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Atheism is not unconstitutional, legal minds tell deputy minister

 | November 24, 2017

Freedom of religion includes freedom not to be part of any religion, and the state cannot compel every citizen to follow some religion, say an ex-judge and a lawyer.

Gopal-Sri-Ram-K-ShanmugaPETALING JAYA: The Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of religion which includes the right not to practice any religion, a retired judge and a lawyer said.

Former Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram and lawyer K Shanmuga, however, said an exception had been made for Muslims following a Federal Court ruling in 2007 that those who wanted to convert out of that religion must get a certificate from the Shariah Court first.

Sri Ram said Article 11 guaranteed freedom of religion, which included the right not to practice any religion.

“Therefore the state cannot compel every citizen to follow some religion, and such direction is unconstitutional,” he said.

For example, a non-Muslim can refuse to follow any religion because the constitution does not sanction compulsion of religion.

“It only guarantees freedom of religion. In law, with respect, the deputy minister is wrong.” he said.

He was responding to a statement by deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki who told the Dewan Rakyat yesterday that atheism had no place in Malaysia as it went against the constitution.

An atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of God.

“We must understand that in the Malaysian context, freedom of religion does not mean freedom from any religion,” Asyraf said in response to a question from Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud (Amanah-Kota Raja) on the government’s efforts to curb atheism among Malaysians.

He had also said those who tried to spread ideologies and doctrines that promoted atheism or other beliefs that could tarnish the sanctity of other religions, could be charged under the Sedition Act.

In August, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Shahidan Kassim warned of action against a group of Malaysians who were part of the group “Atheist Republic”.

Asyraf said attempts to block social media pages promoting atheism had been in vain, adding that Facebook had also refused to take down such pages despite a request from the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

He added that atheism was also against the principle of “Belief in God”, one of the five principles of the Rukun Negara.

Sri Ram said he considered Asyraf’s statement in the house as his personal opinion “which he is entitled to have and guaranteed to him under the constitution to freely express himself”.

Meanwhile, Shanmuga said all legal pronouncements in other Commonwealth jurisdictions, which had similar wordings as that of the Malaysian constitution, allowed citizens to enjoy freedom of religion and this included the right not to be associated with any particular group.

However, he said, the Federal Constitution restricted preaching to Muslims.

“The constitution allows the states in the federation to make laws on who could preach to a Muslim. But I don’t think the government can discriminate against someone just because he is an atheist,” he added.

He said Muslims could be penalised for believing in another religion or not having any religion.

“Our Federal Court in the case of Lina Joy has declared that Muslims must get a conversion out certificate from a Shariah Court to renounce Islam,” he said.

Shanmuga said constitutional and human rights lawyers were of the opinion that the decision in that case needed to be revisited as it was inconsistent with Article 11.

In that case Lina, a Muslim by birth, wanted to convert to Christianity to marry her boyfriend but the apex court, in a majority ruling, held that a baptism certificate was insufficient to proof that she was no longer a Muslim.


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