Anwar Ibrahim, apostasy and the rule of law in Malaysia

By Umran Kadir

I had the pleasure of attending a talk delivered by Anwar Ibrahim in London on June 13. The title of the talk was “The future of the rule of law in Malaysia: in conversation with Anwar Ibrahim”.

Anwar’s speech

It was the second time I had attended a talk by him and, as before, I was impressed by his natural delivery and the content of his speech. The years of solitary confinement have clearly not dulled his ability to read an audience and touch on issues that resonate with them.

After an introduction by none other than Geoffrey Robertson QC, Anwar delivered his talk. He came across as earnest and forthright, and had the aura and charisma of a statesman. The combination of these qualities is rare in a Malaysian politician, and one can quickly recognise why there is an eagerness among some to see him as Malaysia’s next prime minister.

His talk touched on a number of areas including:

  • that this was the peoples’ victory and that significantly, it was totally homegrown, with no intervention or meddling by the West or any other outside powers;
  • the need to transform existing affirmative action policies from race-based into need-based policies;
  • the plight of poor and marginalised communities in Malaysia, from a cross-section of ethnicities;
  • the need to uphold and adhere to the rule of law and due process particularly in regard to ongoing investigations against the former prime minister Najib Razak;
  • his current relationship with Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his willingness to forgive and work alongside those who had transgressed against him if it meant the needs of the nation could be advanced;
  • his intention, notwithstanding the royal pardon bestowed upon him, to appeal his conviction in order to clear his name and restore his reputation; and
  • making Malaysia an exemplary model for other Muslim-majority countries to emulate.

The question of apostasy

It was an extremely encouraging talk. Implicit in his talk was the sense that he was a prime minister in waiting; that there would come a point (perhaps in two years) when the current prime minister would willingly retire and would hand the mantle over to Anwar. This is a problematic assumption for some, particularly given that in politics, two years can be a lifetime. However, I shall not seek to discuss this here.

Thankfully there was a Q&A session at the end of the talk, and I took the opportunity to ask a question that I believed to be of national and international significance.

My question to Anwar was straightforward: in his personal view, what should be done to apostates from Islam, in other words, those who are either born into the faith of Islam or convert to it but then, for whatever reasons, wish to leave the faith.

Background to apostasy

I will come to his response shortly, but first I offer some background for those unfamiliar with this issue within the Malaysian context.

Traditional Islamic scholars offer views ranging from the extreme and irreversible (put them to death) to the compassionate (leave them be). The reality is that the highest source of law in Islam, the Quran, which Muslims hold to be the inerrant word of God, does not advocate that Muslims harm an apostate.

Indeed, the Quran advocates unequivocally that there should be “no compulsion in religion” (2:256). The Quran states that “the Truth is from your Lord: let him who will believe let him who will reject” (18:29) and the same verse goes on to mention the punishment that God has in store for disbelievers.

Crucially, the latter verse commands Muslims to let both believers and disbelievers be and states that it is God and not human beings who shall decide the fate of disbelievers.

However, lesser, fallible man-made sources of law (i.e. the Hadith and certain jurisprudence/schools of thought) advocate the death penalty and other harsh penalties against apostates. There are those that argue (myself included) that these lesser sources directly contradict the Quran and should, therefore, be set aside.

The current position on Muslim apostates in Malaysia is complicated, due in no small part to the fact that the administration of Islamic law is left to individual state legislatures. As a result, the position in each state is slightly different. 

Nevertheless, what largely happens in practice is that “misguided” (sesat) individuals are hauled before shariah courts and told they must recant. Should they fail to recant they are detained, often for indefinite periods in religious reprogramming camps.

Unhelpfully, the Federal Constitution is not terribly clear on this, as the fuzzy language it provides in List 2 of Schedule 9 is that state legislatures may legislate in respect of “the creation and punishment of offences by persons professing the religion of Islam against precepts of that religion”.

Logically, apostates are not “persons professing the religion of Islam”. However, much to the continued disappointment of lawyers, activists and, most tragically, long-suffering suffering individuals (google Lina Joy and Kamariah Ali of the Sky Kingdom, amongst others), Malaysia’s judges have refused time and again to answer the question of whether shariah courts are empowered under the Constitution to detain and punish apostates.

The failure by our judges to offer a definitive and clear judgment on this most sensitive and challenging area of our Constitution has been one of the highest and most consistent forms of abandonment and dereliction of duty by Malaysia’s judges over the last 30 years. It remains a collective stain on our nation that in this day and age, individuals are unable to openly profess their beliefs or disbelief as the case may be.

Anwar’s response on apostasy

Anwar emphasised that as a practicing Muslim he would not encourage anyone to leave the faith. However, he accepted that those who wished to leave the faith should be permitted to do so.

It was an extremely encouraging response from someone expected to become Malaysia’s next prime minister.

He went on to deliver similarly encouraging responses to other questions from the floor on LGBT rights (what is done freely and without coercion in private should stay private) and penal reform (he was very disturbed by the acts of violence meted upon others during his incarcerations).

Of course, I remain conscious that his response was delivered in London before a largely non-Muslim and liberal audience. I would encourage others who place a premium on fundamental freedoms to ask my question of him in a mainly Muslim domestic setting; I would certainly relish the opportunity!

My hope for Malaysia

Like my fellow countrymen, I am thrilled by the majority of changes that are happening in Malaysia today. Each day seems to bring with it seismic changes of the positive kind. The sense of euphoria is palpable, even from halfway around the world.

With the changes to our judiciary, it is my hope that at the next opportunity our judges will now show courage by providing greater clarity on those difficult and controversial areas of our Federal Constitution, including on the ambit of the shariah courts and the question of apostasy.

In so doing, we would not only be honouring our obligations under the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which Malaysia is deemed to have accepted as a member of the United Nations, but also conforming to the spirit of the Quran.

The true character of a society is revealed by how it treats its weakest members, who are also often voiceless. Seen in this light, the question of how apostates are treated in the Malaysia is one of the key litmus tests of our reborn nation.

Without the freedom to conscience and belief, a freedom that is so central to staying true to our individual selves, all other freedoms mean little.

I hope you will join me in striving to make our country a place where we all feel a strong sense of belonging, regardless of ethnicity, colour and indeed, faith. – June 21, 2018.

This article was first published in the Malaysian Insight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *