Wrong to call Malaysia a 'moderate Muslim country', NGOs tell Obama

Wrong to call Malaysia a 'moderate Muslim country', NGOs tell Obama
Filepic: Barack Obama
KUALA LUMPUR: It would be inaccurate to describe Malaysia as a “moderate Muslim country” despite repeated attempts by the country’s leaders to project such an image, civil society groups told US president Barack Obama during his visit.

In an “intimate and candid” meeting with Obama on Sunday, 10 local non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders said they had highlighted that there were still a slew of issues affecting the country, which included extremism and the worrying process of Islamisation that was “tearing at the fabric of Malaysian society”.

“If you look at the issues that are affecting us, both from an ethnic religious perspective, as well as a human rights and respect for rule of law. We cannot be described as moderate,” Bar Council president Christopher Leong told Astro AWANI today.

Leong had met Obama together with nine other NGO leaders.

They were: Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa (Islamic Rennaissance Front), Ratna Osman (Sisters in Islam), Tan Sri Hasmy Agam (SUHAKAM), Aegile Fernandez (Tenaganita), Honey Tan (Comango), Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam (outgoing Roman Catholic Archdiocese of KL), Rev Dr Hermen Shastri (Council of Churches), Datuk S Ambiga (Human Rights Society, HAKAM), and Maria Chin Abdullah (BERSIH).

Leong said that Malaysia constantly faced “widespread and institutionalised ethnic and religious unfair discrimination”, citing the cases of minority Muslim sects, Syiah and Ahmadis, being persecuted, and the seizure of Bibles and holy books by the Home Ministry.

These instances, he said, has led to an "acute polarisation in our society and community” and Malaysians growing further apart.

“There are attempts to subvert the underlying precepts of our constitution through a growing Islamisation process in Malaysia,” said Leong.
Obama to 'mutually support' human rights work

Obama, he said, had “shared our concerns” and jointly expressed that everyone, including Malaysians and Americans, should advocate moderation, fight discrimination, and encourage adherence to rule of law.

“Before becoming president, he was a lawyer who had a passion in civil liberties. That’s why we spoke the same language. While he has work to do in his own country, and he assured us that where possible, US would be there to be mutually supportive of each others' efforts and lend his voice to us,” said Leong.

Leong also highlighted that the government is supporting a “rule by law” instead of "rule of law", citing the example of the usage of laws to criminalise use by non-Muslims of several Arabic words and phrases.

“There is a growing and almost prevalent practice now of state religious bodies issuing edicts and these edicts are being enforced by government public service almost as law. That runs contrary to our constitutional framework and democracy,” said Leong.

As example, Leong said the National Fatwa Council prohibits children born out of wedlock from being registered, and refused to accept those who converted out of Islam.

Leong said it may be right to simply describe Malaysia as a Muslim majority country, but it would serve "no purpose".

“Other than it being a factual description, it has no utility or benefit for Malaysians in the mid to long term. It is like describing America as a Christian majority country. In fact, it is counterproductive because it emphasises and embeds divisions in society, and perpetuates this psyche in the minds of the government and citizens, which is one of the root causes of disharmony and disunity in Malaysia,” said Leong.

Najib himself a moderate but...

However, Obama and Leong shared the sentiment that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak himself was supportive of “moderation” though he faced an uphill task with elements, in and outside of his party and government, that are working against it.

“Both president Obama and I do recognise and believe that our Prime Minister Najib, his instincts are for moderation and against extremism, he is a proponent for economic transformation, institutional modernisation and ethnic and religious moderation.”

Leong said he told Obama that the use of religious and ethnicity hegemony and division is dangerous and divisive for Malaysia.

“Like America is called ‘Land of the Free’, until such time that we have earned and deserving of epithets such as “Harmonious Malaysia” or “Moderate Multicultural Malaysia”… let’s just refer to Malaysia as Malaysia.”

Others issues Leong said were discussed and communicated to Obama and his special advisor, Evan Medeiros, included:

Ethnic and religious tensions
“We discussed how ethnicity and religion is being used and abused as a means for maintaining political power. And that is highly divisive and potentially devastating for Malaysia. Obama recognised that, relating to us the experience in America in regards to the use of race and ethnicity as a tool for political power and political oppression. In America, the oppression of the African Americans in those days… required good men, over time, with continuous and relentless advocacy and work to overcome the issues that could have potentially torn America apart. You must remember that a lot of wars and human suffering find their origins in either race, ethnic or religious discrimination and oppression, unfortunately. America entered into a civil war to do away with ethnic discrimination. So that is something that every country in a modern era should be able to learn from mistakes of the past and navigate and avoid those same mistakes.”

Issues US has to deal with
“Obama admitted that US does not have a perfect human rights record. His strong campaign message during the presidential election was to close Guantanamo Bay. This was something I raised with him and he said he would address Congress on that matter. (Other issues were) their non-ratification of several UN conventions, for example, against all forms of discrimination against women, rights of child. America has involved itself in the international area and sphere in many ways. By that token, America should subject themselves to international law and justice. Its support for Israel in the long continuing conflict. America must be careful not to be supporting breaches of international law and abuses of human rights by the Israeli regime. These are things that America needs to think about."

Malaysia’s repressive laws
“I earlier mentioned to him the concerns for rule of law. The reintroduction of detention without trial after ISA. This time not for terrorists but it is in respect of Malaysian citizens in the pretext of crime fighting. I am referring to the amendments to Prevention of Crime Act. We also talked about the use of the Sedition Act: an outmoded ad oppressive legislation used against members of civil society, namely people like student activist Adam Adly, activist Haris Ibrahim, and opposition leaders like Tian Chua and the late Karpal Singh. The message conveyed to him was these legislation are used to silence dissenting views and curb freedom of speech and expression.

The ‘Allah’ debate
“I found it very interesting and ironic that president Obama began his visit with us on Sunday with the national mosque, and had toured National Mosque with imam Tan Sri Syaikh Ismail Muhammad, who is reported to have said that he found it endearing and kind of President Obama’s efforts to use Bahasa Malaysia. And President Obama in the course of conversation also said InsyaAllah (God willing) and terima kasih (thank you). It is ironic that the imam finds that endearing and kind, when Malaysian non-Muslims who say that in almost all states would face prosecution."

Hudud
“We raised concerns that there is a proposal for the introduction of hudud, which provides for, in essence, bodily mutilation. A criminal justice system which would recognise and legitimise bodily mutilation can never be acceptable. Such Islamic hudud laws cannot in any way apply to non-Muslims whether directly or indirectly by way of amendments to the Penal Code. That would be in effect imposing Syariah law on non-Muslims. Yet, if that is the case, how can you then have a disparity in treatment that is fundamentally unjust and unfair, that some Malaysians are subject to different treatment under the criminal law.

Freedom of expression/assembly
“We talked about the use of Printing Presses and Publications Act to curb the press. Also the denial of space to online news portals by denying licenses to print by fz.com and Malaysiakini and the indefinite suspension (now lifted) of news weekly The Heat recently.

Use of unnecessary and excessive force on peaceful assembly and police intimidation and assault of members of the press including damaging and confiscation of equipment of the media. Intimidation or harassment by the home minister in respect to a reporter from Malaysiakini in an event in Malacca. The use of Peaceful Assembly Act to restrict or deny rights of peaceful assembly. Bearing in mind that the Act was to facilitate peaceful assemblies, it is now being used to prosecute members of civil society and politicians for organising peaceful assemblies."