Last month, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim issued a warning against individuals affiliated to an atheist group in Malaysia, using the words “hunt them down” as he urged the authorities to clamp down on this supposedly dangerous group of people. The usage of such words or phrases is certainly detrimental to any efforts made towards the acceptance of minorities within Malaysia, in this case individuals who do not believe in the existence of a god. It certainly demonstrates a no-nonsense approach towards people deemed to be threatening Islam as a way of life. Beyond this rhetoric however, there are intellectual issues to tackle vis-a-vis the monopolizaton of one belief system at the expense of the safety of those who do not suscribe to this system.
What sparked this moral panic was a photo posted by the Kuala Lumpur chapter of the non-profit Atheist Republic, an organisation which “provides opportunities for non-believers around the world to gather with like-minded people”. The photo showed about 20 men and women coming together to celebrate diversity within the atheist community. Minister Shahidan immediately asked for an investigation to determine if any Muslims were part of this burgeoning atheist community, or rather ex-Muslims who have joined them. He emphasized that Muslims who became atheists ought to be re-educated, with the help of Muslim religious scholars, so that they can “return to the right path”.
Although apostasy is not a federal crime in Malaysia, legalities do not seem to matter as the country inexorably veers towards an attitude that marginalises (ir)religious minorities, hence compromising one’s freedom to practice or to not practice a religion. In the case of atheists, there is an attitude of condescension embedded in this marginalisation where they are deemed to be confused about and ignorant of Islam. In fact, this marginalisation is also legally enshrined as Muslims are not allowed to officially renounce Islam. Instead, Muslims doubting their faith are encouraged to go for rehabilitation or counselling. This means that from a legal and sociological point of view, it is safe to say that atheists are deemed as deviant, enjoying the same label as Shia Muslims in Malaysia.
There has to be a way in moving forward regarding the perception of atheists at the state level and the grassroots level. First and foremost, the issue of one’s religious belief, or lack thereof, needs to be dealt with very delicately. It is ironic that Mr Kassim called for ex-Muslims to be re-educated so that they can return to the “right” path. Two issues arise here. Using the word “right” demonstrates the state’s attempt to monopolize religious discourse at the expense of other faiths, which is antithetical to the multi religious make-up of the country. As a result, such an announcement can sow discord at the grassroots level between Muslims and non-Muslims, which in fact is already happening. The second issue is that education needs to be aimed at all citizens (regardless of creed) who do have a stake in the country’s social harmony. Whether a Muslim leaves Islam or not is up to him or her, ideally at least. Education needs to be centred on a narrative that having differing soteriological or eschatological views need not hamper social interaction on the ground.
Beyond education, it would be ideal for interfaith groups in Malaysia to organise dialogues between people who follow a religion and people who don’t, or rather to enhance such efforts. The interfaith scene, where it concerns interaction between people of different religions, is important but it is more important than ever to include people who do not espouse a religion in this discourse. We could get into a whole debate on whether atheism is considered a faith: technically, it is a faith that God does not exist. The phenomenon of atheists receiving death threats on social media should be a definite red flag for how they are viewed by the layman and by religious scholars. There may be no federal law against apostasy but atheists continue to serve a life sentence just for being who they are.