Freedom to choose religion equals changing faith, says Umno sec-gen

(The Malaysian Insider) – Telling a Malay he can choose his faith is the same as telling him he can change it, Datuk Tengku Adnan Mansor said as he weighed in on the growing uproar sparked by a recent remark from PKR’s Nurul Izzah Anwar expressing her support for religious freedom for all Malaysians.

The PKR vice-president’s remarks at a forum last week drew widespread backlash among conservative Muslim groups and Umno hardliners, who accused the opposition rising star of supporting apostasy.

“Recently, we want to ask Nurul Izzah Anwar, what’s the difference between choosing religion and changing religion?” Tengku Adnan, who is secretary-general of Umno, the country’s oldest and largest Malay political party, told Malay daily Utusan Malaysia in an interview published today.

“To me, it is the same but this is what she had applied and I am confident that in the end Malaysians will realise this.”

The veteran politician’s comment backing the conservatives is likely to stir up religious debate and could drive a bigger wedge within the Malay-Muslim community, who form some 60 per cent of the country’s 28 million population and whose vote is crucial to form the next government at the 13th general elections due soon.

Umno, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s mainstay, has some three million members but the Malay-Muslim vote is split three ways with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) pact’s Islamist party PAS and its urban-based reform ally, PKR, drawing increasingly greater support.

Race and religious issues are inseparable in Malaysia, where the Malays are constitutionally defined to also be Muslims.

The country’s supreme law states that Islam is the religion of the federation but also provides for other religions to be practised freely.

Nurul Izzah has denied supporting apostasy and accused Utusan Malaysia and its other pro-BN Malay newspaper Berita Harian of allegedly twisting her statement.

An Umno deputy minister has also said the first-term lawmaker for Lembah Pantai could be prosecuted for her remarks purportedly insulting Islam.

“There are no such provisions for now, but it can be included under provisions on insulting Islam or causing Islam to be insulted,” Datuk Dr Mashitah Ibrahim, deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs, told Parliament last week.

“Anyone who orally or in written form mocks or causes Islam to be degraded, can be imposed with a penalty of not more than RM3,000 or jail of not more than two years, or both.”

But Nurul Izzah has found support from popular Islamic scholar Datuk Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, who backed her remarks that there is no compulsion in Islam.

The Univesiti Sains Malaysia (USM) lecturer said he had written an article two years ago titled “Iman Tidak Boleh Dipaksa (Faith Cannot be Forced)”, and added that the content was “the same” as that which Nurul Izzah had stated.

“Malays cannot be forced and [they] believe voluntarily. But, through preaching, a person can be brought back to the faith,” he was quoted by another Malay daily, Sinar Harian, as saying last week.