According to a recent religious research study conducted by the Pew Research Forum in the US, Malaysia ranks fifth amongst the 198 nations for restricting religion. The Malaysian Government is not letting up and is trying to study and implement some sort of procedures to deal with cases on apostasy. A Muslim may see this as responsible, progressive and civilize but a non-Muslim may deem this as interference and regressive into someone’s faith and beliefs.
Under the Federal Constitution, Malaysia is an Islamic country. However, the Constitution does allow various other faiths to be celebrated by various ethnic groups. Malays and Muslim ‘Bumiputeras’ are Muslims by birth and they cannot change their faith willingly. Changing or abandoning their faith is considered apostasy. Under the Sha’ria Criminal Laws, apostasy is punishable by a fine, a term of imprisonment and/or in some states corporal punishments. Apostasy is as such a serious Islamic criminal offense.
So why is apostasy a treachery and treated as a serious offense in Islam in Malaysia? I opined that there are two different schools of thought in Malaysia. However, before I muddled myself into the complexities of apostasy, let me examine the intricacies of identity and patriotism and how they affect the faith.
Like all ethnic groups, there are Malays who are educated in the urban areas and Malays educated in the rural areas.
The ones educated in the urban areas are mentally challenged by different ethnic dispositions, open to modern concepts and recent ideals. Malay children have access to different media contents which motivate their ideals. Their aspirations are unlimited and they have many options. They are not ignorant and most like all other (ethnic groups) view religion as mere guidance and family upbringing. When they reach their teens and adolescence, their priorities begin to materialise. Religion is about spirituality, festivities and honour. They need “wants” to impress peers, loved ones and colleagues. Many young and urban Malays prefer to have a lifestyle like those of their other ethnic groups and as such they prefer a moderate form Islam where practices are deemed liberal and understanding. As some become frustrated with Islamic reforms, some Malays who can afford migrate.
The rural children began most of their basic education via some kind of religious background. As such, they are well verse with religious interpretations and most probably can recite the Koran by-hard at a tender age. Rules, regulations and etiquette and Malay traditional cultural traditions go well together. As such the identity is protected and real. They are proud of the identity. But employment in the sub-urban areas, villages or kampongs are limited; (employment) migration to the cities takes place. In the cities, they try to stay conservative, but they are also bombarded by media and have access to various urban materialisms and needs. Religion by then seems distant. Some quickly enfold into modern urbanites; many try to stay true to their traditions and assimilate as urbanites.
The modern urban Malay wants more global challenges and be able to prescribe and pronounce Malaysia on the map. Malaysia has been largely unable to sell itself as one of the more vibrant South East Asia locality but when Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammed became Prime Minister he encouraged Malaysians to be entrepreneurial and industrious. He knew (then in the early 80s) wanting a ‘Malay’ brand was a challenge. In order to inculcate discipline and patriotism, he tightened Islamic religious laws and encouraged young Muslims to embrace Science and Mathematics. He encouraged the setting up of the many Islamic religious institutions, NGOs and regulatory boards and suppressed religious dissent. During the 80s and 90s there were an over demand of religious teachers, leaders and scholars. Tun Dr. Mahathir wanted Islamic clergies to rally Muslims, abide their faiths and concoct faith-based entrepreneurship. Successful Muslim entrepreneurs were asked to lead by example and were given altruistic positions as an example of Islamic leadership and patriotism.
Such images are Islamic triumphs in Malaysia. Many successful Malay entrepreneurs become party members in Barisan Nasional (National Front) as well in the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Coalition). These parties are all icons of Islam albeit that many in Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) respect freedom of religion. Many party members are also nationalists. As such, they will use Islam to rally support for patriotism amongst Malays. To alienate Islam is to alienate their party membership, community and tradition. As such, Islam is an interned automation of belief. Simply put it, turning the back on Islam is a threat to national security of the country. Those recognised threats are identity, prosperity and power. In fact some Muslims view this as offensive to their Islamic belief because they do not want the religion to align with politics and power.
As a result of such religious corruption, some Muslims have form new Islamic sects to counter the truths and lies of their brethren. Some sects have turned their backs on Malaysia’s brand of Sunni Islam and become extreme. A government banned sect like Al Maimunah is considered extreme, fundamentalist and a terrorist organization.
