Malaysia: Freedom of expression and religion, not Islam, under siege – Josef Roy Benedict

The recent ruling by the Court of Appeal on the Allah case seems to send a message that Islam is under siege in Malaysia and requires greater protection.

This is despite the fact that the judges clearly failed to provide any evidence for these assertions in their judgments.

In reality, however, it is freedom of expression and religion that is facing a clear threat from hardliners within the government as well from right wing organisations such as Perkasa.

The Allah case is just one out of numerous other cases over the last year where we have seen an overzealous regime and their religious apparatus clamp down on various forms of writings, religious beliefs and practices, in violation of their international human rights obligations.

Let me highlight just a few recent examples:

In August last year, a Malay Muslim manager at a Borders bookstore was charged with distributing the book, Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta, deemed offensive to Islam, even though she was not responsible for selecting the store’s inventory.

While a civil court, in March this year, pronounced the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department, the Home Minister and the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Islamic affairs guilty of abusing their powers to illegally prosecute the bookstore’s manager. But, she continues to face trial in the Syariah High Court.

There are also continued reports of Al-Arqam followers facing arrest and criminalisation for their beliefs.

In October last year, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) raided and arrested 20 individuals at a gathering to celebrate the birthday of the late founder of Al-Arqam.

In May this year, the police also arrested the wife Hatijah Aam, the widow of the founder of the Al-Arqam movement, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

They were reportedly assisting JAIS in arresting her.

Most recently we have also seen another wave of persecution against the Shia community in this country.

On July 19, the Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir announced that the Kedah government will gazette an anti-Shia fatwa to check the belief from spreading.

Other states have also been urged follow suit.

Last month, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Jamil Khir Baharom stated that enforcement authorities had detained 16 people and carried out 120 inspections in connection with those identified as linked to the dissemination of Shia teachings in the country.

Further materials belonging to Shia followers were seized and confiscated.

These cases clearly illustrate how the government, who is a member of UN Human Rights Council, continues to fail to uphold the right to freedom of religion and belief as well as expression which is guaranteed in Article 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet Malaysia has presented itself as a model moderate Muslim-majority country to the international community.

In its recent report to the UN Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of their human rights record the Malaysian government states that it “continues to uphold respect for different cultures, languages and religions of its people, focusing on the common values that bind its diverse population”.

“Indeed, such convergence of cultures has enriched the country in many ways and has over time led to acceptance and not mere tolerance of differences,” it said.

It is imperative that members of Human Rights Council see through this spin and take the Malaysian authorities to task for these and other violations that continue to occur.

States must stress the importance of freedom of religion and expression, and urge the Malaysian government to implement constitutional reforms and other measures to ensure that religious freedom is guaranteed to all its citizens.

If there continues to be a lack of justice for these violations in Malaysia, it will fuel further discrimination, intimidation and criminalisation of individuals and minority groups in the name of religion.