The Religious Freedom Dilemma and the Journey Ahead for Malaysians

October 31, 2018

On October 16, Malaysian Member of Parliament, P. Kasthuriraani urged Malaysia to sign and ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. She made this call in her debate on the motion presented by Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah in the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia’s House of Representatives).

Kasthuriraani, a Catholic and second term member of Parliament, is an advocate for religious freedom and a member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

This step was significant since this is a first for any parliamentarian to go on-the-record to issue such a call in support of religious freedom. It comes on the heels of Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir’s address at the UN General Assembly in September where he said the new government pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights.

Ultra-conservative Muslims reacted almost immediately to Kasthuriraani’s support for religious freedom by lambasting speech in Parliament and alleged that the she encouraged apostasy and promoted the proselytization of Muslims. It was also said that she was harassed so intensely that a police report was filed.

The basis for the opposition to ratifying these UN agreements is that the conventions and treaties at the UN are humanistic and man-made. Such conventions and treaties are seen by some as sidelining the position of Islam in the country and serve as external pressures against our history and constitutional construct. This is in contrast to divinely ordained or divinely inspired laws which are deemed the best prescription and solution for human life and interest. These, they argue, should rightfully be given prominence over man-made laws from humanistic institutions like the UN.

There is deep-seated tension between religiously motivated groups and the new government’s attempt to accede to international norms and expectations.

Given that Malaysia is a Muslim-majority country, is ratifying the Declaration and implementing its provision in national legislations inconsistent with Islam?

Minister of Religion, Y.B. Dato’ Dr. Mujahid Bin Yusof has reminded Malaysians that Islam is rahmatan lil alamin (blessings to the universe and mankind). This promotes the concept that Islam is to be a blessing to others, this includes recognising and protecting the rights and freedoms of others to profess and practice their own religion or faith.

Seen in this light, there should not be any reason or hurdles established towards ratifying the Declaration and adopting its provisions in national laws and policies.

The reality on the ground is different, however. The prevailing narrative of Islam in Malaysia evolved through decades-old politicization of religion and has portrayed the right to freedom of religion and belief as antithetical to Islam and its position as the favored religion.

Any attempts to introduce international norms and particularly support for freedom of religion or belief is viewed with suspicion, and may be seen as a challenge to Islam, as well as the protection of the Malay-Muslim way of life. Freedom of religion must, therefore, be qualified and applied in certain respects only.

With this tension deeply embedded within communal lines, what should be the way to move forward?

The urgent task is to promote the understanding that all human beings are dignified beings and they must be afforded the freedom to make decisions on religion or belief in accordance with his or her own thoughts, understanding, and conscience. There is to be no compulsion in matters of religion. Once that is established, the person must have the right to manifest that decision without fear of coercion or repercussions. There is to be no place for intolerance and discrimination. The state must ensure it cannot impose restrictions that could nullify the enjoyment of such rights and freedoms; notwithstanding, history, and cultural norms.

Admittedly, this is a most difficult task. It remains an uphill journey for Malaysians who aspire for the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief. But it is a journey that must necessarily be undertaken if we truly value and care for the social cohesion and harmony of all people, groups, and religious communities in Malaysia.

In the face of Malaysia’s multi-cultural and multi-religious setting, the force of the Declaration when accorded legal standing within national legislation could go the distance to allay the fears of all religious communities, and to ensure the free practice of all religion by all people in accordance with our Constitution. For non-Malaysians, it is incumbent that they send a message to our new government and members of Parliament that Malaysia is no more exceptional than other nation-states. It is true to say that in this globalized era, every nation-state possesses its own unique cultural heritage and historical setting. But it is equally true to say that human beings across every culture, time, and history are dignified persons deserving the right and freedom to perceive and conceive of his or her own understanding and appreciation of divine limits and transcendental realities.

Eugene Yapp is the Director of RFL Partnership, an organization for the promotion of religious freedom for all people in Malaysia and a Senior Fellow of RFI’s South and South East Asia Action Team.