PETALING JAYA: Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (Centhra), a coalition of Islamic NGOs, claims that it is actually the Malay Muslims who suffer religious discrimination in the country, while the minorities are free to practice their religions.
In refuting the findings of a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Centhra chief executive officer Azril Mohd Amin said minorities in Malaysia do not suffer any religious discrimination.
“The reality is quite the opposite. The Malay majority suffers from discrimination on grounds of religious belief while the minorities are allowed free passes, even to the extent of breaking laws, on grounds of freedom of religion,” he claimed.
Centhra was responding to the USCIRF’s 2017 report which outlined some of the restrictions on religious freedom in the nation. Among other things, it said the Malaysian government actively restricted freedom of expression and punished those who criticised it, including online.
It also said Malaysia’s prioritisation of the Malay Muslim identity was often to the disadvantage of religious and ethnic minorities and that minorities often experienced discrimination related to their faith, including having difficulties accessing religious materials, such as Bibles, and obtaining government permission to build houses of worship.
Saying this was not true, Azril gave as examples Hindu temples being erected on state land without the government’s permission and churches violating planning laws by repurposing offices and commercial buildings as churches.
The lawyer said, in 2015 a shoplot in Taman Medan, Selangor, was converted into a church without the local authority’s permission. This, he said, had violated the Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974.
“Yet the Selangor state government, under which the local authority for Taman Medan is part of, refused to enforce the requirement for permission and continued to allow the church free rein to operate illegally.
“There are also various instances of local authorities being stopped from carrying out demolition of illegal religious structures, all in the name of religious freedom, without regard for other considerations such as building hazards or public safety requirements.
“As for difficulty in obtaining government permission to build houses of worship, this is simply untrue,” he asserted.
He claimed builders of non-Muslim houses of worship chose to do so illegally instead of applying to the local authority concerned, citing the desire to avoid costs and the bureaucracy involved in obtaining such permission.
On the other hand, he claimed, Muslims were being denied the right to perform mandatory Friday prayers by private companies but that the government was not taking action against them.
In April 2017, he said, two Muslim women were denied interviews with a hotel in Kuala Lumpur as they were wearing religious headgear.
“It is violating their religious freedom. But there is no restriction whatsoever on the ownership or even trade of non-Muslim religious materials. Bibles, for example, are sold openly in almost every general bookstore.”
Azril said government funding was by no means restricted to the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) or Islamic groups only, as funds were also allocated to other religious groups.
“Claims that Jakim or Islamic institutions vilify religious minorities are again simply untrue and not backed by any evidence whatsoever.
“On the other hand, members of religious minorities typically vilify the majority Muslims instead.”
He said the head of local NGO Lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, had claimed in a tweet not long ago that Jakim promoted extremism every Friday during its scripted sermons, disrupting religious harmony.
“The fact that there was no untoward incident arising out of this blatantly false, not to mention extremely rude, allegation speaks volumes of the restraint as well as tolerance for religious minorities in Malaysia.
“Meanwhile, Paulsen has been charged with sedition and has the right to defend himself before a court of law that accords with his constitutional and human rights.”
He said shariah courts had existed within the territories that presently make up Malaysia for centuries, ever since Islam first arrived here.
Azril said it was the civil court system, introduced by former colonial ruler Britain, that were a later addition to the indigenous legal system here.
The USCIRF report had said that 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), eroded the notion of a secular state and the constitution as the supreme law in Malaysia.
“The fact that both (laws) continue to exist in parallel again reflects the compromise reached by various ethnic and religious groups upon independence, and shariah courts are recognised within the existing constitutional framework.”
He also explained why Islam could be propagated to the non-Muslims but non-Muslims were not allowed to propagate their religions to Muslims.
“This is aimed at ensuring religious harmony and it was agreed upon by representatives of various ethnic and religious groups and signed off by former colonial ruler Britain during independence.
“What is clear, however, is more must be done for the religious liberty of the Malay Muslim majority, who have had their right to live their lives in accordance with Islamic injunctions unrecognised thus far,” Azril said.
Regarding the kidnapping of Raymond Koh in February, which was also mentioned in the USCIRF report, he said police were still investigating the incident.