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On Proselytisation, and for Laws Against It

Preamble: This essay was written over the course of a week, and is largely a manner by which I am organising my own thoughts on the subject of proselytisation. I apologise if it self-references and makes statements not immediately clear to every reader. Links throughout the writing go back to a selected bibliography that informed how I worked through the points.

The news back home has been rife with accusations of members from different faiths proselytising to each other this past year. First, it was evangelical Christians getting to know Muslims at buka puasa (breaking fast) dinners during Ramadan. Today, it's Hindus accusing Muslims of forcibly converting a student into Islam. For a long time, I believed proselytisation between any faith in my country was against the law. Specifically, I knew that other religions were not allowed to preach to Muslims. I assumed the same went for these other religions preaching between each other as well. In fact, I was rather proud that my country was forward-thinking enough to bar proselytisation in general.

But the discourses in the media of late has taught me this presumption was wrong. Yes, preaching another faith to a Muslim is against the law in Malaysia. There are no laws against other religions preaching their truths to each other, or, as I understand it, no laws against Muslims preaching their truths to anyone else. What I had thought was a blanket law covering all religions was, while growing up, the fear non-Muslim faiths in general had about preaching openly. Although they weren't stopped from accepting non-Muslims into their fold, there was too much of a risk associated with publically proselytising. It was too easy to accidentally talk to the wrong person, who might in turn report to the authorities. This wall of legally-enforced silence does not apply to Muslims, who usually have the propriety to keep their religion to themselves as much as anyone else, but has vastly diminished in the last two decades as Islamicisation took root in my country.

While I am no scholar on the subject, I have been proselytised at. I know what it's like to go through this form of peer pressure within a closed community - the measured talks with the school's religious (and non-religious) teachers, their children personally escorting me to prayer at lunchtime, the dark rumours meant to separate my parents from the rest of the flock. When I was thirteen, I knew in my heart and my mind that I was an atheist. My family was and continues to be Muslim. Although my parents are both liberal in their outlook, I knew that at least my father would be upset about my choice, as he still essentially had firm beliefs in God. I chose to discuss my ideas with the school counsellor. During this period, I lived in Terengganu, one of the most conservative states on Peninsular Malaysia -- a part of the spiritual cousin of the American Bible Belt, if you will. I was in a regular, private integrated primary and secondary school.

Firstly, the mixed parentage was itself already cause for suspicion in this mostly Malay (and therefore legally Muslim) school. In my country, when a child misbehaves, we blame the parents for not raising them correctly. Children are part of the repertoire of their parents' honour. Every aspect of ourselves, from our behaviour to how we cut our hair, reflects on our parents, and the importance of saving our family's face is drilled into us our entire lives. My mother, being Chinese, could not possibly be expected to raise her children as good Muslims, or with good Malay values. This judgement was passed in the background as looks and whispers for me, but was openly said aloud to my brother, who was in his first year of school. The kid came home in tears, my mother hovered over us at school to deliver us lunch and accompany my brother to and from class every day.

I'd experienced shunning from Malay students as a much younger student, at about seven years old. As a child, I spoke broken Malay and decent English, and preferred to mix with non-Malay students as they also spoke English (what was spoken at home). Whenever I studied at a Malay-dominated school, Malay students largely kept a wide berth, as though we were foreigners. When I moved to the school in Terengganu, the atmosphere was shocking but not new. That said, the audacity of my brother's classmates was remarkably shameless. It's one thing to go home and tell your parents you study with an infidel so everyone can laugh about it, but seven-year-olds shouldn't be saying that to the face of other seven-year-olds.

As one of the only students in my year who wore the old-fashioned, knee-length and short-sleeved pinafore uniform rather than the full-length, wrists and ankles-covered baju kurung (at the time a relatively new innovation), I looked indecent in the crowd, even though there were non-Malay students who wore a mix of both uniforms too. My mother's hot lunches, dutifully delivered fresh by noon so they stayed warm, were the envy of my non-Malay classmates, but baffled my Malay peers. Mom's a great cook, but Chinese herbal chicken soup and Western dishes, with a smattering of the occasional curry, does look a little odd in a canteen where the typical fare is traditional nasi lemak and creative gets as far as roti john. My lunch could be non-halal, it looked so alien. And this even though my mother made a non-halal dish since she married my father almost four decades ago.

