Monday, August 20, 2012


In Malaysia, religion plays an outsize role in daily life, far more than as simply a personal guide to virtuous living. Enshrined in the Constitution as the official religion, it is the basis for many laws, and tales of it's enforcement in people's lives colour national discourse. For more than fifty years, that has been the way it is.

Which is to say, problematic. For starters, it protects the continued violation of a basic human right, that of freedom of religion. Islam's status means that its commandment that adherents never leave the faith is enforced with chilling rigidity by the State Religious Departments. This is in direct contravention of Articles 2 and 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the former states 'everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms.... in this Declaration, without distinction of... religion', while the latter not only affirms freedom of religion, but also affirms a right to conversion
We've ratified the Declaration. How about truly putting it into practice, and not ignoring the bits that challenge our status quo?
But this isn't simply a matter of violating abstract freedoms. The reality is, religion is a human construct, and needs to update its collective psychology every now and then, and conversions are a crude but effective way of both indicating if that is happening, and an incentive to stay relevant and disciplined. Take this mechanism away, and religious thinking begins to ossify. That's likely why many youth see their religious leaders as anachronistic and why social ills are becoming more prevalent among Muslim youth.

The no-conversion rule has a significant impact on other religions in Malaysia, as they are banned from proselytizing to Muslims. Arrests of supposed proselytizers aside, the rule has led to a mindset of suspicion and hostility, with the some Malay newspapers particularly prone to spread baseless rumours about the simplest things, choking off cross-cultural exchange and deepening the divide. Also, Islam's protected status means the official Sunni Islam of the Shafi'i school of thought can rely on security forces to act against other sects, instead of going head to head in real theological debate, which further solidifies the sense of invulnerability and disconnect.
The sheltering of Islam by its official status means clerics will eventually grow further and further away from its flock.
Islam's status also means it has been intensely politicised. You hear stories of parties saying voting for them is the Islamic thing to do, and in Malaysia, any moral misstep can be career assassination. Not only does this distract from real, productive policy discussion, it  also taints the beauty of Islam as a religion. History shows the comfort of state patronage breeds corruption in a religion's higher echelons; religion becomes another tool of statecraft, instead of an internal moral compass.

Crude, but broadly accurate. Need I say more?
Plus, religion is an intensely private relationship between you and God/Allah. Thrusting it nakedly into the public eye infuses it with tribalism, anger and partisanship, bespoiling its beauty.

As I leave Malaysia, one of my greatest wishes is for no religion to hold an official status here, that conversion and preaching can occur freely, and that the Sharia legal system can be reformed to make it truly subservient to civil law and used in family cases that ONLY affect Muslims. Sure, it's been done one way for 55 years now, but that doesn't automatically preclude change.

This is my first cry for you, Malaysia.