KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 30 — Malays could be next in line after the Chinese to leave the country, in a bid to escape the growing religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism that leaves little room for free thought and dissent, according to activists and observers.
While Malaysia bills itself as a moderate Muslim nation, recent developments have demonstrated an increasingly conservative and hard-line approach to Islam here that is intolerant of cultures and practices not sanctioned by religious groups and authorities.
Malaysians for Malaysia convener Azrul Mohd Khalib said the Friday sermons prepared by the religious authorities that paint non-Muslims as enemies of Islam, as well as the use of labels such as liberalism, pluralism and humanism to vilify fellow believers, have dismayed and scared Muslims.
“Thinking Muslims are being marginalised and persecuted,” Azrul told Malay Mail Online yesterday.
“It is creating a climate of fear, suspicion and prejudice. Because of that, Muslims who do not prescribe to that belief system do not see themselves as being welcomed or even tolerated in this country,” the social activist added.
Azrul said many Muslims have started emigrating in the past 15 years based on anecdotal evidence, noting that Islamic authorities prohibit dissent and discussions of the country’s predominant religion.
“You are told ‘you cannot use logic and rationale to understand and practise Islam. ‘You must only refer to the Quran and hadith and nothing else’,” he said.
Hadith are “traditions” from the time of Prophet Muhammad that are not contained in the Quran.
Former de facto law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim said on Tuesday that more Malay-Muslims could be expected to leave the country if local religious authorities continue to pursue and prosecute those whose opinions they deem “deviant”.
Over the years, Islamic authorities have gradually become more rigid in their interpretation and application of the Shariah code in Islam.
They vilified and attacked a recent dog-petting event in which some Muslims touched dogs, which are considered unclean here in Malaysia. The programme triggered such outrage that its organiser received death threats.
On Tuesday, the National Fatwa Council issued an edict banning Muslims from “celebrating” Halloween, which it categorised as a Christian celebration of the dead.
Kelantan this month began enforcing a by-law that empowers state authorities to fine Muslim men up to RM1,000 or jail them for up to a year, or both, for failing to attend Friday prayers thrice in a row.
An Oktoberfest-themed beer festival in Selangor also drew the ire of Muslim groups earlier this month, despite the promotional event being targeted at and restricted to non-Muslims.
Muslim intellectual Kassim Ahmad is also being prosecuted by Islamic authorities for allegedly suggesting that Muslims need only follow the Quran, and not the accompanying Hadith. The view differs from that which is officially approved.
Malaysia has also outlawed the Shiah denomination of Islam, which it considers deviant from the Sunni school that is officially sanctioned here.
Malaysia’s religious authorities also frequently warns against liberalism, with the federal government’s Islamic Development Department (Jakim) reminding Muslims last week in its Friday sermon that this concept, along with pluralism, was a threat to Malay-Muslim unity as it could weaken their faith.
Jakim also said the National Fatwa Council had in its 74th meeting in 2006 declared liberal thinking as heretical.
“The very same liberal ideas, which are condemned and persecuted, are actually what made Islam a great humanist religion. Look back at history. Our religious authorities have lost their way and like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, are leading others astray,” Azrul said.
Social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir said she knows of several Malays who say they do not want to return to their homeland.
“It’s not for economic reasons, but simply because they feel that the environment here has become so negative and oppressive that it’s impossible to be able to live as peaceful, productive citizens any more,” Marina told Malay Mail Online.
“You just never know when something that is perfectly acceptable one day becomes ‘haram’ the next day,” she added, using the Malay word for “forbidden”.
The daughter of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad also noted the discomfort with the authorities’ continuous intrusion into people’s private lives at the expense of more important things such as injustice against women.
Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) CEO Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah said most of the leaders and intellectuals of “kaum muda” (young moderates) used to seek refuge in Penang and Singapore during the 1930s.
“Because in Penang and Singapore, they are more free to share their thoughts. Because there is less institutionalised religious authorities that would go after them,” Saifuddin told Malay Mail Online.
“The kaum muda were simply practising their intellectual freedom to interpret Islam in a more progressive way. And Islam allows that. You can have different interpretations. And Islam encourages dialogues among those with different opinions, not to prosecute, unless of course, if your opinion is tantamount to treason or glaringly unlawful,” the former deputy minister added.
Centre for Policy Initiatives director Dr Lim Teck Ghee said Malays in Malaysia are following the trend of Muslims in other Muslim countries who flee to Western nations, such as Australia, the US and European Union countries, to escape religious fundamentalism and political authoritarianism at home.
But he acknowledged that Malaysia has no statistics on the racial and religious breakdown of the country’s migrant outflow.
“I expect younger educated Malays to be concerned with the growing religious extremism and intolerance and to have this as the major factor in making them leave,” Lim told Malay Mail Online.
“Out-migration for Malaysians has never been solely about making a better living abroad. It has been the combination of socio-economic and political factors. Non-Malays have felt the pain of religious and racial discrimination. Now it is the turn of many Malays to feel a similar sense of deprivation and injustice,” the political analyst added.
According to a World Bank report in 2011, an estimated one million Malaysians are residing overseas.
More than two million Malaysians have emigrated since Merdeka.
Last year, a total 308,834 high-skilled Malaysians moved overseas, with 47.2 per cent going to Singapore, 18.2 per cent to Australia, 12.2 per cent to US and the rest to other countries like UK and Canada.
According to the same report, the number of skilled Malaysians living abroad rose 300 per cent in the last two decades, with two out of every 10 Malaysians with tertiary education opting to leave for either Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries or Singapore.