By Tashny Sukumaran and Meaghan Tobin
20 JAN 2019
Religion is a tricky subject for Kuala Lumpur-based freelancer Muhammad Ali. Born to a conservative Muslim family, he became an atheist but cannot express his beliefs publicly in Malaysia. The multiracial country is largely Muslim and apostasy from Islam is a criminal offence in some states, while the law decrees that only a sharia court can decide if a person is Muslim – their own agency counts for nothing.
Several years ago, there was a proposal to introduce the death penalty for leaving the religion, although this was swiftly dispensed with when the Pakatan Harapan coalition formed government, dethroning the more conservative Barisan Nasional last May.
In nearby Indonesia, where most of its 260 million people are Muslim, non-believers who comment on Islam and atheists vocal about their views face the spectre of blasphemy laws.
How both Southeast Asian countries handle the matter of Muslims leaving their faith became a topic of interest after Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room two weeks ago and lobbied for asylum. She said she had renounced Islam and fled from her family; apostasy in the kingdom can be punishable by death. Canada has since taken her in.
In Malaysia, besides the threat of prison, apostates face re-education in rehabilitation camps or whipping by state religious authorities. For Muhammad and many other atheists, this means “always looking over my shoulder”.
In 2017, he and his friends were viciously doxxed after a photo of them at an atheist gathering was shared online, with a federal minister even going so far as to say apostates – or murtads – had to “be hunted down”.
“Possible disowning and even ostracisation is very real. I feel threatened and unaccepted, like I have to hide everything. Murtad cannot be seen to exist, are ‘hunted down’ and threatened with all manner of excommunication from society,” Muhammad said.
Natasha’s situation is even trickier to navigate – as a trans woman who runs atheist advocacy pages on social media, she feels forced to “lie low for my safety. Being exposed could jeopardise my life”.
Discrimination against LGBTI people is widespread in Malaysia, where same-sex sexual acts are banned and hate crimes are not uncommon.
“I remain discreet about being an ex-Muslim, particularly on personal social media. But the country has no freedom of religion. It’s like Hotel California – you can never leave,” said Natasha, who describes Saudi teen apostate Rahaf Mohammed as “a true feminist”, and heads @melayumurtad on Instagram.
Unfortunately, even with an ostensibly more progressive government helming the nation, it appears that the position of atheists is still in question.
When asked if she had seen any improvement in her straits under the new administration, Natasha said no. “Pakatan Harapan is a populist government, almost like Barisan Nasional. They will pander and kowtow to our conservative Muslim majority.”
Sharia and human rights lawyer Nizam Bakeri believes that over time Malaysia can become more tolerant and open-minded about religious freedoms, albeit within the confines of its constitution.
“Some states have made apostasy a crime and some have not but may try to ‘piggy back’ on more ambiguous provisions to take action against atheists. The state’s stand in that regard has to be subjected to scrutiny and be juxtaposed against the fundamental liberties provisions in the constitution,” he said.
“It just pays to remember that it is not wrong to call for compassion in our laws. After all, compassion is also part of the divine project.”
Unlike its neighbour to the north, in Indonesia there are no legal consequences for leaving one’s faith and no explicit prohibitions against atheism.
However, all Indonesians are required to list one of seven state-sanctioned religious categories on their national identity card.
“There’s no law which says you cannot be an atheist, although in general there is an assumption that all Indonesians are religious,” said Zainal Abidin Bagir, director of the centre for religious and cross-cultural studies at Gadjah Mada University.
Despite the fact that atheism is not banned, Indonesian atheists who are outspoken about their beliefs often face social criticism, which is increasingly likely to result in legal consequences. Non-believers are being charged with blasphemy in record numbers, especially following a 2010 Constitutional Court ruling upholding Indonesia’s blasphemy law.
Experts say the law is increasingly being used to criminalise people who are perceived to be spreading beliefs that deviate from the religion of the majority.
“The blasphemy law has the potential to be misused. When someone is claiming to be an atheist, they could be accused of insulting religion,” said Setyo Seputro, a media worker in Jakarta. “I was raised in a Muslim family, but I’m no longer Muslim. I just don’t believe in religious teachings, I don’t care about the concept of god in any religion. Democratic countries should not regulate what their people must believe and not believe.”
Nearly 90 per cent of Indonesia’s 260 million people identify as Muslim. The other religions accepted on identity cards are Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and a newly approved category called “believers of the faith” covers followers of indigenous religions.
Since its independence in 1949 until the end of former president Suharto’s rule in 1998, Indonesia had processed just 10 blasphemy cases. While Bagir at Gadjah Mada University estimates there have been 80 cases of blasphemy charges since then, some experts count as many as 130.
“Almost 90 per cent of the blasphemy cases which enter trials result in jail time,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice-chairperson of the Setara Institute, a Jakarta-based human rights advocacy organisation. “The pressure of the masses has made the court toothless.”
Asfinawati, chairperson of the Foundation of Indonesia Legal Aid Institute, said that Indonesians had become “more aware of the power of this law to criminalise their opponent”. “Society has become more intolerant and cannot accept differences, particularly in religion,” she said.
In a closely watched 2017 trial, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama – the Christian then-governor of Jakarta – was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison for referencing a passage from the Koran during his re-election campaign, which critics claimed defamed Islam.
In another case, an outspoken atheist and former civil servant was sentenced to 18 months in jail after posting atheist comments on Facebook. He was not only accused of blasphemy but also of promoting and spreading his views online.
“As the Constitutional Court stated in its 2010 decision to uphold the Blasphemy Law, Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution does not make provision for the right not to have a religion,” said Daniel Peterson, researcher at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam, and Society. “The best way to navigate this would therefore be to simply not practise one’s faith any more, while making no public broadcast thereof.”
Ken Aura Matahari, who manages the growth and community engagement team at Amnesty International, said social media was not as free as users believed it to be.
“In Indonesia we still have pockets in the community that are very conservative and intolerant and they might react unfavourably toward that person,” said Matahari, who adds that influential moderate civil-society Muslim organisations such as Nadhlatul Ulama can do more to promote tolerance in Indonesia.
“Part of it is a consequence of democracy. When there is more space for freedom, people can assert their aspirations and identities,” said Gadjah Mada’s Bagir.
Asfinawati from the Foundation of Indonesia Legal Aid Institute said she was aware of cases where people had to leave their home towns because of the public sentiment towards atheism, but no one who had left the country as in the case of Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed.
Amnesty’s Matahari suggests the situation could change if the blasphemy laws were revoked following the upcoming national election, scheduled for April 17, though he warns that change will take longer than just these elections. “This is one of the big issues we have in Indonesia that is not getting better in the short term,” he said. “We have to change not just the law but the mindset of the people.” ¦
*Names have been changed to protect identities