Unequal treatment for non-Muslims, minorities, says US report

muslim-USCIRFKUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is prioritising the Malay Muslim identity, often to the disadvantage of religious and ethnic minorities, says the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2017 report.

Certain systems in place and trends in the country have tended to erode the notion of a secular state and the constitution as the supreme law in Malaysia, it says.

“The Malaysian government actively restricts freedom of expression and punishes those who criticise it, including online,” it says, adding that due to these and other restrictions and unfair actions, the USCIRF has again placed Malaysia on its Tier 2, where it has been since 2014.

USCIRF defines Tier 2 as nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious.

It says: “Majority Malay Muslims increasingly impose restrictive views and norms upon ethnic and religious minorities that not only impact these groups’ ability to practice their faith freely, but also constrain their everyday lives.”

It adds that religious and ethnic minorities have expressed growing concerns about the government’s pro-Malay Muslim policies and subsequent limitations on their right to practice their beliefs freely. These fears are heightened by reports of religious leaders being harassed or even kidnapped.

The report notes the abduction in February 2017 of Pastor Raymond Koh in Petaling Jaya, after he had been “harassed” by Islamic religious authorities on suspicion that he had converted Muslims to Christianity.

The Malaysian government, it says, continues to suppress individuals who seek to hold the government accountable, such as opposition parliamentarian Rafizi Ramli, anti-corruption activist Maria Chin Abdullah, and human rights advocate Lena Hendry.

Saying Malaysians are generally free to worship, it adds that minorities often experience discrimination related to their faith, and some have difficulties accessing religious materials, such as Bibles, and obtaining government permission to build houses of worship.

“The constitution defines ethnic Malays – the majority ethnic group – as Muslim, and in practice, the government only supports Sunni Islam. Over time, BN (the ruling Barisan Nasional) has implemented policies and practices that prefer or otherwise distinguish for special treatment ethnic Malay Muslims, specifically Sunni Muslims.

“Through the federal Department of Islamic Development Malaysia , the government funds most Sunni mosques and imams and provides talking points for sermons, which regularly vilify religious minorities, such as Shia Muslims.”

It says: “The dual system of civil and shariah courts as well as the layers of federal versus state laws, sultan-issued decrees, and fatwas (religious edicts), erode the notion of a secular state and the constitution as the supreme law in Malaysia. There are reports that proselytisation of Islam widely occurs in public schools, even Catholic schools. Muslims are allowed to proselytise to non-Muslims, but not vice versa.”

The report says Malaysian authorities regularly employ the “vaguely worded” Sedition Act as a means to suppress political and religious dissent and increasingly target individuals, including opposition politician N Surendren, human rights lawyer Eric Paulsen, academic Dr. Azmi Sharom, and cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, also known as Zunar, for expression online.

It also notes the longstanding case involving M Indira Gandhi, a Hindu whose ex-husband converted their three children to Islam without her knowledge.

“Although she was granted full custody of the children, her ex-husband, who goes by the Muslim name Muhammad Riduan Abdullah, disappeared with their youngest child approximately eight years ago, and Indira has not seen the child since, despite an earlier court order that her ex-husband return the child.

“In December 2015, the Court of Appeal set back her case in two ways: first, it overturned a High Court ruling that declared unilateral conversions to be unconstitutional; and second, it determined that shariah courts have sole jurisdiction in Islamic matters, thereby establishing a precedent to eliminate the role of civil courts in family cases in which at least one party is non-Muslim.

“In April 2016, a court order authorised her ex-husband’s arrest, and in May the Federal Court granted Indira the right to challenge her children’s unilateral conversions. In November 2016, the Federal Court held a hearing in the case, but by the end of the reporting period had issued no decisions. Authorities have failed to arrest her ex-husband, nor has he made any court appearances.”

The report also talks about the bill moved by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang to enhance shariah punishments and the fears this has evoked in non-Muslims; official action against minorities such as the Shia and Ahmadiyya groups; the ban on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims; and “forced” conversions in places such as Sarawak.

The USCIRF report offers recommendations for the US government on handling these issues. Among these are:

  • Ensure that human rights and freedom of religion or belief are pursued consistently and publicly at every level of the US-Malaysia relationship;
  • Press the Malaysian government to bring all laws and policies into conformity with international human rights standards, especially with respect to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religious expression, including the rights to use the word “Allah” and to possess religious materials;
  • Urge the Malaysian government to substantively amend or repeal the Sedition Act and cease the arrest, detention, and prosecution of individuals under the act;
  • Urge the Malaysian government to cease the arrest, detention, or forced “rehabilitation” of individuals involved in peaceful religious activity, such as members of Shia Muslim, Ahmadiyya, Baha’i, and Al-Arqam groups, among others, and to release unconditionally those detained or imprisoned for related charges;
  • Encourage the Malaysian government to establish or support independent institutions, such as the judiciary, office of the attorney general, and law enforcement, and to address the human rights shortcomings of the parallel civil-shariah justice systems, in order to guarantee that all Malaysians, regardless of ethnicity or religion, enjoy freedom of religion or belief.