Towards the end of the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s 61-year stint as Malaya then Malaysia’s governing coalition, which ended with this year’s 14th General Election (GE14) in May, it had become a commonplace that Malaysia did not practice at home the tolerance she preached abroad, but instead encouraged and even financed extremism in various forms.

Commentators both in Malaysia and abroad noted the dissemination of radical ideologies by the Malaysian state through state apparatus, including agencies in the well-funded and powerful Prime Minister’s Department, public universities, as well as state- or party-funded ‘NGOs’.

These actions of the Malaysian state, which bore deadly fruit, were in large part the logical and natural response of an authoritarian and increasingly unpopular regime to the way in which the international community sees Malaysia and thinks about religion in the public square.

Let’s note some recent trends in international relations, which the repressive Malaysian regime turned to its advantage.

First, subsequent to the wars in the Middle East over the past three decades; the rise of ISIS and other similar groups; the acceleration of South to North emigration by refugees fleeing the afore-mentioned wars; and the growing popularity of a ‘clash of civilisations’ lens through which to read events both local and global – many in the international community searched desperately for Muslim allies who could be held up as good citizens of the international community.

Second, and perhaps as a result of the above, the international community appeared to be more tolerant of human rights violations by countries claiming to be Muslim compared to others. This is perhaps in part fuelled by a ‘baddies versus baddies’ view of the ‘uncivilised world’, plainly stated by former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and articulated with greater bien-pensance in works such as ‘Thieves of State’ by Sarah Chayes. In this worldview, corruption, authoritarianism and the accompanying human rights violations are lesser evils than terrorism; the latter overflows national boundaries, whereas the former are seen as neutral or even beneficial for the richest and most powerful countries.

Third, even within countries, the international community appears to be more sensitive to rights violations against ‘Christians’ compared to those against others, especially ‘Muslims’. In the period of unguarded reaction just after the extraordinary ISIS expansion in the summer of 2014, the French government announced asylum for ‘Iraqi Christians’. This despite the fact that people of many different faiths, including ‘deviant Muslims’, were being targeted by ISIS. In the media, France’s ancient title, ‘Protector of the Christians of the Orient’, dating from the time of François I, was revived and given currency. Over time, public statements became more nuanced, but France’s initial reaction, like a flash of light in a dark room, revealed natural biases in the psyche of one of the world’s most powerful countries, in this case a self-proclaimed laïc or secular country.

Fourth, the international community tends to ignore human rights violations or abuse of power purportedly related to Islamic issues or laws. Even when well-informed of such violations, major human rights organisations, media and other institutions are slow to respond, preferring to focus on ‘straightforward’ persecution of dissidents, without religious overtones. There are some signs of change; however, giving political repression a religious veneer remains a highly effective and consequence-free way for authoritarian regimes to exert pressure on dissidents.

International institutions’ reluctance to comment on religious issues is partly due to misplaced colonial guilt, which perhaps fails to realise that there is a fine line between a healthy respect for cultural differences, and seeing certain others as less than human and therefore less deserving of basic rights. The modern European invention of the ‘religious/secular’ divide, and the increasingly ‘naked public square’ in the developed world, are also a contributing factor: under time pressure, journalists, human rights defenders and foreign policy-makers unfamiliar with or even perhaps fearful of all things ‘religious’ naturally gravitate towards simpler and more familiar questions and causes.

Fifth, many in the international community appear to hold unexamined assumptions that state control of religion is an unalloyed good, and that education of any kind is an antidote for extremism.

The zeitgeist abroad

The international zeitgeist, as described above, is extremely well understood by Malaysia’s leaders, and the BN regime lost no opportunity to make use of its blind spots.

Just two months before the May elections, announcing Malaysia’s ‘National Human Rights Action Plan’, then Prime Minister Najib Razak clearly stated that Muslim nations should not be held to universal human rights standards, as defined by the United Nations. This was but the last of several such statements made by the BN government over the years.

Similarly, making use of the rise of ‘global terrorism’, then Defence Minister Hishamuddin Hussein (the Prime Minister’s cousin) did not hesitate to insinuate that, whatever the BN’s failings in the area of moderation, they were not as bad as ISIS’. He was perhaps implying that things could be worse if potential Malaysian terrorists were not kept in check by draconian ‘anti-terrorism’ and ‘security’ laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, the Prevention of Crime Act 1959, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015, and the National Security Council Act 2015, as well as repressive ‘syariah laws’ and ‘fatwas’. These laws were in fact used to intimidate and detain dissidents and human rights defenders, including Maria Chin Abdullah, then Chairperson of the Bersih 2.0 coalition of NGOs, who in 2016 was arrested under SOSMA for ‘activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy’ and held in solitary confinement.

The message that the corrupt and authoritarian BN government was a bulwark against a rise of ‘terrorism’ in the country was reinforced by frequent intelligence reports of purported ISIS threats in Malaysia, in particular against Malaysian leaders. One might even ask if a peculiar ‘ISIS bomb attack’, never claimed by ISIS, was part of the theatrical mise en scène.

‘Islamic’ institutions as instruments of repression

Given that the more apparently Muslim a country is, the more permission it is given to violate human rights; given that the international community is slow to react to rights violations with religious overtones; given that Malaysia’s leaders have an excellent feel for the international zeitgeist and its blind spots; and given that Malaysia’s authoritarian regime, which had been in place for six decades, was steadily losing support on the ground, it should come as no surprise that the regime aggressively sought to increase the number of Malaysians officially classified as ‘Muslim’, and to establish and use Islamic institutions to suppress political dissent and to maintain its hold on power.

The administrative Islamisation of the population served the twin purposes of cementing Malaysia’s bona fides as a ‘Muslim nation’ and expanding the number of Malaysians who could be intimidated or terrorised through state Islamic institutions. This was done in several ways. First, administrative apostasy from Islam has been for all intents and purposes impossible since the Lina Joy case in 2007. This has been reinforced by other cases, including at the Federal Court level. Second, marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims are not recognised by the state. This forces ‘non-Muslim’ partners of ‘Muslims’ to change their administrative religious designation to Islam. To avoid this, mixed couples who have the means increasingly emigrate, while others cohabit; these last are politically neutralised by the Damocles’ sword of syariah offences such as zina (fornication) and khalwat (close proximity with a member of the opposite sex). Third, in Projek IC under then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed, the Malaysian state gave an estimated 700,000 migrants citizenship in exchange for votes (for the BN). Most of these were presumably designated as Muslims and, as a result, the East Malaysian state of Sabah went from having an official Muslim minority to an official Muslim majority. Fourth, there have been allegations of covert on-paper Islamisation and conversions under pressure in and through state institutions, including public schools.

In parallel, legal and administrative mechanisms were put in place to strengthen the state’s control over citizens designated as Muslim. Building on British colonial institutions, which had already produced ‘an authoritarian form of religious administration much beyond anything known to [West Malaysia] before’, this was mainly with religious departments in each West Malaysian state, and the syariah court system.

In particular, during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s spell as BN prime minister from 1981 to 2003, ‘the religious bureaucracy expanded at an unprecedented rate and Islamic law was institutionalised to an extent that would have been unimaginable in the precolonial era. New state institutions proliferated’, especially at the Federal level, including the Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM), which was set up in 1997 under the Prime Minister’s Office and by 2017 had an annual budget of RM1 billion. Malaysia’s syariah laws and courts have also been continuously strengthened and their ambit widened. The status of syariah courts, once clearly subordinate to civil courts, has been unclear since the constitutional crisis of 1988, concurrent with a crackdown on political dissidents by the Mahathir government and a closing of democratic space.

In principle, syariah laws are scrutinised and passed by elected legislatures at the state or Federal level, and must conform to the Federal Constitution. However, the Federal Territories and many states have passed laws that criminalize questioning, disobeying or criticizing fatwas, thus giving fatwas the force of law. Fatwas issued by state muftis or the National Fatwa Council; all are unelected state functionaries, and most are not required to have training in Islamic jurisprudence. This provides the authoritarian state with means of exerting pressure on dissidents, which by design bypasses Parliamentary and other public scrutiny.

By the early 21st century, Malaysia’s state institutions had developed a ‘monopoly on religious interpretation’ and the country was ranked 6th in the world by the Pew Forum in the severity of government restrictions on religion. On the ground, a constant state of fear and climate of méfiance was maintained through the intimidation and detention of ‘liberal’, ‘pluralist’, and other ‘deviant’ Muslims, connivance militancy around ‘racial’ and ‘religious’ issues and encouraging citizens to report on those who committed syariah offences such as not attending Friday prayers – reports could even be made via a bespoke mobile app. But all this, it seems, was not enough.

In 2014, papers leaked from the Prime Minister’s Department revealed that the government was studying the possibility of extending the application of syariah law to the entire Malaysian population regardless of administrative religion. Perhaps, the on-paper conversion of the population was not proceeding quickly enough to compensate for the government’s loss of popularity on the ground.

In 2016, the BN government supported proposed amendments to the Syariah Court (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 (‘Act 355’) to extend the syariah courts’ jurisdiction from essentially personal and family law to criminal cases, with unrestricted sentencing powers except for the death penalty.

Had this bill been passed, and had the PM’s Department’s earlier proposal been implemented, the Malaysian state would have been empowered to impose arbitrary sentences – including maiming and other corporal punishment – on the entire Malaysian population for vaguely defined offences created by an unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy, while arousing little or no international reaction. Such a situation is the stuff of dreams for any authoritarian regime, and is consonant with other draconian legislation passed during this period.

Muzzled media, cyber warfare, language barriers

While Malaysia’s state Islam has been becoming increasingly intolerant for decades, news of this did not seem to be getting out to the outside world. This was for several main reasons.

First, the Malaysian media was heavily censored. In 2018, Reporters Without Borders ranked Malaysia 145th in the world for media freedom. Many of Malaysia’s media outlets, both online and print, were owned by the state, or by BN parties and those close to them.

