The government promoted Sunni Islam above other religions, including other forms of Islam, and detained individuals for violating restrictions on religious freedom. Because Islam and the Malay ethnic identity are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
A 1996 fatwa with the effect of law under the sharia code declared Malaysia would only follow Sunni teachings and prohibit the possession, publication, or distribution of material contrary to those teachings. Those deviating from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action. In March over 100 people were arrested for allegedly being Shia Muslims. They were detained at a private event commemorating a Shia celebration and released hours later. The case is still pending.
The government reportedly maintained a secret list of “sects” banned as “deviant” interpretations of Islam that included over 50 groups. The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) established federal guidelines concerning what constitutes “deviant” Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. The federal and state governments forbade religious assembly and worship for what the government deemed as “deviant sects” such as Shia, Ahmadiyya, and Al-Arqam. Members of banned groups could not speak freely about their religious beliefs.
The government detained Muslims who deviated from accepted Sunni principles and subjected them to mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. In April the widow of the founder of a banned Islamic sect, along with 18 followers, was sentenced to 500 hours of rehabilitation. State-level sharia courts also had the authority to order individuals who professed belief in a “deviant” Islamic group to enter religious rehabilitation centers. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length, but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs are designed to ensure the detainee adopts the government's official interpretation of Islam.
In March the government charged Kassim Ahmad, a retired scholar and political activist with insulting the Islamic religion. He had, among other things, criticized some Islamic scholars in Malaysia of elitism. His case was still pending at year end.
The actions of Islamic authorities increasingly affected non-Muslims. Although in June, the minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Jamil Khir Baharom, stated the government views the federal constitution as allowing either parent to decide on a child’s faith, contradicting the current interpretation of the law, child custody cases between converted Muslims and their non-Muslim spouses often favor the former. On April 6, a civil court overrode a sharia court order and granted a Hindu woman full custody of her two children aged six and nine. The woman’s estranged husband was previously awarded custody by a sharia court and he converted the children to Islam. The police refused to act on the civil court order, leaving the children with the father who refused to comply with the court decision.
In June, Selangor State’s Department of Islamic Affairs (JAIS) raided a Hindu temple to stop a wedding ceremony because the bride was registered as Muslim, though she never practiced the faith. That same month, Islamic authorities in the northern state of Penang stopped a funeral and confiscated the body of the deceased whom they suspected to be Muslim. Her body was only released back to the family four days later, after a sharia court declared she was not Muslim.
Restrictions on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims continued to be controversial. In June the government ended the Catholic Church's legal efforts to continue to use the word “Allah” in its newspaper Herald, when the nation's highest court denied its bid to overturn the 2009 ban on its use. Though the government insists the ruling only applied to the newspaper, the case continued to have an impact beyond the weekly. For instance, religious books continued to be arbitrarily seized by customs, most recently in December, when 30 hymn books meant for indigenous Christians were confiscated by the police at a copy shop in the state of Johor for containing the word “Allah.”
In January, police recommended Father Lawrence Andrew, the Herald's editor, be charged under the Sedition Act for saying the word Allah would continue to be used in Bahasa Malaysia-language services in churches in Selangor state. The Attorney General’s Chambers has not charged Father Andrew to date. That same month, JAIS raided the Bible Society, confiscated more than 300 copies of Bibles with the word “Allah” and arrested the society's chairperson and a staff member. The Attorney General's Chambers closed the case in June, declining to prosecute the Bible Society and instructing JAIS to return the Bibles, which the JAIS initially refused to do. In November, however, Selangor state’s new chief minister brokered a compromise with JAIS to hand over the Bibles to an association of Christian churches from another Malaysian state whose representatives promised to not distribute the books in Selangor.
The government placed restrictions on religious assembly and denied legal status to certain religious groups. In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Examples of groups that registered as companies include Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, but precluded government funding.
State governments had exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship, as well as land allocation for all cemeteries. Non-Muslims reported they regularly encountered difficulties obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship. The Selangor state government finally approved plans to build a Christian church in November, six years after the church submitted its proposal.
The government prohibited publications, public events, and public debates that it alleged might incite religious disharmony. In October an Indonesian Islamic scholar, Ulil Abshar Abdalla, viewed by many as liberal, was barred from entering the country to speak at a roundtable discussion on combating fundamentalism. He was previously invited by the government in 2002.
