The government continued to forbid non-Sunni practice of Islam, barred Muslims from converting to another religion, and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslim who contravened sharia codes. It also limited proselytization by non-Muslim religious groups and restricted the distribution of religious texts. The government prosecuted some deemed to have “insulted Islam” under sedition laws, often following criticism of the government’s policies on religion. Because Islam, Malay ethnic identity, and the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) continued to implement established federal guidelines concerning what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory rehabilitation in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. 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 continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam. State Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments, and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex).
The government continued actions against Shia Muslims practicing their religion. In October the Selangor State Islamic Department (JAIS) arrested and charged 16 persons for participating in a Shia religious ceremony, and subsequently published a warning to other Shia followers who “deviated” from the “true Islamic faith” that they could be fined or jailed for practicing Shia “ideology.” JAIS officials said they continued to monitor suspected Shia activities in collaboration with the Home Affairs Ministry and the police.
The government used sedition laws to restrict and punish speech seen as criticizing Sunni Islam. In September an opposition politician was sentenced to 16 months in prison for a 2014 social media post allegedly disparaging the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed. In January a human rights lawyer was charged with sedition for a tweet criticizing JAKIM for “spreading extremism” in its prepared Friday sermons. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year. Civil society activists stated the government selectively prosecuted speech allegedly denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths.
The federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be deviant sects such as Shia, Ahmadiyya, and Al-Arqam. Members of banned groups could not speak freely about their religious beliefs.
Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed sermon texts for mosques to follow, and used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion. In a sermon that was delivered throughout the state in September the Pahang State Islamic Affairs Department accused the opposition Democratic Action Party of being anti-Islam. Official sermons issued by religious affairs departments sometimes contained pro-government messages, for instance, urging Muslims to support the budget proposed by PM Najib.
The government placed restrictions on religious assembly and denied legal status to certain religious groups. Representatives of religious groups complained the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register 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. The federal government budget allocated 819 million ringgit ($191 million) to JAKIM in 2015 for a wide variety of Islamic education and mosque-related projects. There were no specifically allocated funds in the government budget for non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive some irregular funding for temple and church buildings and activities.
Restrictions remained on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. In January the Federal Court denied an application to review the June 2014 court decision confirming a ban on a Catholic Church newspaper’s use of “Allah” to denote God. In May the government proposed new guidelines barring Christian publications containing the word “Allah” from peninsular Malaysia while allowing its use in the states of Sabah and Sarawak, home to many Malay-speaking Christians. Christian groups opposed the proposed restrictions, particularly the planned oversight of Christian publications by the Publication and Quranic Texts Control Division of the Home Affairs Ministry, publishing an open letter calling the move “interfering with Christian religious rights and practices.”
In September the government returned eight compact disks with Christian worship songs containing the word “Allah” to a Christian woman. The items were returned after a Court of Appeal’s decision which found the Customs Department had acted beyond the law in confiscating the media seven years earlier.
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-Muslim groups reported regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many religious groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their services. Observers stated that this practice has been largely tolerated, but also has left the religious groups vulnerable. In the wake of an April protest by Muslim groups against a small Christian congregation operating in a commercial building in Selangor State, a municipal council ruled its religious use “illegal.” The state government declined to act against the church, but the religious group’s ability to use the building remained technically against the law.
While Muslim students were required to take religious instruction at public schools, non-Muslim religious groups unsuccessfully urged the government to include the option for non-Islamic religion classes to be held during the school day. At primary and secondary public schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families reported difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education. Community leaders and civil liberties groups reported that religion teachers in many public schools, particularly in peninsular Malaysia, pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudung (Muslim head covering) at school.
In November women’s rights NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) challenged in civil court the constitutionality of a July 2014 Selangor State fatwa with the force of law labeling SIS a “religiously deviant organization for subscribing to liberalism and pluralism.” While the state did not take any further action against SIS, fatwa violations continued to be considered crimes punishable by fine or up to two years in prison. Authorities could also seize and destroy any materials deemed to violate the fatwa.