Second, the language barrier: most international actors dealing with Malaysia have a poor command of Bahasa Malaysia. It was thus quite easy for the BN regime to message differently in different languages. Anti-Syiah or other intolerant sentiments expressed by Malaysian authorities, or news about arrests, were almost always in Bahasa Malaysia. Yet on the international scene, Malaysian leaders featured prominently as signatories of the Amman Message, and spoke of intra-Islamic peace. Similarly, JAKIM sermons read nationwide are freely available online, but only in Bahasa Malaysia. Through these, Malaysian Muslims have been warned against Christians, Syiahs, liberals, Jews and other enemies, whom they were to distrust and/or against whom they were to jihad.

Third, in a different kind of language barrier, the Malaysian state often reinterpreted terms such as ‘terror’, ‘radical’, and ‘extreme’ to suit its own purposes. For instance, in January 2016, at an international conference on ‘Deradicalisation and Countering Violent Extremism’ in Kuala Lumpur: a JAKIM representative explained that, in her dictionary: “Thoughts that have the potential to be radical include [those coming from] liberalism, pluralism, extremism and LGBT….We feel that [the] Shiite sect is one of the threats [of potential radicalism]”.

Fourth, the Malaysian state was able to influence a wide range of media and other institutions abroad. In 2013, it came to light that a range of major international media outlets from the BBC to the Huffington Post had carried propaganda produced for the Malaysian regime. Tellingly, one of the compromised articles, which appeared in the Washington Examiner (and has now been retracted), was entitled ‘The Search for Moderate Muslims’. Such public relations offensives by the Malaysian state or organisations close to it have affected other prominent international institutions, including the French Observatoire de la Laïcité and the University of Geneva.

In sum, far from being strange or paradoxical, Malaysia’s long-standing policy of presenting a moderate face abroad, while promoting and institutionalising an increasingly intolerant version of state Islam at home was logical and strategic, with strong enabling factors from the international community.

Quo vadis?

On May 9th 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the Malaysian General Election despite widespread irregularities, riding on a wave of public anger over the 1MDB corruption scandal. How will state religious institutions and freedom of religion evolve under the new government?

Early signs are not promising, and this is not surprising: As long as the international community’s attitude towards religious issues does not change, and as long as Malaysians themselves do not speak up in significant numbers on these issues, the temptation will always be there to continue to wrap the repression of dissent in the ‘invisibility cloak of religion’.

Some institutional reforms have been proposed by others. In order for these and other necessary reforms to be sustainable, effective and on-target in their details, they must draw on the experiences and efforts of ordinary Malaysians. There is a need for a greatly increased participation of ordinary Malaysians, including those abroad, in the public life of the nation and in civil society.

The more independent Malaysian media have been instrumental in giving voices to ordinary Malaysians, and shedding light on the true situation in the country beyond the image projected abroad by the Malaysian state, sometimes simply by reporting everyday occurrences or ‘ordinary’ pronouncements by JAKIM, Bito Tatanegara, Jabatan Hal Ehwal Khas and other state agencies. They continue to be hampered by censorship and also, like media everywhere, by a lack of revenue and thus the inability to attract and/or train journalistic talent. Support from the Malaysian public in the form of readership and subscriptions will be crucial for maintaining independence, improving overall reporting quality, and developing investigative journalism.

Poor information of another kind also played into the hands of the BN. Having been designed by state functionaries, most of whom had no training in classical Islamic jurisprudence, Malaysia’s ‘syariah’ court system is, according to scholars, a textbook example of state appropriation and subversion of Islamic legal theory. Yet, the Malaysian regime’s ‘religious’ actions and pronouncements were rarely questioned on these grounds, perhaps because of Malaysians’ poor grasp of key concepts of Islamic jurisprudence. There is therefore an urgent need for Malaysians to undertake the study of Islamic jurisprudence and its development on our shores, as well as other topics of national interest, and to share this knowledge with the public.

Considering the common good on a global scale, we see the need to continuously change the lenses through which we view the world, to move from periphery to periphery to see how things look from ‘over there’. This should be guided by the consideration of every human being as of equal dignity and equally deserving of basic human rights not only in word or speech, but in act and in truth, beginning with the way we look at ‘others’ both spatially and temporally removed from us.

Most concretely and immediately, the Malaysian situation should bring home the importance of advocating religious freedom around the world. Religious freedom is part of the dignity of every human person; however, if ‘utilitarian’ arguments are needed, Timothy Shah’s work shows a correlation between violent conflict and religious restrictions imposed by the state.

In the long run, these reflections may lead us to reconsider the political organisation of the world – the present ‘league of nation-states’ structure incentivises leaders to consider only the interests of those who vote for them, and has bred social Darwinism on a global scale, with the weakest and most vulnerable countries and people as its victims.

In the difficult and interesting times ahead for Malaysia and the world, we should not to give in to fear and the natural desire for self-preservation but instead reach out to others – to build bridges, to seek the truth together and speak it to power in season and out of season.

NB: The Malaysian Insider was shut down in 2016, after the site was blocked by the Malaysian government. Their articles can be accessed through various internet archives.