Malaysia's Muslims have 'no way out'

In multiethnic Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion but freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution, the majority Malays are born Muslim and apostasy is all but impossible for them.

Cases of aspiring apostates are handled by Shariah courts, rather than civil courts. According to the Koran, apostasy is grounds for death, and no Muslim should assist another out of the religion. So the appeals usually sit, and sit. Many would-be apostates don't live to see their conversion officially recognized.

Some have been jailed. As one religious scholar put it, "In Malaysia, there's a way into Islam, but no way out."

Although proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is forbidden, the reverse is permissible. Proselytizers have been sent to jail under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for indefinite detention without trial. Hands off our Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the population, the Malay-led government appears to be saying.

The government is especially worried about Christian proselytizing, said Shad Salem Faruq, professor of law at the University of Technology MARA. Malaysia is home to substantial Hindu and Buddhist minorities, 6 and 20 percent respectively.

"But Hinduism and Buddhism historically have had less of a tradition of proselytizing than Christianity," he said.

It is illegal to print the Bible and other Christian materials in the national language, Bahasa Malay. Some states restrict the use of certain religious terms by Christians in the Malay language, lest Muslims be confused.

Yet, despite the obstacles, some Christian proselytizers are busy.

The Rev. Kumar — not his real name — recalls the religious police rattling his front gate in the middle of the night. The warning was clear.

"But I am not afraid," Mr. Kumar said. "My work is God's will and I have a worthy cause to fight for. [Malays] have a right to find Jesus."

His evangelical church has 12 branches throughout Malaysia and 30 affiliates, and Mr. Kumar estimates that 100 Muslims are converting to Christianity every month in the country. He said there has been a marked increase in interest in the past three years, since the September 11 attacks in the United States. A royal family and the daughter of a former prime minister are among his list of converts.

Christian groups estimate that there are 30,000 Malay converts in the country. Some Muslim groups say the figure is much lower. However, nondenominational observers say most converts live in secrecy for fear of harassment from the government, family and fellow Malays.

One Malay convert and former ustaza, a Muslim religious teacher, reports that she and her family are harassed regularly by the authorities. Because she is Malay, her son was born a Muslim and forced to adopt a Muslim name. In school, despite his protests of being a Christian, he has to sit through Islamic studies, a requirement for all Muslims.

Last year, the religious police demanded that she stop her "activities," which included helping drug addicts and battered women.

She conceded, though, that part of the assistance involved introducing Malays to Christian doctrine. She recalled parking herself at a McDonald's wearing a Muslim head scarf to more effectively introduce Muslim schoolgirls to the Bible.

In Kuala Lumpur, boys who are a part of Mr. Kumar's proselytizing movement frequent mosques.

Christians reputedly also have resorted to sponsoring picnics for Malay children and offering them gifts.

In the cramped lobby of Mr. Kumar's headquarters, a magazine headline reads: "Storming the Enemy's Stronghold."

The first paragraph explains, "Within the 10/40 window," referring to the area stretching roughly from the Middle East through India, China and into Southeast Asia, "lie 62 of the least evangelized nations on this planet." The area is viewed by some zealots as the last stronghold preventing Christian global dominance.

One is left to wonder, is the government rightfully fearful or just plain paranoid? What is seen by some as an issue of freedom of religion is viewed by others as an abuse of freedom.

"You can talk about your religion freely, just don't try to convert," said Azizuddin Ahmad, secretary-general of the Muslim Youth Group of Malaysia (ABIM).

He said many apostates were led astray from Islam not by the virtue of the faith they were converting to but the concept of freedom. In Malaysia, Muslims are bound by certain laws, such as on alcohol consumption, sexual relations and marriage, that non-Muslims are not. Certain states are known to enforce these laws more than others.

Muslims also get preferential treatment.

The U.S. government's International Religious Freedom Report for 2003 said, "It is official policy to 'infuse Islamic values' into the administration of the country."

Indeed, the new Islamic-themed administrative capital houses a prominent mosque but no other place of worship. And non-Muslims report difficulties in obtaining licensing and state funding for their places of worship.

Malaysia has become increasingly Islamized since the early 80s — inspired first by the Iranian Revolution and by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's charismatic deputy Anwar Ibrahim, who founded ABIM and joined the country's most powerful political party, the United Malays National Organization, in the 1980s. Malaysia was further Islamized by government attempts to out-Islamize the hard-line Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). PAS made substantial progress in 1999 parliamentary elections but suffered in its rematch with the National Front in March.

The tide of these developments may pose challenges for non-Muslims and apostates, "but they are not paralyzing," said lawyer Lee Min Choon, adding that the government's religion policy generally is conducted with the best of intentions.

"The government doesn't have a program to create difficulties for other religions. They want peace for all religions," he said.

This is not an easy task. Non-Muslims grumble of "Malay/Muslim bias." But the government can't afford to be seen as anti-Muslim.

The government has appeased the various communities enough to prevent large-scale race- and religion-fueled violence — though at the expense of respect, interest and meaningful interaction among the communities. Race and religion are taboo subjects, and there's a lot of pent-up rage.

At the same time, the government's policy — including banning a procession in at least one instance because it conflicted with Muslim prayer time — is prompting anger.

"These gestures are causing some hard feelings," said an assistant to Mr. Kumar.

Proselytizers of any stripe tend to feel justified in their actions, rationalizing them as a form of salvation, leading the astray from darkness.

But Mr. Kumar will be hard-pressed to convince most Muslims here of the superiority of his faith, just as most Muslims here find little success in converting Christians.

Yet, it's an undertaking that the zealous don't tire of, even though it rarely leads anywhere, other than to trigger fear and resentment.

Dzulkifli Achmad, director of the research center of PAS, is concerned about the net effect.

"I used to seek to convert, but I no longer have the drive," Mr. Achmad said. "When you think of the unique fabric of this society, it is in our interest to enhance mutual respect ... proselytizing is a form of disrespect. It is the beginning of the conflict."

Some Muslim and non-Muslim leaders say the government could be doing more to improve dialogue and understanding among the faiths.

It has, for instance, denied permits for several interfaith dialogues. And when Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" arrives here soon, only Christians will be able to view it. Non-Christians will be weeded out in the ticket line on the basis of their national ID cards, which states one's religion.

Nora Murah, a legal officer with Sisters in Islam, says the decision contradicts the prophet Muhammad's teachings. "The prophet embraced diversity and inclusiveness," she said.