When Tun Dr. Mahathir’s reign came to an end, Malaysia underwent rapid changes in the expression of individual rights. Many Malay nationalists are frightened of these changes because they know that many urban Malays have better insights and are not easily outwitted by the prospects of the past. These Malays advocate for fairness and freedom of expression. The nationalists no longer have a firebrand that speaks for their cause and they also do not want to see Islam diluted unnecessarily. As a matter of fact, the most prominent firebrand now is in the hands of the opposition.
When the Ayah Pin, Lina Joy, issues in family law, divorce proceedings and the many religious complexities and conflicts surfaced, the previous Tun Abdullah Badawi and the current Tan Sri Najib Razak’s administration wanted a more responsible moderate form of Islam. The challenge now is on Tan Sri Najib’s Administration. His administration must provide ways to properly resolve Muslims renouncing (their faiths) via the Sha’ria Criminal Codes without any issues. Only Negeri Sembilan has such Islamic due diligence.* But it has yet to be tested publicly or perhaps there have been renouncement (by Muslims) and the State Government had done it in a quiet manner to defer from public scrutiny. The Government’s view is only to sieve out those who diluted their faiths and no longer actively involved in the faith. But the question here is should we police every Muslim leaving his or her faith and those who did it improperly? The Mufti of Perlis, Dr. Mohamed Asri B Zainal Abidin, opined that apostates should be let go because policing and prosecution can make apostates go underground and they will just hide their beliefs to avoid prosecution. Prosecution here only achieves negativity and the Government should not waste resources.
Let’s examine whether it’s logical to prescribe punishment for apostasy. According to Syed Akbar Ali, the Quran does not address any punishment for apostasy. Leaving and returning to the faith is the responsibility of the believer. Ultimately, God is his or her redeemer. Syed Akbar went on to clarify that the Quran is fairer in its understanding and did not want to advocate any sort of prosecution and punishment for apostasy. The Bible, as he acknowledged was not so forgiving and the Bible prescribed the death penalty for those who leave Christianity. The challenge that eventually Christians leaving the faith was no longer an issue because the Church wanted a more compassionate understanding of its practices and a congregation that is responsible for their faith and not just using faith for their benefit. Even though the Bible remains intact over the centuries, Christian clergies have reform religious practices to suit day to day practices and demands. It cannot remain archaic; otherwise, there will not be many believers left.
Before ending this article, I just want to share an experience I had when I was a student in Michigan, USA in the 80s.
As a Christian and Roman Catholic looking from the outside and into the Islamic faith is interesting because many Christians like me have strayed many times. As a matter of fact the many times I strayed were the fact that perhaps I have misgivings about myself and the Church community I am with. There’s one time in the in Michigan, US, I strayed and thought best to seek a religious clergy and nothing to do with Christianity. I thought interesting to seek out an Islamic clergy and I met an Imam at the Dearborn Mosque (Masjid Dearborn) and wanting to perhaps become a Muslim. The Imam, an elderly man about 75 years old peered at me through his bifocals in a reluctant manner. Then he removed his bifocals and said “young man where are you from? And then he continued with a short sigh and said, “you should not abandon your faith. Faith is not apparel like changing clothes, as and when you like and when you see fit. If there are problems for you in your faith community, resolve them and if you cannot resolve them then change a church but do not abandon your good ‘ol faith. God does not like it.” He then went on to say that if I changed my faith I have to be even more committed in another faith otherwise every faith is just a watershed. Freedom of religion does not allow one to shop for faiths.
I was flabbergasted and at the same time disappointed by such intelligible understanding of theological wisdom. For me, he reflected to me as someone who offers me hope in my faith and did not condemn my misunderstanding or problems in leaving my faith. As a matter of fact, he was happier of receiving me as an Islamic believer “if I knew what I was doing.” But this wise old man provided wisdom to my problems. I concluded that a believer whether a Ba’hai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Taoists, or even an Atheist must believe in himself and what he or she wants before the Almighty can restore faith in his or her belief. As such religious policing and prosecution is futile.
