Closet Christians in Malaysia: Proselytism or politics?
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Closet Christians in Malaysia: Proselytism or politics?

APOSTASY of Malays to Christianity is a controversial issue in Malaysia. It tugs at the very essence of Malay identity, as a Malay in Article 160 of the Federal Constitution is defined as someone who practices Islam, speaks Bahasa Melayu, and follows the Malay culture.

According to the above definition, a Malay must be a Muslim. Malay society is very insular in the sense that most believe that following any other faith other than Islam is the wrong path. Conversion to any other religion would be socially very difficult, as it would be seen as being a traitor to one’s own race. Apostasy is seen as turning one’s back on Malay culture, where family and friends would most probably treat that person as an outcast.

Apostasy is also criminalized within Malaysia, with the death penalty actually standing on the statute books in states of Kelantan and Terengganu (yet to be constitutionally approved). The only state where one can legally apply to leave Islam is in Negeri Sembilan.

However, converting away from Islam through the Sharia Court system is almost impossible. There have been a number of high profile cases such as the Linda Joy case, which were rejected by the Malaysian courts.

“Estimates of apostasy to Christianity vary from a few thousand to well over 250,000, depending upon who provides the estimate.”

Many apostolates are arrested for apostasy and interned in one of the religious rehabilitation centres for up to 36 months around the country, where contact with relatives and the outside world is greatly restricted. Once released, if married to a non-Muslim, the couple is forbidden to live together under one roof, thereby breaking up the family.

Consequently, most choose to live and practice their new faith in secrecy, even from their immediate families.

Individuals and congregations of suspected Christian Malays are harassed by the Sharia police. A few years ago, a number of high profile raids were made on suspected Christians around Petaling Jaya and Kelana Jaya in Selangor, under the pretext that there was a highly organized Christian group targeting Malays for conversion to Christianity. Some of these raids came under criticism for the heavy handed tactics used by the authorities.

There is been a marked increase in apostasy in Malaysia. This has been the case since 9/11. Other reasons cited for Malay Muslims converting to Christianity include those from failed marriages who want to revert back to their original religion, those with little knowledge about Islam, those influenced by peer pressure, those wishing to marry a non-Muslim, and those proselytized by missionaries.

Rumours within Malay society circulate about who may be a closet Christian in Malaysia. Even a member of a Royal family was rumoured to have converted to Christianity. Any long-time resident of Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh, or Johor Bahru, who is close to the Malay middle class would have most probably heard about groups of Malays who are believed to be closet Christians, practising their new found faith in the utmost secrecy.

There have been no formal studies on how many Malays have converted to Christianity. Not many Malays would admit to it, in fear of being outcast from society and prosecuted. However, there is lots of anecdotal evidence that this phenomenon is going on within Malaysia today.

Estimates of apostasy to Christianity vary from a few thousand to well over 250,000, depending upon who provides the estimate. Some quarters have purposely quoted high figures, to use apostasy as a political issue.

The Federal Government has forbidden the use of the word “Allah” in Bahasa Malaysia bibles under the pretext that this will confuse Malays. The word “Allah” has been used in Bahasa Malaysia bibles in East Malaysia for more than a century, and consequently the ruling is inconsistent and applies only in the Peninsula. The Malaysian Government has fiercely fought a case against a Christian newspaper “The Herald” through the appeal process, even though the word “Allah” predates Islam. However, the government has been accused of using the “Allah” issue to polarize the community and inflame communal tensions, which led to arson attacks on a church in Selangor for political purposes.

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Malaysian police and members of the Volunteers of Malaysian People patrol outside a church in Petalang Jaya after it was attacked in 2010. Pic: AP.

Ultra Malay group PEKASA and Islamic groups like Hizbat Tahrir have used Christianity as a ‘boogyman’ to scare and garner support from the Malay community. The concept of Christianity is being reframed to mean ‘western values’ that affront the Malay culture and identity.

The Qu’ran itself states that there should be no compulsion in religion (2:256). Although Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, Article 11 of the Federal Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Yet section 4 of article 11 somewhat negates this. In addition, according to the definition of a Malay within Article 160 of the Constitution, those who leave Islam would cease to be a Malay.

Although the Federal Constitution professes freedom of religion, various state acts criminalize apostasy, raising constitutional law issues the court system has been reluctant to uphold. Laws also strictly prohibit the proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, although the reverse is permissible.

Malaysia’s Federal and State laws in regards to apostasy have been criticized by Freedom House for contravening human rights, because they have placed undue limitations on freedom of opinion, expression, religion and belief. Although Malaysia is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, it has not ratified several human rights treaties, which include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Malaysia is on a watch list by an advisory body of the United States Government over concerns about lack of freedom of religion, putting it on a par with Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, Nigeria, and Yemen.

The network of Religious Rehabilitation Centres around Malaysia shows that apostasy is an issue taken seriously by the Malaysian Government today. Malay Muslim Background Believers (MMBB) do exist within Malaysia, but are not the threat made out to be by certain ‘ultra’ quarters within the Malaysian political scene.

One cannot read whether the opposition to these small groups is based on fear or opportunity. Fear that opening a ‘pandora’s box’ may lead to a mass exodus of Malay Muslims to Christianity, or opportunity to use this fear for political gain within the Malaysian political narrative to ‘harness’ the Malay vote for a tired government that has been in power for more than 55 years.