Malaysia: A sacred right to believe

By Syahredzan Johan

TO many, religion is something that is close to their hearts. Religion is not something that cannot be compromised, no matter what the circumstances. Some choose to value their faith even higher than they value their own lives.

When there is religion, there is also the possibility of religious persecution and discrimination. The history of mankind is replete with examples of how believers have been denied, many times violently, their freedom of religion. It is still happening in many parts of the world today.

Freedom of religion is a basic human right. This is to protect governments from denying adherents of faith, any faith, from practising and professing their faith. A Muslim Sunni in Iran has this right. A Hindu Sri Lankan has this right. A Christian in India has this right. It is the right of every believer and must be protected and observed by the government of every country and nation.

When France made it a requirement that Sikh men take off their turban on official photographs, it was a violation of their freedom of religion. Similarly, when the same country banned the burqa it was also a violation of the rights of Muslim women in France who chose to veil themselves.

Unfortunately, far too many governments of the world have been guilty of violating this right to freedom of religion. Even in developed countries and mature democracies like France, we see violations of this freedom.

In Malaysia, human rights principles are enshrined in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. Part II of the Federal Constitution protects the fundamental liberties of the people. Freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, right to life and liberty and right to own property, amongst others, are protected by the Federal Constitution.

These fundamental liberties form one of the basic structures of our Constitution and the constitutional provisions must not be removed even by amending the Constitution itself.

Freedom of religion is also protected. Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution provides that Islam is the religion of the Federation but all other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.

Islam’s special position in the Constitution does not mean that the rights of other believers may be denied because of it. This is the mistake that many make when interpreting Article 3(1). It was never intended to be used a license to deny the religious rights of other believers.

Article 11(1) then provides that every person in Malaysia has the right to profess and practice his or her own religion. This right to profess and practice one’s faith cannot be restricted or denied by any person or body for any reason at all. However, if the practice of the faith offends any general law relating to public order, public health and morality, the Constitution provides that one cannot rely on Article 11 to justify the offence.

This is important to remember. It effectively means that no government in Malaysia can restrict the profession and practice of faith by a believer. No government can deny this right on the basis that the profession or practice offends the majority, cause confusion or for any other reasons.

In this country, ‘human rights’ has been stigmatised either intentionally or through ignorance. Human rights have been portrayed as a ‘Western concept’ that cannot fit squarely into our religious, cultural and societal norms. So it has been far too easy for human rights such as freedom of religion to be dismissed as a ‘human rights concept’. But freedom of religion is also a constitutional right.

A government cannot on one hand uphold a constitutional provision that allows certain discriminatory practices but at the same time disregard constitutional provisions on fundamental liberties. A government does not have that luxury.

When religious rights are denied, arguments have been made that this is a democracy and therefore the majority can decide for the minority. But this is a flawed understanding of what a democracy entails. Yes, a political party would be able to form a government if it obtains the majority of seats in the legislature. But that is as far as it goes.

Democracy is not rule by majority. Democracy does not mean that the majority can dictate what rights others may practice. Fundamental liberties are guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, not at the pleasure of certain groups of people.

There is a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion in this country which must be upheld and protected. This is a sacred right to believe and to practice that belief, hallowed by the highest law of the land.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.