KUALA LUMPUR — The religious officers raided actress Faye Kusairi’s family home after someone reported her for being “too close” to a person of the opposite sex in an isolated place, an offense punishable in Malaysia with up to two years in prison. It was late at night and they didn’t even have a warrant.
Aiming to catch the lovers in an inappropriate situation, five agents cut off the safety grill of her family penthouse duplex and broke the fireproof door to go in. But Faye was not even there: she was out with a friend. Instead the agents found her father, mother, and brother.
That happened in April 2016; she has not yet received yet an official apology. “They told my father that they were looking for me with someone else’s husband,” Faye says. At least they fixed the door.
False and inaccurate denunciations are a recurring pattern, a particularly concerning trend given the authority of Malaysia’s religious officers, who investigate violations of the sharia code. “Their powers are similar to that of a police investigating a civil offense, i.e murder,” according to Malaysian lawyer Fahri Azzat.
In December, officials broke into a police officer’s apartment on the fourth floor. Instead of a couple caught in the act, they found a single woman in one of the rooms — and an open window. Her lover had jumped from the window to evade arrest and later died in the hospital. Another policeman also suffered several injuries after jumping to escape from the morality agents that night.
The religious police are not only looking for espoused lovers in hotels and homes. Among the offenses that breach the sharia code is pre-marital sex or extra-marital sex, alcohol consumption, not fasting during Ramadan, or not attending mosque on Fridays. The agents also persecute Shiite Muslims as well as homosexuals and transsexuals, who are considered men who “dress or act” as women.
Islam in Malaysia has become more conservative in recent years and the reach of hardline religious authorities is increasing. Fatwas (the rulings of religious scholars) have taken on all the force of law. In many cases, religious officials take media with them on their morality raids and video footage, including the faces and personal information of suspects, is broadcast on national television.
The mainstream media has a tendency to focus on morality and some reports are reported in a sensationalistic manner which at times violates people’s privacy. “This hinders people from seeking redress and sharing their experiences, as they fear the repercussions. Reports of the arrest of trans women in the media have led to [their] termination of employment or tension in the family,” explains Thilaga Sulathireh, a researcher at the NGO Justice for Sisters.
In Malaysia, about 60 percent of the population is Muslim, most of them ethnic Malay. But many others, including many Malaysians of Chinese and Indian descent, or members of indigenous tribes, are Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or non-religious. The 1957 Constitution in theory guarantees religious freedom for non-Malays, but at the same time Islam is the religion of the state. Muslims are subject to a double legal system and some of the cases are tried by specific sharia courts, different from those of the ordinary judicial system.
Muslims cannot go unnoticed because their religion is indicated on their identity cards, while it is not specified for members of other religions. Anyone who wants to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam. Choosing a different religion is not an easy task, as it requires the approval of an Islamic court. Renouncing Islam in some states is a criminal offense.
The context also affects non-Muslims. All Malaysian women should cover their legs in some government buildings. A few weeks ago the Department of Islamic Development recommended that the pretzel franchise Auntie Anne rename their “Pretzel dog” to a “Pretzel sausage” to receive a halal certificate (signifying foods that are allowed to be eaten according to Islam).
Only Muslims can use the word Allah, the Arabic word for God, even though it is also a Christian term for describing their own deity. Malay-language Bibles are banned everywhere except in churches. And for disappointed Christians, this is only one example of increasing Islamization in the country.
Saint Valentine Day’s global celebrations are banned for Muslims. The religious authorities claim this is a Christian celebration that also promotes promiscuity and immoral activities. This year, as part of the annual anti-Valentine’s day campaign, a Muslim youth group called on Muslim women to avoid using emoticons in text messages and refrain from wearing “excessive” fragrance in the presence of a man that is not a relative. They also called on Muslim youths to publicly berate unmarried Muslim couples who were dating on February 14.
Since independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, Malaysia has been uninterruptedly governed by a coalition known as Barisan Nasional, which includes parties representing the largest ethnic groups and is led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which holds key posts, such as that of the prime minister.
For decades, the opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS), has been stirring the pot with the aim of legalizing the most bloodthirsty Islamic punishments, such as amputations or stoning. The government has fought against its demands, but the UMNO lost voters in the last elections. Since then its popularity has fallen even further, thanks to corruption scandals. This state of affairs will increase pressure on the UMNO to give into the demands of PAS to win over religious hardliners.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia for Human Rights Watch, says that for Prime Minister Najib Razak, principles have gone out the window as his political career has been threatened. “It now appears there is no price too high for him in terms of human rights and community harmony if it means saving his own skin,” Robertson says.
In March lawmakers in Malaysia will debate a bill to amend the Sharia Court Act. This project, often referred to as Hadi’s Bill after its proposer, the president of PAS Abdul Hadi Awang, seeks to increase sharia punishments, as enforced by the morality police. The bill calls for sharia punishments to extend to a maximum 30 years’ imprisonment, RM100,000 (US$22,400) fine, and 100 lashes of the cane. If passed, the bill would threaten the secular nature of the government and pose a serious threat to human rights.
Last weekend, PAS organized a rally to prove it has majority support for the bill, and around 20,000 people attended. A second smaller counter-rally gathering was organized by a group of activists calling themselves BEBAS (which means “free” in Malay).
According to Justice for Sisters, some Malaysians are now seeking asylum abroad “for lack of freedoms and religion” at home. Another of the NGO’s biggest concerns is “how this environment [in Malaysia] is fertile for the rise of vigilance and other extremist groups.”
Malaysia’s religious police aren’t going anywhere; the only question is how strong they will become.
Ana Salvá is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.