page report included:
- The use of Registrar of Societies (under Home Ministry) to arbitrarily determine whether a religious group may be registered and thereby qualify for government grants and other benefits. It noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) were registered businesses in Malaysia.
- State laws in in Kelantan and Terengganu making apostasy, defined as conversion from Islam to another faith, a capital offense. However it notes this law has yet to be implemented.
- Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Local churches and temple groups unsuccessfully urged the government to include the option for non-Muslim religion classes to be held during the school day.
- State governments have exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship, as well as land allocation for all cemeteries.
- On October 24, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission questioned two radio producers after they conducted an interview with American religious scholar Dr. Reza Aslan, who criticized the Malaysian government over the ban of the use of word “Allah” by non-Muslims.
- In August the Sultan of Johor, the highest Islamic authority in the state, called for a Muslim prayer hall at a privately-owned resort to be demolished after a group of Buddhists used the hall for religious meditation.
- According to the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Taoists (MCCBCHST), the government continued its practice of restricting visas for foreign Muslim and non-Muslim clergy under the age of 40 as a means of preventing “militant clergy” from entering the country.
- The government continued to require, but did not strictly enforce, all Muslim civil servants to attend approved religion classes, and several government agencies pressured non-Muslim women to wear headscarves while attending official functions.
- Kelantan’s restrictive laws prohibiting traditional performances such as Mak Yong and Wayang Kulit and overzealous enforcement on conservative women dressing codes and crackdown on hair salon publicity posters which displayed hair.
The report ended with a positive note: “Unlike previous years, there were no reports of public anti-Semitic statements made by government representatives.”
Released on July 28 to mark International Religious Freedom Day, US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) stressed that “nations that protect this fundamental freedom will have the partnership of the United States and the abiding commitment of the American people as we seek to advance freedom of religion worldwide.”
Kerry also announced the following countries as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan has been designated a CPC for the first time this year.The reports, now in their 16th edition, are available on State.gov and HumanRights.gov.
Read the full report on Malaysia here.