WHEN it comes to tackling religious fundamentalism, the Malaysian government struggles to reconcile the commitments it makes on the international stage with the realities of life for the Malaysian people, according to UN Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune.
Under Prime Minister Najib Razak, the Malaysian government has long touted the merits of a cohesive and inclusive multi-religious society in the Muslim-majority nation, and continues to declare its commitment to a “moderate and progressive” form of Islam.
In comments made in response to Bennoune’s thematic report on fundamentalism, extremism and the cultural rights, Najib placed the success of the nation at the feet of its ethnic and religious diversity.
“In Malaysia’s experience ensuring a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-ethnic population have freedoms to practice their cultures, traditions and religious belief has been essential and integral to our nation building and progress,” he said in March 2017.
During his visit to the White House earlier this month, Najib reaffirmed his commitment to supporting “moderate and progressive Muslim regimes” around the world as they represent the “true face of Islam”.
The message of “moderate and progressive” is one that comes up repeatedly in the government’s message to the international community. Indeed, Malaysia continues to be seen by some as a beacon of religious pluralism and tolerance in the world.
But the experience for many Malaysians around the country does not reflect these strongly stated commitments, Bennoune said at a press conference on Thursday.
As UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Bennoune has just completed a 10-day fact-finding mission in the country. She expressed concern that there was a disparity between the lived reality of the people and the rhetoric of the government when it comes to religious freedoms and fundamentalism.
According to initial findings, many sectors of society “expressed concern at what they saw … as the growing Islamisation of the Malaysian society and polity, based on an increasingly rigid and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.”
As a result of this uptick of rigidity in religious affairs and this particular form of Islamisation, Bennoune found there had been far-reaching negative consequences affecting a vast array of subsets of society.
Highlighting women, human rights defenders, LGBT persons, artists and cultural experts as particularly vulnerable to this trend, Bennoune also pointed out the detrimental effects it was having on the Muslim community themselves, stating, “the freedom of religion or belief of Muslims themselves is now at stake in the struggle against fundamentalism in Malaysia.”
There are a number of examples of such contradictions happening in Malaysian politics today according to Bennoune.
While saluting the authorities’ efforts in combatting terrorism, she pointed to their partiality for “acquiescing to the underlying ideology of terror groups, such as, ‘there is only one way to be Muslim’ or … ‘religion should be used as a tool of state policy’.”
She also highlighted the risk this messaging can bring.
“Doing these things can only create conditions that are more conducive rather than less conducive to the risk of radicalisation,” she said.
Other examples included the increased involvement of religious authorities in policy decisions throughout the government, and the consideration to strengthen the Syariah Court’s powers in the country.
If proposed amendments to RUU355 (Act 355) had been approved, it would have increased the Syariah punishment caps in Malaysia to a maximum 30 years imprisonment, RM100,000 (US$22,400) fine and 100 lashes of the cane; far harsher sentences than those currently implemented under the civil system.
Just the consideration alone is “difficult to rationalise with stated commitments to moderation and progressiveness,” Bennoune said.
As Malaysia witnesses the blurring of lines between religion and politics, Bennoune warns of the dangers of the “movement of religion into the political arena and as a political tool.”
“[It] can have a lot of unintended consequences. It may be expedient sometimes in the short-term…but it can have very negative consequences in the medium and in the long-term that maybe aren’t predicted ahead of time,” she told Asian Correspondent.
Quick to point out that this happens across the globe, and certainly not only in Muslim-majority countries, Bennoune also praised Malaysia as a wonderfully diverse country in which many people do enjoy their cultural rights. But she warned, as with everywhere in the world, the creep of hardline religion into politics could place this tolerance at risk.
“You … really need to make a determination that the long-term human rights in the country matter more than the short-term strategic gain,” she said.
“You can’t take for granted that the diversity and tolerance that there has been, is resilient enough to survive that unscathed”.