Earlier this month the Kuala Lumpur chapter of the non-profit Atheist Republic, an organization which “provides opportunities for non-believers around the world to gather with like-minded people,” posted a photo of a rare meetup of members.
The photo shows more than 20 men and women, mostly young, casually dressed, smiling, hands, cups or peace signs raised – all presumably non-believers.
The caption reads: “Atheists from all walks of life came to meet one another, some for the very first time… each sharing their stories and forming new friendships that hopefully last a lifetime! We rock!”
Shortly after, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, a minister from a department in charge of Islamic affairs, asked for an investigation to determine if any Muslims were involved in the meeting.
A day later, Shahidan Kassim, another minister, this time part of the cabinet of Prime Minister Najib Razak, suggested a forced education for the atheists.
“I suggest that we hunt them down vehemently and we ask for help to identify these groups,” he said in a press conference.
Whether because of a populist ploy for use in the upcoming elections or an indication of Malaysia’s drift toward more radical political Islam, atheists in the country have been singled out by Muslim conservatives in the government. Now the ex-Muslim groups fear an assault by possibly emboldened fundamentalist Muslim communities.
“We take it very seriously. We are very concerned,” said Nurulhuda*, a Singaporean ex-Muslim who has lived in Malaysia for 19 years, referring to the minister’s remarks.
Nurulhuda came from a very pious background, she said, praying with her family and attending mosque and madrassa.
Now she is a social worker in Malaysia and helps host secret in-person meetings of others who have left Islam – “our own little group,” she called it. At her house or a park, the group BBQs and meets new people, sharing stories and experiences.
“It’s like a support group,” she said. “It’s like an escape for them, to meet with others who have the same kind of ideology.”
The Modern Muslim Malaysia
It’s obvious, Nurulhuda said, that Malaysian society has drifted toward more extreme forms of political Islam, something she witnessed firsthand in her nearly two decades in the country as a foreigner.
“Malaysia has become steadily more intolerant, and this has been a top down government policy,” said Dr. Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College who focuses on Southeast Asian politics and security issues. Abuza described the clergy as state-sponsored with vetted sermons.
“The people most at risk are clearly the ethnic minorities, atheists, and Christian Malays, which is actually unconstitutional. I was just in Malaysia, and the intolerance displayed by Malays is growing. I don’t know one Chinese Malays or Indian that is not alarmed at where this is headed.”
There has been a change in how many in Malaysian society practice Islam, explained Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa, director of the Islamic Renaissance Front, a think tank in Malaysia “focused on the promotion of Muslim intellectual discourse.”
A shift toward more rigid and political Islamic practice has occurred, Musa believes, because of an influx of Salafist scholars returning from Saudi Arabia. Many of these Malay scholars have joined the government, sometimes as members of the Department of Islamic Advancement of Malaysia (JAKIM), or preach at mosques.
Two years ago Musa was summoned to the JAKIM to speak about his activism, he said. According to him the vast majority of over three hours of debate was spent arguing with the 22 members of the JAKIM about his stance on freedom of religion, including the freedom to leave a religion such as Islam.
“It’s a trend in many states in Malaysia that every Friday Shiites are vilified [along] with liberals, gays and Christians,” said Musa.
Musa described the situation with a laugh of desperation.
“Now, the next target will be the atheists,” he said.
Nurulhuda’s atheist meetings remain secretive, she stressed, to protect the closeted atheists. The group is careful who they invite. They rely on close friends to vet potential members.
Ex-Muslims or their families could be harassed, she explained. Their careers could be affected. Or worse.
During conversation she brought up a Christian pastor in Malaysia who was abducted in February. Some, including Nurulhuda, speculated it was related to reports of him proselytizing to Muslims.
“We hear of what has happened in Bangladesh, so we do have fear,” she said, speaking of atheist bloggers in that country murdered by Islamic fundamentalists.
Death threats online and over the phone are common, she said.
“If you’re a woman, it’s even worse.”
The most common threat to her and other ex-Muslim women is rape, she explained.
Hoping for a Civil Sharia
“[Minister Kassim’s] remark is popular political talk. Let’s not give too much legal importance to it,” said Dr. Shad Saleem Faruqi, professor of law at the University of Malaya. “Our criminal law does not forbid atheism nor does it criminalize it,” said Faruqi.
And to the best of his knowledge, no non-Muslim has ever been prosecuted for disbelief.
Malaysia operates under a dual legal system where Muslims must abide by Islamic Sharia law for personal issues while non-Muslims must follow civil law.
“Decided cases indicate that a Muslim does have a freedom to convert but he must do so under the procedures of the Shariah laws that require an application, a waiting period and a religious authority decision. In actual practice such permission is very difficult to obtain,” said Faruqi.
While there exists no federal law against apostasy, Malaysian states have tried to implement death-for-apostasy laws, remarked Bob Churchill, director of communications at the International Humanist and Ethical Union organization.
And these “contribute to marginalizing and intimidating people who otherwise might come out as non-religious,” said Churchill.
Of more immediate concern, he said, are other ways that atheists can be prosecuted including for hurting religious sentiments, blasphemy and proselytizing to Muslims.
The atheist meetup in Kuala Lumpur wasn’t doing any of these things, said Churchill.
Ahmad*, an administrator for the Atheist Republic Malaysia page, is worried that secular aspects of law in Malaysia are fading away.
He was raised in a moderate Islamic family with whom he has, mostly, not discussed his atheism. While his parents are Muslim, he was never required to pray, he explained.
Even so, his moderate Muslim father one day mentioned casually to him that apostates should be killed.
“I don’t think he would kill me,” said Ahmad.
“We are moving further from secularism. But at the same time there is a blooming population of atheists.”
When he returned to his home village he was even able to find a couple friends that opened up to him about leaving Islam.
“If Muslims knew more atheists they would have a different mindset,” said Ahmad.
*Some names were changed in this article to protect the individuals.
Justin Higginbottom has reported from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North America. Contact him at j.h.higginbottom (at) gmail (dot) com.