By Andrea Curcio Lamas
HRWF (10.11.2017) – During a press conference at the Malaysian Parliament in August 2017, Malaysian Minister Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim publicly proclaimed that atheists in the country should be ‘hunted down’ because they violate the constitution.
Mr Kassim stated that the Federal Constitution does not mention atheists and that atheism goes against the Constitution and human rights. He further suggested that atheists be hunted down vehemently, asking for help to identify them. His statement follows an equally concerning statement made by the Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2014, where he categorized humanism, secularism and liberalism as a dangerous threat to Islam and the state. 
Malaysia is a multi-religious country, home to a population practicing a diversity of religions, including Muslims (61%), Buddhists (20%), Christians (9%) and Hindus (6%). Yet, those wishing to identify themselves as atheists constitute less than 1% of the population.
Although Malaysia is not a State party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), it does protect – within the limits established by the law – freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of expression. This raises the question whether Malaysia is a secular state? The answer has been a matter of debate among scholars for years – so evidently not an easy question to answer.
What is clear is that secular states should protect freedom of religion – which means that all faiths should be equally respected. This includes non-religious views. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and the ICCPR) states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’. This right includes the right to change one’s religion or belief, and it also protects ‘theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief’ (Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 22). The statement made by Mr Kassim is clearly not in line with these principles.
The right of ‘freedom from religion’ is often forgotten or neglected in some countries. The 2016 Freedom of Thought Report found Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia as the countries where non-religious individuals suffer the most violations. Whether the root causes of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief in these countries can help explain the situation in Malaysia is an issue requiring further investigation.
Critics are increasingly denouncing the rising fundamentalism within the Malaysian Muslim community as representing a significant threat to the already limited religious freedoms. While apostasy is not a federal crime in Malaysia, it is considered a crime punishable by death in two Malaysian State Governments. Meanwhile, in the rest of states, those wishing to leave Islam cannot do so without firstly obtaining a certificate from a Shariah court. In practice, however, courts rarely permit Muslims to convert or leave their faith, punishing individuals with counseling sessions, fines or even jail time. Persecution against atheists is further intensified by the fact that blasphemy is considered a crime, also punishable with significant fines or imprisonment. These circumstances represent a clear limit on Malaysians’ right to freedom of religion or belief, as well as their right to take part in cultural life without discrimination.
This shift towards a more rigid Islamic political practice is a result of a mounting intolerance stemming from the Government. “Malaysia has become steadily more intolerant, and this has been a top down government policy” – stated Dr. Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College, during an interview for The Diplomat. He further noted that the individuals most at risk are atheists, among other minority groups. Dr. Zachary Abuza links this growing intolerance with the arrival of Salafist scholars coming back from Saudi Arabia – many of which have joined the Government. Given the resulting intrusion on the proper fulfilment of human rights, it is imperative for further studies to focus on examining the root-causes explaining Malaysia’s increasing conservative path, which may be compared to what is occurring in other countries such as Indonesia and Brunei.
Of utmost concern is that this drift towards a more radical and rigid political Islam, is clearly encroaching upon individuals’ freedoms. Among other human rights, there is a clear failure to even grasp the meaning of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. A level of concern must be raised – or, at the very least – more attention must be paid to this relatively neglected issue.
* Andrea Curcio Lamas, conducting human rights research for HRWF.
Batchelor Tom, ‘Malaysia government minister calls for atheists to be ‘hunted down’ and ‘re-educated’’. 9th August 2017.
Freedom of Thought Report 2016. http://freethoughtreport.com/countries/asia-south-eastern-asia/malaysia/
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List of hundreds of documented cases of believers of various faiths in 20 countries: http://hrwf.eu/forb/forb-and-blasphemy-prisoners-list/