Putrajaya’s crackdown on atheists a distraction, says report

ACADEMICS believe that current crackdown on atheism in Malaysia is meant to whip up support among Barisan Nasional’s conservative Malay-Muslim base, the South China Morning Post reports today.

It quotes senior International Islamic University Malaysia lecturer Dr Maszlee Malik as describing the pursuit of atheists as a political red hearing to distract people from everyday issues.

“These kinds of activities were well-planned to be sensationalised before the election. (The ruling coalition) Barisan Nasional will stir religious and racial sentiments, and it’s unfortunate these youths couldn’t read the situation. BN just needs more controversial issues so they can prove to majority rural and conservative Malays that they are the real defenders of Islam,” he said.

It was reported earlier that the authorities are investigating atheism in Malaysia after the group Atheist Republic, a Canada-based organisation, last week posted a picture of a gathering that appeared to include Malays. 

 The Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department said it would take action if it was true that Muslims had attended the event. Minister in the Prime Minsiter’s Department Shahidan Kassim urged Jawi and other religious authorities to hunt down atheists “to restore their faith”. 

Maszlee said the next “big issues” to be hyped up by Putrajaya would be “LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights, Christianity and then liberalism – as long as these fringe groups are vocal or provocative – all to sway people from the real issues such as the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) corruption scandal, GST (goods and services tax), kleptocracy, the ‘Chinasisation’ of the economy, corruption and so on.”

Dr Ahmad Farouk Mousa, director of the think tank Islamic Renaissance Front, said this crackdown and other moves, such as not passing legislation meant to end unilateral child conversions to Islam, were meant to appease conservative Muslims.

“This group is a lifeline to the current ruling coalition in the face of massive corruption. As for the government – the state really doesn’t have any legitimacy to interfere because what these kids are doing is not curtailing any other citizen’s temporal rights.”

Lutheran pastor Dr Sivin Kit, who is director of the Centre for Religion and Society, said Shahidan had overreacted when compared with the measured statements from some state muftis.

“We should be more critical of their (politicians’) reaction as opposed to young people posting up pictures – I’m actually very cautious and guarded about why the political leaders are so excited about this.”

The SCMP report also quoted an attendee of the gathering as saying that it was just a casual meeting of like-minded friends and that the government’s reaction did not fit the “crime”.

 “Some choose to discuss topics pertaining to religion, and at times human rights issues dominate the conversations. But to be honest, most of us just wanted to talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode. The government is overreacting, but I’m not surprised. Ideas that bring about social progress, that challenge antiquated religious dogma have always been seen as a threat,” a person identified as Arrawdah said.

University of Malaya law professor Dr Azmi Sharom said atheists were not the only group to persecuted, as Islamic authorities would go after all groups who challenged their dominance in religion.  

“The authorities tend to demonise Muslims who do not follow their school of thought. This includes Ahmadiyas and Shias. The insistence of there being only one school of Islamic thought in Malaysia has become part of the public landscape for many years now. So, no, apostates are not being unfairly demonised – the Islamic authorities demonise all who disagree with them. They are equal opportunity demonisers.”

Atheist Republic founder Armin Navabi said the Malaysian government had to think “long and hard” before criminalising people for merely attending a meeting.

“Does the Malaysian government really want their image to be put right next to countries like Saudi Arabia? To treat these people like criminals, people who haven’t harmed anybody?” –  August 13, 2017.