MUSLIM-MAJORITY Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia have been listed as the region’s worst freedom of thought defenders in a 2016 report released by the International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU).
The Freedom of Thought Report published on Tuesday rated the three as countries where “grave violations” of rights and the treatment of the non-religious occur. “Grave violations” is the last on a list of five categories, and is the worst rating to be given to the countries surveyed. The other categories are “free and equal”, followed by “mostly equal”; “systemic discrimination”; and “severe discrimination”.
The report noted that both Brunei and Malaysia have threatened the death sentence for apostasy, while Indonesia enforces lengthy prison terms for those convicted of “criticising” religion.
Brunei is found to be declining in the report’s rankings, following its gradual implementation of a new Sharia penal code and the support for the death penalty for apostates by the country’s Grand Mufti.
Brunei’s new Sharia penal code, which was adopted in 2013, has been “deeply damaging” toward the right to freedom of thought in the country and contains a range of provisions that restrict the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the report said.
The IHEU cited as examples harsh penalties for Muslim men who failed to perform Friday prayers or those who did not observe Ramadan, and expanded restrictions on the rights of individuals or the freedom to express opinions about religious belief.
In fact, it noted, under the Sharia law, adherents are prohibited completely from speaking freely about religious belief, and non-belief.
“Future phases of the law will include more severe penalties, including the death penalty for blasphemy, mocking the Prophet Muhammad or verses of the Quran and Hadith, or declaring oneself a prophet or a non-Muslim,” the report noted.
Articles 213, 214 and 215 of the revised penal code, the report pointed out, criminalises printing, disseminating, importing, broadcasting, and distributing of publications deemed contrary to Sharia by Muslims and non-Muslims.
Non-Muslims in Brunei are also barred from uttering the word ‘Allah’, the Arabic word for God, even though Bruneian Christians use the term to describe their God.
In Malaysia, the report found the rights of the non-religious to be on the decline, including freedom of thought and expression, which it says are under “serious assault”.
Although it has yet to be fully enforced and despite contradicting the Federal Constitution, the Kelantan and Terengganu state governments passed hudud enactments on corporal and capital punishments in 1993 and 2002, respectively, which among others made apostasy an offence punishable by death, the report claimed.
“Despite their long-standing nature, no one has been convicted under these Sharia laws and, according to a 1993 statement by the Attorney General, the rulings could not be enforced without a constitutional amendment,” it said.
The Constitution defines all ethnic Malays as Muslim and severely restricts what kind of Islam may be practiced in the country, the report noted.
“This effectively prohibits the conversion of Muslims, since Sharia courts seldom grant such requests and can impose penalties (such as enforced “rehabilitation”) on “apostates”.”
Similar to Brunei, Malaysia’s government has also banned on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims in Malay-language Bibles and other Christian publications in the peninsular following a court ruling upheld on October 2014.
“The full scope of the ‘ban’ on the use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims remains unclear, with some officials saying it is limited to the Catholic Herald, which was the subject of the case,” the report on Malaysia said.
“… however the precedent and basis of the judgment appear to have wider implications. The case has proved a high-profile, ongoing source of tension between religious communities.”
In the case of Indonesia, home to world’s largest Muslim population, the report said the country has shown some “renewed hope for reform” under newly elected president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
However, it added, the country’s atheists and the non-religious still remain socially marginalised and legally unrecognised.
“Persons who do not identify with one of the six official religions, including people with no religion, continue to experience official discrimination,”
“This discrimination occurs often in the context of civil registration of marriages and births and other situation involving family law,” the report said, noting that citizens must be followers of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Buddhism, or Hinduism.
In recent weeks, Indonesia’s capital city has been the scene of mass protests by conservative Muslims calling on prosecution of Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama who is faced with blasphemy allegations.
Ahok sparked controversy after he reportedly joked to an audience about a passage in the Quran that could be interpreted as prohibiting Muslims from accepting non-Muslims as leaders.
Under Indonesia’s blasphemy laws, “Ahok” who is under investigation over the incident, could face up to five years in prison.
Already in its fifth annual edition, the report which comprises annual submissions from experts and relevant stakeholders, records discrimination and persecution against humanists, atheists, and the non-religious, with a country-by-country assessment.
However, this is the first time the report has been published online with interactive pages for every country in the world.
President of the IHEU, Andrew Copson, said the online publication was a “tremendous development” for the annual report which comes at a “crucial juncture” in world affairs.
“… the rights and equality of the non-religious are under threat and there is an upsurge in the suppression of humanist values more broadly,” he said in a statement.
“Serious damage is being done to the brand of democracy, to secularism, and there are new threats to all our liberties.”