Despite a 2014 civil court ruling that the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department’s (JAWI) 2012 raid on a bookstore carrying a controversial book was unconstitutional, JAWI continued to pursue sharia charges against the bookstore manager for stocking a publication contrary to Islamic principles until May, when the civil court threatened JAWI with contempt. The book, Allah, Liberty, and Love by Canadian author Irshad Manji, was banned by the Home Affairs Ministry after JAWI’s arrest of the bookstore manager. The book’s publisher, also a Muslim, faced sharia proceedings. In September the Federal Court, the country’s highest court, dismissed the publisher’s claim that the ban violated the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.
The government prohibited publications, public events, and public debates that it stated might incite religious disharmony. Books banned during the year included Deepak Chopra’s Muhammad: A Story of God’s Messenger and the Revelation That Changed the World and The Golden Laws: History through the Eyes of the Eternal Buddha by Ryuho Okawa. Government officials said it banned these books as they contained elements violating the Quran that could confuse Muslims.
In January JAWI initiated investigations against several Muslim teenage girls for hugging male musicians at a meet-the-fans session for visiting Korean pop stars. After public outcry over its threat to arrest the teenagers, the religious department ceased to pursue the matter.
In February a 14-year-old boy stated that Negeri Sembilan State religious authorities detained him for more than three hours and forced him to lodge a police report against his Hindu father, who reportedly was attempting to change the boy’s religion from Islam to Hindu. Police refused to take action in the case, calling it “too complicated” and leaving the matter to the state Islamic affairs department, according to media reports.
Civil liberty groups and non-Muslim religious leaders stated that when civil and sharia jurisdictions intersected, civil courts continued to give way, creating situations where non-Muslims were affected by sharia judgments. Media and civil liberty lawyers reported that sharia courts often decided child custody cases where one parent converted to Islam while the other did not – and have historically favored the Muslim parent. When facing competing orders by civil and sharia courts regarding custody, they stated the police generally sided with the sharia decisions. In October Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi said the government was in the process of harmonizing sharia and common law for the past two decades, including making all laws “sharia compatible.”
Although the federal government had long held that hudud (Islamic penal law) punishments for moral crimes was unconstitutional, in April the government announced it would support states seeking to implement hudud. The federal government and Kelantan State worked together on a technical committee to examine how the hudud code would come into force. As of the end of the year, the government had not tabled any of the several parliamentary bills it said were necessary, including one amending the sharia code, and one devolving criminal law matters to Kelantan. Many NGOs and political observers said they believed the federal government’s sudden support for hudud was politically motivated to force a schism between the opposition Islamic party (in favor of hudud) and other opposition parties (which are against its implementation), and doubted the bills would ever reach the parliament floor.
Government officials made anti-Semitic, and in some cases anti-Christian, statements. In August Mahdzir Khalid, the minister of education and a senior leader of the ruling UMNO party, said a London-based website that reported Malaysian government corruption was part of a Jewish/Christian agenda to split the Malay Muslim community.
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 many faith-based organizations stated they believe that none enjoyed the power and the influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs.
Prime Minister Najib continued to call for moderation and tolerance, urging participants at an October seminar on religion and peaceful co-existence to “…make a firm commitment to establish a culture of tolerance and harmony in order to better promote the well-being of humankind, putting aside what may divide us as communities.” In 2012 PM Najib founded the government-linked think tank Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) and he remained its patron. In October he appointed Nasharudin Mat Isa, who championed the ban on Christian use of the word “Allah,” as the next GMM chairman, sparking criticism from civil society leaders. Prime Minister Najib also gave several speeches suggesting Malaysia would not accept “liberal” definitions of human rights that stray from the tenets of Islam.
It remained difficult for those registered as Muslims to have their religious identification changed by the authorities. In October the Court of Appeal dismissed a bid by a Hindu-born mother and her four sons to have the National Registration Department change their names and remove “Islam” from their identification cards. The applicants had argued they had never converted, but the court ruled the family’s identification documents alone were evidence of their professed religion.