Malaysian Muslim responses to conversion

Norani Abu Bakar, New Mandala

In Malaysia, culture is often conflated with religion. The 82 percent of the Merdeka Centre’s Public Poll on Ethnic Relations: Experience, Perception & Expectations (2011) respondents who said that “they are happy to live in Malaysia because they get to enjoy different cultures,” indicates the healthy cultural environment in this country. This indirectly speaks on the religious life too. The survey among Asian populations that was conducted by Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations echoes similar voice – that Malaysians are “among the most likely to agree that most religions make positive contribution to society.”

However, in the same Merdeka Centre poll, participants also indicated that ethnocentrism is still prevalent, and 55 percent of the respondents generally feel that Malaysian society is not ready to debate ethnic and religious issues openly. Thanks to the recent HIMPUN initiative and the DUMC incident, deep issues such as apostasy, proselytising, and “Christianophobia,” are now being explicitly and openly debated. In order to develop reasoned and constructive discussions, the first question to ask is: “What are responses of Malaysian Muslims to Malays who convert out of Islam and the reasons behind these responses?”

The polemic on “apostasy” is endless and Muslims’ responses vary. Mohammad Azam Mohammad Adil from Mara University of Technology paper on ‘Law of Apostasy and Freedom of Religion in Malaysia’ (2007) uses various definitions of apostasy to categorise apostates: (1) apostasy of faith, (2) apostasy in actions, (3) apostasy in statement, and (4) apostasy in abandoning obligation. The issue at stake is as in (1) – a Malay apostatising to Christianity.

Often, the response at a personal level is dialectic between conforming to the mainstream Muslim community presumption on apostasy and own conviction and emotion to the apostate. Some responded kindly and sympathetically to the loved one who is perceived as having strayed from the right path. Another response is a sincere and groaning disappointment leading to hurt. Others are hostile. Usually, the response is a mix of these emotions. A few converts are ousted from their families. However, the extreme case where violence is involved is not common in Malaysia.

Malaysian Muslims are mostly exclusivists who believe that other religions are not leading them to the right path and simply false. Having a strong communal culture, the thought of being separated from family or community members between heaven and hell in the afterlife is unthinkable. Furthermore, the increasing number of converts the recent openness of evangelism activities and the increasing support to Christian Malays in this nation traumatise some Malaysian Muslims. This emerging consciousness increases the concern or even fear on “Christianisation” hyperbolically. And such human behaviour is natural.

The traditional meta-narrative is Malays are Muslims, just like Tibetans are Buddhists, and Tamils are Hindus. This mind-set is reinforced by the pre-Merdeka legislation through Article 160 of the Malaysian Constitution which states that a Malay person is someone who professes to be Muslim, speaks the Malay language, adheres to Malay custom, and domiciles in Malaysia. Among the Malays, leaving Islam is often perceived as abandoning the Malay culture and the Muslim community.