KUALA LUMPUR: Some Malay atheists in Malaysia are worried and fearful – in recent days there was a call by a minister “to track them down” while a Muslim cleric issued a reminder that the penalty for apostasy under Islam is “death”.
“I am worried. I have already accepted that something might happen to me … that I might be killed,” Halim (not his real name), told Channel NewsAsia.
“I say this because I see how extreme people have become, how my Facebook friends (could) turn into real-life threats for me with their comments that it is halal (permitted) to kill atheists, apostates … how eager they are to kill to gain merits in heaven,” he said.
Another self-professed atheist, Chaidir (not his real name), expressed worry for his friends who are less fortunate. “I worry for them because they are poor and have no connections. That makes them so much more vulnerable. At least for me, I come from the middle class and have more access to help,” he said.
According to Chaidir, he still fasts during the holy month of Ramadan when he is with his parents as he does not want them to know he is an atheist.
Both Halim and Chaidir stressed that they do not preach their atheist beliefs to anyone. “A person’s belief is a private matter. We don’t believe in proselytising what we believe in,” said Halim.
On Tuesday (Aug 8), Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Shahidan Kassim said the government should track down atheists. “I suggest we track them down and identify each of them. After that, we have to bring them back to the right path,” he said. This is a religious country. We have Islam, we have other religions - Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism - there is no one without a religion."
The Negri Sembilan state Mufti Mohd Yusof Ahmad was quoted by Malay daily Sinar Harian as saying Islam prescribes death against Muslims who leave the religion for atheism, if they are “stubborn” and refuse to repent.
However, he conceded that Shariah courts in the country cannot implement such punishments, and said religious authorities must then redouble their efforts to curb the spread of atheism.
Deputy Home Affairs Minister Mohamed Nur Jazlan told Channel NewsAsia’s Sumisha Naidu that the issue needs to be handled with care. "Apostasy is a matter that I think would need to be dealt with care," said Nur Jazlan.
Asked whether there will be a campaign against atheists, he said: "I wouldn't encourage it."
Analysts expressed concern over the calls to hunt down atheists.
“Unfortunately the minister's comments reflect a steadily growing intolerance within the Malay community over religious matters,” Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington DC told Channel NewsAsia.
“This was a reflection that many see Malaysia's ethnic and religious minorities as a roadblock to the full implementation of sharia law (in the country),” said Prof Abuza, who specialises in Southeast Asia politics and security.
“Malaysia isn't the moderate state that it used to be. There have been profound societal changes, and minorities should be very concerned,” Prof Abuza added.
Counter-terrorism expert and Islamic scholar, Ahmad el-Muhammady, expressed concern over the calls to hunt down atheists as well. Asked whether the violent fringe would be provoked by the comments to attack atheists, Ahmad said: “Yes, this opinion can be taken wrongly by extremists … To me, it is not a well-thought-out remark that can be easily misunderstood by uneducated minds.”
“But thus far, there is no indications (of violence). The intelligence agencies are monitoring,” he said.
This was confirmed by Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of counter-terrorism of Special Branch, the intelligence arm of the Royal Malaysian Police. He told Channel NewsAsia there was “no intel” on potential attacks.
Malaysia has recorded at least one case where a militant, the late Zainuri Kamaruddin, tried to kill a young Muslim woman accused of converting to Christianity. Zainuri died in an air strike in Syria earlier this year where he was fighting alongside the Islamic State (IS).
According to constitutional law expert Shad Saleem Faruqi, professor of Law at Universiti Malaya, the Federal Contitution does not criminalise atheism.
“The Federal Constitution is silent on apostasy. It nowhere bans apostasy nor does it permit it. Neither does the Penal Code punish apostasy, though insulting religion is an offence under section 298 of the Penal Code,” said Prof Faruqi.
“The issue is complicated because states are allowed to pass laws to punish offences against the precepts of Islam. Nine out of the 14 states (have) enactments (that) criminalises apostasy,” he added.
Prof Faruqi said some view apostasy as a heinous crime in Islam. “The alternative view that it is a sin, not a crime, that Prophet Muhammad in the Treaty of Hudabiyah permitted Muslim apostates to live in peace … is not heeded."