There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including reports of detentions. The government promoted Sunni Islam above other religions, including other forms of Islam. Members of minority religious groups sometimes faced limits on religious expression and demolition of nonregistered non-Muslim shrines. The government exerted influence over the content of sermons and used mosques to convey political messages. Controversy continued over the use of the term “Allah” for God by non-Muslims. Observers continued to express concern that the secular civil and criminal court system had ceded jurisdictional control to Sharia courts, particularly in areas of family law involving disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims. Government and social pressure operated to encourage Muslims to dress and act in prescribed ways. On occasion, government officials used anti-Semitic language.
In November, it was reported that the municipal council in Sepang, in the state of Selangor, demolished a Hindu shrine within a gated compound on private property. The council alleged that the shrine was in violation of council bylaws. The owners of the house where the shrine was located stated that they were given no notice of the impending demolition.
In October an estimated 3,500 people gathered to celebrate the birthday of the late founder of Al-Arqam, a banned sect of Islam. The Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) raided the gathering and arrested 20 individuals. On November 6, 17 of the 20, including a member of the opposition party People’s Justice Party (PKR) Central Leadership Council, were formally charged with trying to revive the banned movement.
The federal and state budgets continued to fund Muslim places of worship. Government funding for non-Muslim places of worship came from a special allocation within the prime minister’s department or from state governments. Minority religious groups continued to assert that non-Muslim places of worship were poorly funded and that the government made funding decisions on an arbitrary basis. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that both federal and state governments continued to delay, sometimes for years, permission to build or renovate non-Islamic places of worship, although they granted approvals to build mosques relatively quickly.
The government’s secret list of sects banned as “deviant” interpretations of Islam reportedly included over 50 groups. The ban on assembly and worship was not uniformly enforced, especially against small assemblies in private residences. State religious authorities generally followed JAKIM guidelines regarding “deviant” behavior. With the consent of a Sharia court, the government arrested and detained members of “deviant” groups for “rehabilitation” to the “true path of Islam.” The government continued to monitor the activities of the Shia population.
The government maintained bans on and confiscated religious materials it found to be “deviant,” although it did not initiate any new bans on religious books. The Publications and Quranic Text Control Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs supervised the publication of religious texts, and restricted the use of the words Allah (God), Baitullah (House of God), Kaabah (location towards which Muslims pray) and Solat (prayer) to Muslim groups only, asserting that these words were the sole jurisdiction of the Muslim community.
The government did not release statistics on the number of persons sentenced to religious rehabilitation centers during the year for attempts to convert from Islam, and maintained that historically there were very few apostasy cases. In 2011, Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom stated that the total number of applications by Muslims to change their religious status in Sharia court from 2000 to 2010 was 863, of which 168 were approved. Generally, the only conversions recognized were for non-ethnic-Malay individuals who had previously converted to Islam for marriage, but were seeking to reconvert to their previous religious affiliation after their marriages dissolved.
There were reports of minors converting to Islam in cases where one parent voluntarily converted to Islam and converted the children without the consent of the non-Muslim parent. Sharia courts usually upheld the conversions of minors despite the opposition of a non-Muslim parent, and the government in most cases did not act to prevent such conversions. Religious leaders continued to urge the government to move forward with a proposal to encourage Muslim converts to publicly announce their religious status. Under the proposal, upon a conversion, JAKIM and the National Registration Department (NRD) would automatically document the conversion so that the information would be made available to interested parties in an effort to avoid disputes over the status of Muslim converts upon their death.
The high-profile child custody and religious conversion case of M. Indira Gandhi continued without resolution at year’s end. In 2009, M. Indira Gandhi reported that her estranged husband, K. Patmanathan, had converted to Islam, changed his name to Mohd Ridzuan Abdullah, and converted their three minor children to Islam without her knowledge by presenting their birth certificates to the state religious department in Ipoh, Perak. Gandhi learned of the conversions only after the Sharia court in Ipoh notified her of its decision to recognize the conversions and grant her husband custody of the children. She appealed the decision in civil court. Following intense public criticism, the federal government announced in April 2009 that if a spouse converted to Islam, the children would follow the faith that both parents agreed to at the time of marriage. The government specified civil courts as the proper locations for dissolving marriages in the event of a spouse converting to Islam, and directed the attorney general to review and propose changes to the existing law to prevent future complications under those circumstances. In March 2010, the High Court rejected Patmanathan’s application and granted Gandhi custody of her children. Patmanathan appealed the decision and retained custody of the youngest child, despite a court order to surrender the child to Gandhi. In July 2010, the High Court allowed Gandhi’s application for judicial review to nullify the children’s conversion to Islam. The High Court heard the case in September 2011. On November 27, the Federal Court ruled that Patmanathan had failed to present the appropriate papers to appeal the 2010 custody decision by the High Court in a timely manner and had therefore lost the right to appeal. The decision regarding the conversion of the children was still pending at the end of the year.