In April the federal government unexpectedly announced it would now support states that want to implement Islamic hudud for Muslims. In November Kelantan state leaders said they would introduce several bills in Malaysia’s parliament in 2015 that would pave the way for implementation of its hudud statutes. The Kelantan state government first passed hudud laws in 1993, but has been prevented from implementing it since. Any amendment to the penal code would still require the support of two-thirds of parliament.
Officials at the federal and state government levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, and influenced the content of sermons, used mosques to convey political messages, limited public expression, and prevented certain imams from speaking at mosques. State governments were legally responsible for the administration of mosques in the 13 states, including appointing imams and providing guidance on the content of sermons. In the three federal territories, the Federal Territories Islamic Department (JAWI) carried out these responsibilities. JAKIM also produced the text for Friday sermons for all mosques in the country, though there is no information on how many follow the prepared texts.
Authorities at the state level administered sharia through Islamic courts and had jurisdiction over all Muslims. Sharia laws and the degree of their enforcement varied by state and were influenced by respective religious departments of the state. State governments imposed sharia law on Muslims in some cultural and social matters, but generally did not interfere with the religious practices of non-Muslim communities; however, debate continued regarding states incorporating elements of sharia, such as khalwat, (close proximity to a non-family member of the opposite sex) into secular civil and criminal law. Although specific punishments for violation of khalwat varied from state to state, it was typically punishable by some combination of imprisonment up to two years, a fine of 3,000 ringgit (RM) ($858), or several strokes of the cane.
State Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments, to enforce sharia, including violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat.
In July Selangor’s religious authorities gazetted a fatwa (giving it the force of law) declaring women’s rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Sisters in Islam “a religiously deviant organization for subscribing to liberalism and pluralism.” The state government has not yet taken any specific action against the group, but Sisters in Islam challenged the fatwa on constitutional grounds. The case is still pending.
The government provided financial support to Islamic religious institutions and more limited funding to non-Islamic groups.
Islamic religious instruction was compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students were required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Local churches and temple groups unsuccessfully urged the government to include the option for non-Muslim religion classes to be held during the school day. At primary and secondary public schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with recitation of a Muslim prayer by a teacher or school leader. Private schools were free to offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims. Homeschooling is legal, but some families reported difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education. The government offered grants only to private Islamic schools that agreed to allow government supervision and adopt a government-approved curriculum. Religious teachers in many national schools, particularly in peninsular Malaysia, ensured that Muslim girls wear the tudung (Muslim head covering) at school.
Anti-Semitic, and in some cases anti-Christian, statements were made by government bodies. In January JAKIM released the text of a Friday sermon it prepared that blamed Christians and Jews for dividing Muslims. In July Bung Mokhtar Radin, a United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Member of Parliament, praised Hitler on social media after Germany won the World Cup.
Some government bodies, including the federal government’s Department of National Unity and Integration, were tasked with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups, but none enjoyed the power and the influence of those that regulate Islamic affairs. In June the minister in charge of national unity, Joseph Kurup, announced the federal government would investigate the wedding raid by JAIS that same month, but no action has been taken since. In November the same minister also called for the reopening of the investigation of a threat to burn bibles by the NGO Perkasa, which the Attorney General's Chambers had decided to close. No further action was taken on this matter.
Prime Minister Najib has made calls for moderation and tolerance a key issue in his administration, and has promised to make these a theme of Malaysia’s chairmanship of ASEAN, which started in November, as well as Malaysia’s upcoming term on the U.N. Security Council. Prime Minister Najib officially dropped his pledge to repeal the sedition law in a November 27 speech. Instead, he announced plans to retain the law and expand it to cover statements denigrating Islam or other religions, and other issues. The prime minister is also the founder-patron of the government-linked think tank Global Movement of Moderates (GMM). GMM’s activities in Malaysia included events and publications designed to promote tolerance and inclusiveness and to reject extremism, including in religion. In April the group co-hosted a roundtable promoting religious tolerance. In September GMM and a prominent Muslim youth organization created a task force to address the increasing influence of extremist ideologies. In November, Prime Minister Najib tabled a white paper on the Islamic State in parliament, describing the group as misinterpreting the meaning of “jihad” and expressing concern over the group's impact on Malaysia's security. In October JAKIM promulgated a fatwa calling the terrorist group’s jihad as contrary to Islam, and advising Malaysia’s Muslims to ignore Islamic State propaganda.