In crackdown on religion, activists see a nation in fear

People pray at Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on July 12, 2013. — Picture by Choo Choy May
People pray at Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on July 12, 2013. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 14 — Malaysia will become a nation shrouded in fear and intolerance if the authorities continue its harsh persecution of religious offenders, human rights activists and an analyst have said.

Such a show of intolerance by the country’s leaders, they warned, could drive an even deeper wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims here and result in a nation more divided than ever before.

Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan suggested a possible future scenario where non-Muslims find themselves thinking twice before inviting a Muslim into their homes, fearing that even this would upset them.

“We might think it’s a bit extreme, but we never know. The list of sensitive things is growing,” he told The Malay Mail Online when contacted.

Citing the recent crackdown by religious authorities in a string of cases, the lawyer said that harsh action would only render interfaith efforts difficult as the country’s many religious groups may stop daring to speak their minds.

“I think this is going to create a climate of fear in which people would not want to say what they want to say,” said Syahredzan.

Since last month, a string of religious incidents have incurred the wrath of the authorities just ahead of the country’s 56th Merdeka celebration on August 31.

Four Muslim girls were barred last month from contesting the Miss Malaysia World 2013 beauty pageant as Islamic authorities cited a 1996 fatwa (religious edict) against their participation.

Two Chinese bloggers — Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee — were charged last month with sedition after they posted a mock “Selamat Berbuka Puasa” (breaking of fast) greeting on their Facebook page that showed them eating “bak kut teh”, and describing the soupy pork dish as “wangi, enak, menyelerakan” (fragrant, delicious, appetising).

Maznah Yusof, a Muslim dog trainer, is also being investigated for sedition after a video of her bathing and walking her three dogs resurfaced recently on YouTube.

The latest case is of a resort manager who was arrested yesterday after several newspapers reported on a YouTube video, which was uploaded last week, showing a surau (Muslim prayer room) in the Johor resort being used by Buddhist tourists for worship.

The police are investigating the Singaporean Muslim man, who is also a permanent resident in Malaysia, under Section 295 of the Penal Code for “injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class”.

“Will we come to a stage when even eateries have to close if it’s Ramadan?” Syahredzan questioned.

“It’s not incredible to think it’ll come to that one day. We are moving towards that. Everything must conform to Muslim sensitivities, must respect Muslim sensitivities, even if those sensitivities are unreasonable,” he said.

Syahredzan said that such incidents would also put a stop to inter-religious discourse involving Muslims.

“That’s the end of it. It will happen, but excluding the Muslims, since apparently anything can offend us,” said the lawyer.

A reader called Patricia Anne Martinez also wrote on her Facebook page last Monday about a TV warning calling for “viewer discretion” on a documentary about Pope Francis on the Astro History channel.


“The disclaimer — if it can be called that — was shown FOUR TIMES throughout the programme,” added Martinez, who is also Roman Catholic.

Syahredzan said that such a disclaimer indicated “self-censorship because of state pressure”.

“More and more disclaimers are going to be put out. Anything which is even remotely religious in nature, it’s going to be shielded,” he said.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee, director of the think-tank Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI), said that non-Muslims are alarmed at the “growing trend of religious fundamentalism”.

“An increasing intolerant and narrow-minded Islam dependent on its interpretation and policing by religious bigots that want to extend their sphere of influence and are out of touch with modern trends is perhaps the biggest threat to the character and well-being of our country,” he told The Malay Mail Online via email yesterday.

“It will only divide our communities; undermine moderation and tolerance; and breed prejudice, hate and suspicion,” added Lim.

Lim also noted that businesses would become more wary about Muslim sensitivities, such as not having dogs around at sports events or not organising lunches during Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.

“This will only pander more to the religious right found in government agencies and political and social organisations that are increasingly the arbiters of what is correct social or religious behaviour and norms — not only among Muslims but also among non-Muslims,” said the political analyst.

Lim Ka Ea, chief of human rights group Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR), said the recent religious incidents would not cow activists into silence, but pointed out that “those who are less aware or less empowered, they would definitely be threatened”.

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