After the Internal Security Ministry (which later merged with the Home Ministry) banned the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims in Malay-language Bibles and other Christian publications in 2008, the Roman Catholic Church filed a lawsuit against the ban. While the case was pending, the Home Ministry renewed the Catholic Church’s permit to publish the Catholic Herald (published in Malay, Tamil, and English) conditionally, and directed the church to cease publishing its Malay-language section, to restrict sales to Catholic Church property, and to print a disclaimer on the front page saying the paper was meant only for Christians. The Catholic Herald continued to publish its Malay-language version using the word “Allah,” arguing the Catholic Church had used the word in the country for more than 400 years. In 2009, the High Court of Kuala Lumpur ruled in the church’s favor, holding that the government’s prohibition on the Catholic Herald’s use of the word “Allah” was unconstitutional. The government appealed and in January 2010 the trial court issued a stay pending a review of the Court of Appeals decision. The case remained pending at year’s end.
In February the Court of Appeal upheld the 2010 arson conviction of two brothers for setting fire to the Metro Tabernacle church in Kuala Lumpur, and reduced their sentence from five to two years in prison.
In January the appellate court ordered the Penang High Court to hear an application brought by Siti Hasnah Vangarama Abdullah questioning the validity of her conversion to Islam when she was seven years old. Ms. Vangarama stated she was an orphan when a Muslim Welfare Organization officer took her to the State Religious Department to renounce Hinduism and embrace Islam. As a Muslim, Ms. Vangarama was unable to register her marriage to a Hindu man because the law does not permit Muslims and non-Muslims to marry legally unless the spouse converts to Islam. The case was pending at year’s end.
The government occasionally suppressed public discussions of controversial religious issues such as religious freedom, apostasy, and conversion of minors. At a November 3 forum on Islam and the state, the vice-president of the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR) stated that any aspect of compulsion, persecution or discrimination on the basis of religion was prohibited. The pro-government mainstream press subsequently criticized her for allegedly condoning apostasy among Muslims.
In 2011, a Shia Muslim sued the Selangor Islamic Department (JAIS) and an official at the newspaper Utusan Malaysia for defaming him as a “dangerous person” for his involvement in activities that were the subject of a December 2010 JAIS raid on a Shia group meeting in Gombak, Selangor. During the raid, 128 Shias were arrested, including an Iranian who was giving a sermon, and charged with insulting, questioning, violating, and disobeying a religious decree issued by the state mufti. Two of those arrested also faced charges for unlawful “teaching, ‘clarification,’ or performance of any rites or actions relating to Islam,” as well as “relating, propagating, or spreading views on any issue, teaching or Sharia judgment that goes against fatwas already in force in Selangor.” The Sharia and civil court cases remained pending at year’s end.
The trial of a Shia religious leader and three Shia group members, arrested by religious authorities and police in 2011, was pending at year’s end. The four were arrested at a Shia gathering being held to celebrate the birthday of Fatimah az-Zahra, a daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and were later released on bail.
Strict enforcement of Sharia law in some states placed additional restrictions on Muslims, who were affected by Sharia court sentences such as caning for violations including alcohol consumption and khalwat. Islamic officials stated that the intent was not to injure, but to make offenders ashamed of their sins so that they would repent and not repeat the offense.
Non-Muslim family members, including spouses and children, continued to lose all rights to inheritances in Sharia court in cases of conversion by one spouse to Islam.
Religious NGOs contended that Sharia courts did not give equal weight to the testimony of women. Several NGOs dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights complained that women did not receive fair treatment from Sharia courts, primarily in matters of divorce, child custody, and enforcement of alimony payments.
State Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments, to enforce Sharia law, including violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat. On May 23, the Federal Territories Religious Department (JAWI) raided a bookstore in Kuala Lumpur and arrested Muslim employee Nik Raina under Sharia law for distribution of the book, Allah, Liberty and Love, a book which had not yet been banned. The Home Ministry reviewed the book on May 29 and banned it on June 14, weeks after the arrest. Reportedly, Ms. Raina was arrested because she was the highest ranking Muslim working in the store at the time. The minister of home affairs declared that JAWI was empowered to arrest Ms. Raina, although there was no prohibition order in place on the day the book was confiscated. Ms. Raina was released within hours. On June 19, she was officially charged in Sharia court. The case was pending at the end of the year.
The Selangor Islamic Affairs Council (MAIS) continued to prohibit all non-Muslims from entering mosques and suraus (a small mosque or prayer room) in Selangor without MAIS permission, as a result of a 2010 controversy that occurred when a non-Muslim female opposition parliamentarian entered a mosque without proper head covering. According to a 2010 National Fatwa Council ruling, non-Muslims could enter mosques as long as they were properly attired and did not violate the sanctity of the mosque.
According to the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Taoists (MCCBCHST), the government continued its practice of restricting visas for foreign Muslim and non-Muslim clergy under the age of 40 as a means of preventing “militant clergy” from entering the country. While representatives of non-Muslim groups did not sit on the immigration committee that approved visa requests, the committee sought MCCBCHST recommendations in most non-Muslim cases.
The government placed or maintained restrictions on some religious customs and sought to enforce certain religious precepts. Observers reported increased quantity and volume of broadcasts from mosques and other Muslim places of worship or learning over public address systems. The government continued to place some restrictions on religious expression, including with respect to religious teaching, use of religious clothing and symbols, proselytism, and religious publishing.
The National Fatwa Council issued a fatwa banning foreign exchange trading by individuals or unregistered moneychangers using an electronic platform, to ensure that financial transactions adhered to Islamic law.
The government continued to require all Muslim civil servants to attend approved religion classes, and several government agencies pressured non-Muslim women to wear headscarves while attending official functions. However, this was not strictly enforced.
The government of Kelantan, considered the country’s most religiously conservative state, maintained its ban on Mak Yong, a traditional Malay dance drama performed for 800 years, due to its animist elements, and on Wayang Kulit, a form of shadow puppetry, because of its Hindu influences and its focus on folklore and mythical characters considered un-Islamic. The state also prohibited the sale of lottery tickets and advertisements showing what it considered to be inappropriately dressed women. Kelantan’s dress code prohibited Muslim women from wearing clothes exposing more than their faces and hands. The law also stipulated that non-Muslim women should avoid dressing “sexily or indecently.” Violators of the dress code faced fines up to RM 500 ($156). Kelantan also enforced headscarf requirements for Muslim women, imposing fines for violations. Kelantan regulations required men and women to form separate lines at supermarkets, although the rule reportedly was not enforced. Kelantan courts also fined couples who sat too closely in public areas, such as on park benches.
In October a public school teacher reportedly slapped four non-Muslim Orang Asli (indigenous) students for not reciting an Islamic prayer. The Education Department, the Orang Asli Development Department (JAKOA) and the teacher involved apologized for the incident; however, one week later the Rural and Regional Development Minister denied the incident. The parents of the students filed a police report and stated that they were unaware that their children, who were attending an exclusively Orang Asli school, were being taught Islamic studies. There was no further action on the case by year’s end.
Some indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak complained of errors in the names printed on their national identity cards, misleading the reader to believe that the card holder was Muslim.
Government representatives or individuals acting on behalf of the government made anti-Semitic statements. JAKIM posted weekly sermons on its website as a guideline for government-employed Muslim clerics during Friday prayers at mosques in the Federal Territories and the states of Sabah, Sarawak, Malacca, and Penang. In March the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (JAWI) issued an official sermon stating, “Muslims must understand Jews are the main enemy to Muslims.” In November a sermon published by JAKIM discussed the “despicable nature” of the Jewish race and stated that “Israel is a nation of ruthless criminals.”