It also soon became apparent, after moving to this school, that I didn't pray during lunch break and that I refused to wear a headscarf. Our Physical Education teacher, whose daughter was in my class, had said upfront Muslim girls should wear the headscarf during his lessons, even though there were no legally binding clauses either within the school or within the nation to force us to do so. My PE teacher's daughter and a friend cornered me one morning in class to gift me with a headscarf. They meant well. They figured the reason I didn't wear one during PE class was because I didn't own one (true). My father, who would not know I was an atheist until years later, personally visited my PE teacher at school. Women in his family were not compelled to wear the headscarf, and this extended to his daughter. That settled at least this matter.

When I went to the school counsellor with my discussions on atheism, everyone on staff knew about it relatively quick. I don't know if these rumours about my atheism also filtered down to the student body, but the PE teacher's daughter and her friend would from then on personally walk me to the school surau (a smaller congregational hub available in most public/commercial buildings in Malaysia) to pray after lunch. Every day, I dreaded having to be cheerful about being walked through the ablutions and taught the prayers by rote, as although my father did very occasionally pray with me at home, it was never enough, either at home or at school, to indoctrinate in me all the things any student my age should have known about prayer. I was watched and tested in this matter by both my classmates and the ustazah (female Islamic studies teacher). I relished those days when I was menstruating specifically because it allowed escape. It was on those days where I could read in the library and talk to my friends during lunch, and could at least hope to not be led away.

I eventually started wearing the baju kurung on Fridays (the Muslim holy day) to sort of fit in. The PE teacher passed by me one afternoon in the hallway and said I finally looked "manis" (sweet/decent). I lasted at that school eight months. By that point, my mother felt huge pressure to remove both of her children from that school, and in fact move away entirely back to Kuala Lumpur, where we could live away from the eyes of the local public.

When I read news about potentially forced conversions, about Muslims and non-Muslims unable to visit each other's places of worship (on invitation and with mutual consent), whether to genuinely learn about the other's faith or even participate in non-religious, communally-relevant social activities, because someone will be offended and the accusations of proselytisation will appear, it hardens my resolve about faith-wide, far-reaching anti-proselytisation laws that truly ban proselytisation, both in its direct form and in the insidious creep of societal pressure. Now, you might be thinking, how can blanket anti-proselytisation laws help foster inter-faith dilaogue? They seem to reside on opposite ends of the spectrum.

In Malaysia, the argument for/against proselytisation appears to hinge on a basic point, that Muslims are able to proselytise freely to non-Muslims, even though the reverse is illegal to do. Malaysia has deeply protective policies regarding Islam, rooted in the idea of Malay (and therefore Islamic) supremacy, written and sealed within our Constitution and abundantly allowed to flourish, especially with the advent of Islamicisation in the '80s, within the local culture. There are many rulings that stratify Islam in the country, ostensibly to protect Muslims from un-Islamic influences that may shake their faith. These can cover relatively small details, like how it is illegal for a Muslim to eat during Ramadhan in public, as it disrespects the holy fasting month, to life-changing decisions like compelling the non-Muslim spouse in a mixed faith marriage to convert to Islam to ensure not only that the Muslim spouse's faith is unsullied, but also to ensure any children from the union are automatically Muslim. Over time, this stratification has resulted in a kind of religious paranoia, as every new idea that enters the country has to be zealously inspected to ensure its conformity (or non-competition) with Islam. Among the Muslims themselves, the view seems to range from those who genuinely believe in the official line and think all these restrictions help keep their faith safe, those who roll their eyes at the patronising nature of the system but leave it be, to those who reject the idea that any one government should have so much power over people's private lives, and who chafe at the idea that their faith is the subject of so much official doubt over its sincerity. Regardless of their personal views, the official protective stance is what defines our current regulations and public discourse. It is considered a political and cultural minefield to raise the topic of proselytisation among Muslims, as this is immediately taken to mean the speaker is questioning Malay supremacy and our entire mode of government, as well as being deeply disrespectful to Muslims. This makes it difficult for public debate to occur regarding the issue, and raise public awareness on means to reform this culture of distrust.

At least officially, remarkably less fuss would be made if a Muslim proselytised among non-Muslims. Even if the non-Muslim community in question found it disrespectful, even if they thought it brought into question their freedom to practice their faith and how they ran their community, most people would likely turn a blind eye. The federal government's reactions to inter-religious conflicts has of late required the non-Muslim party in each situation to backtrack and compromise more than the Muslims. It comes to no surprise then that the non-Muslim side of the debate seems to be growing more frustrated, more willing to face the federal government in court, more willing to engage the media over restrictions on its rights. It is only natural to assume that this debate will eventually include a demand for the rights of non-Muslim faiths to proselytise freely, to all. Whether this banner will be taken up by the majority is hard to tell. No one really likes their neighbours planting seeds in their turf, honestly, and there's a certain fear of "Do unto your neighbours" that has worked to keep the different faiths apart.