* ENAKMEN PENTADBIRAN AGAMA ISLAM (NEGERI SEMBILAN) 2003, BAHAGIAN XI – AM
Seksyen 119 Keluar daripada Agama Islam
(1) Seseorang Islam tidak boleh keluar daripada Agama Islam atau disifatkan telah meninggalkan Agama Islam sebagai agamanya melainkan jika dan sehingga dia telah memperoleh suatu perisytiharan bagi maksud itu daripada Mahkamah Tinggi Syariah.
(2) Suatu permohonan bagi perisytiharan di bawah subseksyen (1) hendaklah dibuat secara ex parte kepada Hakim Mahkamah Tinggi Syariah dalam mahkamah terbuka oleh orang yang berhasrat untuk meninggalkan Agama Islam sebagai agamanya.
(3) Suatu permohonan di bawah subseksyen (2) hendaklah menyatakan alasan-alasan yang berdasarkannya pemohon berhasrat untuk meninggalkan Agama Islam sebagai agamanya dan hendaklah disokong oleh suatu afidavit yang menyatakan semua fakta yang menyokong alasan permohonan itu.
(4) Setelah diterima permohonan di bawah subseksyen (2), Hakim Mahkamah Tinggi Syariah yang mendengar permohonan tersebut hendaklah—
(a) menasihati orang itu supaya bertaubat, dan jika Hakim berpuas hati orang itu telah bertaubat mengikut Hukum Syarak, hendak merekodkan taubat orang itu; atau
(b) jika orang itu enggan bertaubat, sebelum membuat apa-apa perintah terhadap orang itu, menangguhkan pendengaran permohonan itu untuk tempoh 90 hari dan pada masa yang sama menghendaki pemohon untuk menjalani sesi runding cara dan bimbingan bagi maksud menasihati pemohon untuk menimbang semula Agama Islam sebagai agamanya
(5) Jika pada bila-bila masa orang yang dikehendaki menjalani sesi runding cara dan bimbingan itu telah bertaubat, pegawai yang bertanggungjawab terhadapnya hendaklah menyediakan suatu laporan dengan secepat mungkin dan membawa orang itu ke hadapan Mahkamah Tinggi Syariah.
(6) Jika Hakim berpuas hati bahawa orang yang dikemukakan di hadapannya mengikut subseksyen (5) telah bertaubat mengikut Hukum Syarak, Hakim itu hendaklah merekodkan taubat orang itu.
(7) Jika setelah habis tempoh 90 hari yang disebut dalam perenggan (4)(b), orang itu masih enggan bertaubat, maka pegawai yang bertanggungjawab terhadapnya hendaklah menyediakan suatu laporan dengan secepat mungkin dan membawa orang itu ke hadapan Mahkamah Tinggi Syariah.
(8) Jika setelah diterima laporan yang disebut dalam subseksyen (7), Mahkamah berpendapat bahawa harapan masih ada untuk orang itu bertaubat, maka Mahkamah boleh menangguhkan pendengaran permohonan orang itu di bawah subseksyen (2) dan pada masa yang sama memerintahkan orang itu supaya menjalani sesi runding cara dan bimbingan yang selanjutnya selama tempoh yang tidak melebihi satu tahun.
(9) Jika selepas perintah di bawah subseksyen (8) dibuat, orang itu bertaubat, maka subseksyen (5) dan (6) terpakai.
(10) Jika setelah habis tempoh yang diperintahkan di bawah subseksyen (8) dan orang itu masih enggan bertaubat, pegawai yang bertanggungjawab terhadapnya hendaklah menyediakan suatu laporan dan membawa orang itu ke hadapan Mahkamah Tinggi Syariah dan Mahkamah boleh membuat keputusan untuk mengisytiharkan bahawa orang itu meninggalkan Agama Islam sebagai agamanya.
(11) Sebelum Mahkamah mengiytiharkan bahawa orang itu telah meninggalkan Agama Islam sebagai agamanya, Mahkamah hendaklah membuat perintah mengenai perkara yang berikut:
(a) pembubaran perkahwinan;
(b) pembahagian harta sepencarian;
(c) hak perwalian;
(d) hak pusaka; dan