DECEMBER 17 — There are few things more depressing than celebrating Human Rights Day in a country that refuses to fully recognise the rights of some of its citizens.
Adding salt to the wound, this year saw a group’s brazen attempt to rewrite the reality lived by many in this country.
We saw the first public lobbying by a new coalition calling itself Malaysian Alliance of Civil Society Organisations in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Process, or Macsa in an attempt to re-shape human rights in this country.
Macsa’s demands are blatant. Firstly, it wishes for limitations in freedom of speech that includes blasphemy laws.
What this essentially means is continued endorsement of the use of the State’s power to punish citizens under vaguely-defined laws that promise to protect religions against insults and mockery.
In reality though, the enforcements of such laws would inevitably just protect the status quo that already holds considerable political power, in addition to extra authority through a separate parallel judiciary system.
Just last Friday, a housewife was sentenced to six months’ jail and RM15,000 fine for insulting Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by making remarks at a mosque with the intent to annoy others.
As with other countries with blasphemy laws, such restriction of speech is meant as a layer of protection for the status quo that can easily use the provisions against their critics, rather than protecting religious minorities from hate speech by the majority.
The second demand by Macsa is for a binary approach towards gender to be considered acceptable and correct. This simply means that it only recognises two genders: “men” and “women.”
Not only does this view fly in the face of the scientific view that gender is a spectrum rather than two boxes. Essentially, this means denying the rights of queer and transgender Malaysians to simply exist, a careless stand devoid of compassion.
However, the most dangerous of Macsa’s demands is the forbidding of any policies and laws in the country if they contradict “Islamic and Islam-based constitutional and legal statutes.”
This demand is an extension of several attempts by lawyers representing religious enforcers in court to redefine the Constitution by interpreting Article 3 which states Islam is the religion of the federation, as a provision that reigns supreme over the other provisions that guarantees civil liberties and freedoms for all Malaysians.
In short, this demand wishes nothing more than to put Islamic scriptures as the supreme document and source of law with powers reaching beyond the Constitution itself, a pipe dream of many Islamists worldwide, whether they attempt it through democratic means, or violent jihadism.
It is important to understand the context of this statement, and realise that it is part of a calculated move ahead of Malaysia’s UPR, where the country’s global peers examine and ascertain the country’s progress when it comes to human rights.
Malaysia’s next review is due in November 2018, and with less than a year to go, the statement was calculated to signify the lobby’s intent, following several roundtables over the past few years to draft a strategy to follow up the work of Macsa’s predecessor MuslimUPRo.
Formed in 2013, the coalition of Muslim groups was then hastily cobbled together to counter the work of Comango, a coalition of Malaysian civil societies striving to hold the government to account.
It is also important to understand the powers that drive Macsa. Its two controllers include the Centre for Human Rights Research and Advocacy (Centhra), which is no stranger to controversies when it comes to the skewed interpretation of human rights, despite its name.
As recent as June this year, Centhra was condemned by federal minister Joseph Kurup for fanning hatred and distrust across the nation after it proposed an “anti-evangelicalism law” during the holy month of Ramadan.
Centhra’s partner in Macsa is the International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education (Wafiq), which is linked to the women’s wing of Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma).
In its statement, Macsa has as much as admitted that the inequity of education and resource has hindered the rights of women. It admitted that religion is a “red herring” when it comes to women’s rights, and yet it promotes Islam’s role in securing such roles.
This is of course a surprising about-face from the vicious anti-feminist initiatives organised by Isma and others in the lobby, seeking to discredit and downplay the contribution of local women’s rights groups in providing access to justice for single mothers and divorcees, and fighting for mothers whose kids were unilaterally converted.
Women’s groups’ contribution in tackling sexual assaults and harassments, online violence against women, and helping victims of polygamy seem to be swept aside — all the while seeking to reverse a previous amendment that has weakened Muslim family laws.
In the same week, Isma has released a contentious pamphlet online warning against the “liberal virus” in society. Unsurprisingly, Comango was on this “liberal” list, together with among others Oktoberfest and the recognition of LGBT.
It is unfortunate that general elections will come ahead of the UPR, providing a paranoid space ripe to be exploited by those who wish to manipulate religion to further their political ambitions.
Facing this attempt to rewrite our reality, Malaysians would do well to stay vigilant and courageously defend our rights as enshrined by the Constitution, as much as we continue the struggle faced by the marginalised among us. Once lost, such rights will likely be gone forever.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.