In order for honest dialogue to occur between the different faiths in Malaysia, I believe the playing field first needs to be levelled for all. The most effective means to do this is to enforce universally-applied anti-proselytisation laws which prevent non-Muslims and Muslims from directly proselytising to each other. This should not be seen as a widespread call to silence religions, but rather, as a means of establishing a platform for dialogue without the fear of conversion, or the intent to convert the other, while ensuring that everyone receives the protection they need from being harassed into abandoning their faith. I would like to note that for the purpose of this essay, proselytisation and conversaion are intrinsically linked topics. Thus, I will be discussing conversion in the context of how anti-proselytisation laws, where preventing conversion naturally leads into preventing any underlying proselytisation. Specifically, any such laws should:

a) Protect the religious freedoms of children under 18

In Malaysia, a child is defined as anyone under 18 years of age (Malaysian Child Act 2001). The religion of a child is first officially stated in the child's birth certificate and usually follows that of their parents. If one of the parents is Muslim, the child is automatically Muslim. This coincides with how any marriage of a non-Muslim to a Muslim in Malaysia requires the non-Muslim partner to first convert to Islam. If both parents are non-Muslim when the child is born, but later, one of the parents converts to Islam, it is possible for the Muslim parent to convert the child to Islam without the other parent's consent -- even if the remaining parent is still a non-Muslim. In some Malaysian states, a child is automatically converted to Islam if the father converts. Adding to the quagmire is that unless the non-Muslim parent converts to Islam within 3 months of the Muslim parent's conversion, any marriage between said parents is automatically terminated. (This last point will be covered more in point b).

From the start, the problem at hand is that any child should have at least the basic right to profess their own faith, whatever that faith may be. Further to that, although parents and guardians have the right to shape the moral upbringing of a child, there should be no compulsion for a child to convert to a religion just because a parent or guardian says so. The simplest solution would be to first remove the legal requirements for a child's religion to be declared before the state, retaining a parent/guardian's right to shape the moral upbringing of said child in private, and secondly, to declare a child's religion undecided until that child reaches adult age (18), when the child, now an adult, has both the faculties and experience to determine their own faith.

If nothing else, doing so would protect children from the risk of forced conversion, and pave the way for legal recourse in the event a child faces any potential harm for not adhering to a particular faith, especially if the source of any potential harm comes from its parent or guardian.

b) Make good parenting the prerequisite and goal of determining child custody, and not the parents' religion

Malaysia's dual-track court system, with both Civil and Syariah Courts, ideally divides the personal laws governing its population between those relevant to non-Muslims and Muslims respectively. The reality of its application is not nearly so tidy, even though, or perhaps because of, amendments to the Federal Constitution in 1988 that essentially states the Civil High Courts of Malaysia have no jurisdiction in any matter that falls within the jurisdiction of the Syariah Courts. Notably, certain child custody cases between non-Muslim parents and their Muslim ex-partners have entered the public view in the last decade through publicisation by civil rights NGOs, which indicate that the Civil Court usually defers its responsibility over the non-Muslim parent's rights to the Syariah Court, which typically sides with the Muslim parent, particularly if the children in question have been converted to Islam, whether or not the non-Muslim parent has approved this conversion. Part of the issue is a matter of legal technicalities -- the Civil Court may decide it has no jurisdiction over a child custody case filed simultaneously with both the Syariah and Civil Courts by each parent according to his/her religion.

Part of it too, and this is a bias generally noted by civil rights NGOs, is that the Syariah Court has a history of parental discrimination against mothers in child custody cases, doubly so if the mother is a non-Muslim or a convert to Islam. It is worth nothing that there are exceptions to this, as given the choice, it appears that the Syariah Court would strongly back any Muslim parent of either gender, so long he/she has proven Muslim faith. This was highlighted earlier in the year in the case of Tan Cheow Hong vs. his ex-wife, who converted herself and her young daughter to Islam before filing for divorce in order to forcibly gain custody of her child (via the Syariah Court). That said, many other of the child custody cases that have made it into the mainstream media seem to involve a non-Muslim mother vs. a Muslim father. At least one of the more recent cases involved a Hindu mother fighting for custody of her children, who were converted to Islam by their (also converted) father without the mother's consent or knowledge. In this case, the High Court did grant the mother custody of her two sons, however, with the condition that she would lose custody if she were to be found influencing her children away from their Islamic faith, ie. teaching them the articles of her (Hindu) faith and feeding them pork. The mother has since apparently migrated away from Malaysia with her children to avoid any further meddling by the local courts in her family.

