Let’s Talk About Religious Freedom
By Hisham Muhaimi
Kuala Lumpur, 7 January 2021 | Hisham Muhaimi is a member of KMU Malaysia. He has a background of Shariah and Law from Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia. As a YSEALI Alumni from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Hisham is passionate about civic engagement, youth advocacy, community building and interfaith experience.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic halted Malaysian’s daily life in 2020, The Rukun Negara or National Principles has been a norm for students in both primary and secondary public schools in Malaysia to recite the pledge during compulsory assembly on a weekly basis. It is usually followed immediately after the singing of the National Anthem of Malaysia (“Negaraku” song).
The Rukun Negara was instituted during 1970, a few months after the May 13 incident in 1969 and it was meant to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the Independence of Malaysia. It was introduced to foster better unity and one of the methods to overcome racial issues among different races in Malaysia.
The first principle, to “Belief In God” was a pledge affirming to be committed to a religion. Regarding this aspect, a lot of us Malaysians were still unfamiliar with the status of religious freedom in the Constitution of Malaysia nor the Constitution itself. What follows are an attempt to shed some light on some issues regarding religious freedom in Malaysia.
Religious Freedom in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia
Pretty much as the name suggests, when freedom of religion and belief is mentioned, the word that comes to mind is the right to act in accordance with conscientious beliefs, to worship (or not worship) freely, and to be able to enjoy life in society without discrimination on the basis of such beliefs. Like many other nations, freedom of religion is also recognized as one of the fundamental liberties or inalienable rights to be enjoyed by both citizens and non-citizens of Malaysia.
In general, various aspects of religious liberty are protected under Article 3, 8, 11 and 12 of the Constitution of Malaysia. Even during emergency, Article 150(6A) explicitly stated that Parliament is forbidden from encroaching on religious freedom.
Article 11(1) reads, “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and, subject to Clause (4) to propagate it”. The right to profess refers to beliefs and doctrines. The right to practice refers to exhibition to these beliefs through acts, practices, and rituals. Whereas the right to propagate refers to attempts at propagation or transmission of one’s beliefs to others in order to convert them. Here, the law distinguishes between inner beliefs and overt acts.
The right to beliefs and doctrines is generally regarded as absolute. On the other hand, practice and propagation are, however, allowed by Article 11(5) to be regulated on the ground of public order, public health, or morality. In practice, Article 11(4) allows for the limitation of proselytism as part of the right of a religious group to “manage its own affairs”, and the term “public order, public health or morality” in Article 11(5) is very broad.
In the case of Minister for Home Affairs and Another v Jamaluddin bin Othman, a man was detained under Section 8(1) of the Internal Security Act 1960 (repealed) for distributing information on Christianity to the Malay community and allegedly has converted 6 people to Christianity. It was argued by the prosecution that such detention is necessary since the actions committed by him were considered “prejudicial to the security of Malaysia” and thus could spark racial and religious tensions between Muslims and Christians in the country. In the end, the Court ruled that the man’s action did not amount to a security threat to Malaysia.
Freedom Not to Believe in Malaysia
Does the term ‘religion’ in the Constitution include non-theistic creeds such as atheism, agnosticism or free thought? Western theory and international norms support a broad view of “religion”. By definition, this means that the law guarantees freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. There are hundreds of faith traditions and people from the West are free to believe as they wish, including the freedom to not follow a spiritual path at all.
The notion that freedom to believe includes the freedom not to believe is not accepted in Malaysian society. The impact of local culture and beliefs are very considerable to the point they prevail over international norms. In a traditional society like Malaysia with a religion of the Federation and a Rukun Negara, which affirms a commitment to belief in God, atheistic practices may not receive much sympathy in the courts.
Additionally, it is worth noting that the protection offered to a person by Articles 11(2) and 12(3) is only against “religion other than his own”. Article 11(2) implies that we may be required to pay taxes to support our own religion. In relation to his own religion a person can be compelled to pay taxes and to receive religious instruction. Article 12(3) implies that a person can be required to receive instruction in or to take part in any ceremony or act of worship of his own religion.
These provisions definitely pose problems for the constitutional rights of non-believers, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.
Debates in Islam
Diversity and differences are divinely created, people need to understand and accept the beauty of creation. Today’s world is highly diverse and there is not a single country in the world which is homogenous or without diversity.
There are so many verses in the Quran pointing out the responsibility to honour this diversity. Among others; “O people, we created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another…” (Quran 49:13).
The verse shows that Muslim needs to honour diversity and promotes the essence of unity in Islam which translates into mutual cooperation and a sense of belonging. In addition to this, the notion is also rooted in the Quran in several verses – “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). “To you your religion and to me mine” (Quran 109:6).
Lessons learned from the Medina Charter
There are so many essential principles in a peaceful functioning of a pluralistic society that has been set out by the Medina Charter like unity, respect and mutual cooperation. More than ever, the charter has a great importance in establishing lessons and values that are needed today in the effort to enhance tolerance in a pluralistic society, religious freedom as well as conflict resolutions in dealing with inter-religious conflicts.
The revival of the Charter in modern era can be seen in Marrakesh Declaration, produced by Muslim scholars and other stakeholders in 2016 as response to the atrocities committed by ISIS and persecution of religious minorities in other parts of the world in the name of religion.
The conference aimed to reaffirm the Constitution of Medina and discussed legal framework around the premise of ‘The Rights of Minorities in Predominantly Muslim Lands”. It is the first time in modern history that Muslim leaders and scholars have formulated clear rejection of religiously legitimated persecution and discrimination within the framework of international human rights. Like the Medina Charter, this declaration encourages in honouring religious freedom, peaceful coexistence among religious groups and serves as a guide for conflict resolution in the modern era.
This article is a part of the #Kebersamaan or #Togetherness Campaign by Komuniti Muslim Universal (KMU) to diversify progressive discourse on race and religion in Malaysia.