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  • Writer's pictureBait Al-Amanah

Challenges to Religious Freedom in Malaysia: A Way Forward

Updated: Jan 16, 2023

This speech was delivered by our Founding Director, Dr Abdul Razak Ahmad during the Civil Society Congress, at the International Religious Freedom Summit 2022 at Renaissance Hotel, Washington DC.


Malaysia has always prided itself on being a model Islamic state and Asia's melting pot of cultures and religions.

Thus, when talking about Malaysia, one might not expect it to be confronted with issues of religious freedom or religious persecution.

However, the right to freedom of religion or belief in the country is gravely challenged by the prevalence of ethnoreligious sentiments in Malaysian politics and public policy.

In fact, issues of ethnicity, religion, and identity politics have often been leveraged by political parties to advance their agenda.

Be that as it may, the Federal Constitution of Malaysia guarantees the right to freedom of religion or belief, including religious manifestation by way of professing, practising and propagating one’s religious beliefs.

However, the Islamic faith enjoys a special position over any other religion in Malaysia. Article 3 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia bestows a unique and, in practise, privileged status upon Islam within the country.

This has the potential to impede other religious organisations' enjoyment of their right to freedom of religion or belief.

Religious intolerance has been a pressing concern in Malaysia for some time now.

Many religious minorities face discrimination and persecution, under the pretext of protecting the sanctity of Islam and its teaching.

In March 2019, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), in cooperation with the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief released a report on Malaysia and identified six main challenges pertaining to the right of freedom of religion or belief in Malaysia, which are:

1) discrimination against religious minorities;

2) limitations on the rights of children relating to personal matters governed by Islamic law;

3) discrimination against persons who wish to change or adopt a new religion;

4) criminalization and prosecution of proselytism among Muslims;

5) prohibitions on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims; and

6) relationship with freedom of expression and the crime of sedition.”

Malaysia must take these issues seriously. Failure to do so will jeopardise national cohesion and the country's reputation as a model Islamic state.

There are a few steps the political leaders could take to encourage more religious freedom in Malaysia.

First and foremost, it is essential that religious freedom is acknowledged as a fundamental human right, and not just a western ideal.

In fact, religious freedom is aligned with Islamic values, grounded on Islamic tradition and culture.

The right to choose or reject religious belief is elucidated toward the end of surah al-Baqarah as ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (2.256). Forcing people to practice religion is expressly discouraged in favour of letting them do so freely.

Consequently, any attempt to portray it as a Western ideal is unjust and antithetical to Islam, which would be pointless for Muslims to follow.

Second, we must recognise Islam's capacity for the promotion of religious freedom.

We must accept that Islam, the sharia, and religious freedom are not excluded from national and international discourse on universal human rights and values.

Yes, it has different perspectives and norms, but ultimately, Islam has very clear rules and principles on how religious freedom should be protected and promoted.

And even though the historical story of freedom in the West and the concepts associated with it may not always be compatible with Islamic religious tradition, this does not imply that there are no other perspectives on religious freedom.

I want to make the case that the version of Islam that is responsible for today's acts of terrorism, brutality, and religious repression has no place in Islam's long history. Islam and its divine teachings cannot be attributed to the ideology of Islamism or Radical Islamic Revivalism.

Third, we must support “Civil Islam”. Every effort must be made to support Muslim civil society groups that advocate moderation and modernity.

Malaysia has a very active “Civil Islam network”. It is an essential component of what makes Malaysia a moderate Muslim country.

The appeal of theocratic movements or those who want only Islamic governments could be countered by a moderate and thriving Civil Islam. Priority should be given to supporting the work of progressive and moderate Muslim organisations engaged in educational and cultural endeavours.

Forth, modernising the Madrassa and Islamic Religious Institutions. Malaysia has always been at the forefront of promoting a balanced and modern religious education system.

But more need to be done to incorporate these schools within the broader reform of public education systems that can help produce more desirable economic, political, and social outcomes.

It is important for everyone to work together collectively to support the reform of religious schools so that these schools can offer a broad, modern education and a more viable alternative to "conservative Islam."

Fifth, formulate a strategy to engage Islamists and brings them into the political and democratic process.

Malaysians have seen how an Islamist party, PAS, became more oriented to the middle path and moderation after joining a coalition partner governing the country, contrary to its hardline, right-wing political roots.

Stronger democratic institutions in which public opinion can be expressed through the ballot box together with a government that has broad international alliances should be a key national strategy to promote religious freedom.

And finally, Malaysia ought to make religious freedom more central and integral to its foreign policies.

A national strategy to promote religious freedom and tolerance would be inadequate if it is not made an integral part of Malaysia’s foreign policy.

Religious freedom in Malaysia is largely dependent on the political theologies of the ruling government.

A new way of thinking is required, one in which religious freedom is incorporated into high politics of alliances and national security, rather than just domestic politics and its constituents.

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