The points above are heavily intertwined with local Islamic family law, which grants custody to mothers for children under 7 years (male) and under 9 years (females). This may be extended up to 9 years (male) and 11 years (female). Once this right terminates, custody is then transferred to the father. The child may also choose which parent they prefer to remain with at 7 years (male) and 9 years (female). The father remains the primary guardian and overseer of the child's property until it reaches maturity. As such, if the mother will lose custody if she remarries a non-relative of the child (Islam allows for the parents to remarry within a set amount of time after divorce), if she is found to be openly immoral, neglects the child, moves away to prevent the father's access and leaves Islam. The last condition also takes into account signs that the mother may not be a good Muslim (and therefore not a good Muslim example for her children), or attempts by the mother to inculcate the child with any other religion besides Islam. Non-Muslim mothers face a clear disadvantage in this situation, even without the technicalities of which Court has the right to hear her case. It can be very easily said that the non-Muslim mother is unable to raise her children as good Muslims in this situation, lacking a Muslim context in her own life. Converted Muslim mothers (usually non-Muslim women who converted in order to marry their Muslim spouses) also face a disadvantage, as their non-Muslim upbringing may be used as a pretext for suggesting they are not Muslim enough to care for their children.

There's a great primer essay online by Foo Yet Ngo (Malaysia's Family Law: Custody and Religion), which better explains via brief case studies the actual complexity of the overlap and relevant Constitutional clauses vs. individual laws than I can possibly provide here. In a nutshell, there is fear at the grassroots from non-Muslim parents of both genders facing custodial disputes, as the non-Muslim/Muslim argument adds another layer of acrimony to an already difficult situation.

The key point is that children should remain protected throughout any custodial dispute, regardless of their parents' religious beliefs. Strong anti-proselytisation laws could, taking point a as an example, stop children from being converted by their parents by keeping the child's faith indefinite until adulthood, when the child can take full responsibility for their own beliefs. This would help prevent children from being converted by a Muslim parent as part of a strategy to remove them from a non-Muslim parent's care. This would also prevent the possibility that a parent may use religion as a pretext to threaten their children into staying with them.

Ultimately, good parenting, and not religion, should be the decider in a custodial dispute. One's faith does not automatically make one a better parent, nor is one's devotion to one's faith an indicator of parenting skill. Anti-proselytisation laws can be fashioned to prevent religious devotion or religious denomination from being applicable as a statement of good character in court, on the grounds that this unfairly gives precedence to a religion over others and promotes discrimination between fellow Malaysians (according to religious belief, which is un-Constitutional) before the law. Mothers and fathers enter a marriage as equal partners and equally important parents. Whatever personal dispute separates these partners in later life should not, at least legally, consign their previous equal importance as individuals contributing to a long-term relationship, and to the upbringing of their children, to that of a historical artifact.

c) Limit venues for proselytisation to religious places of worship

Door-to-door proselytisers, such as those seen in the US, are not common in Malaysia, even though missionary workers have a long history of engaging the community via a variety of welfare and educational institutions. It's worth noting that while there are a great deal of different institutions run by religious groups in the country, these are not usually places of worship for the related religions and are not generally vehicles for individual or mass conversion. Encompassive anti-proselytisation laws should respect the rights of private religiously-affiliated organisations to establish charitable work, but also firmly ensure that the receipt of this charity is not on condition of conversion or proselytisation. While local laws do seem to ensure that at least non-Muslim faiths do not engage in such practices, these laws must be extended at the federal level to also cover Islam, to ensure that the rights of all Malaysian communities to practice their faith are equally preserved under the constitution. It is visibly unfair to demand that non-Muslim communities adhere to strict anti-proselytisation policies when Muslim ones face no such restrictions, and this creates an imbalance in the rights of Malaysian citizens between each other (ie. all Malaysians are equal, but some are more equal than others).

Although not yet a visible problem in Malaysia as well, signage or any other publically-accessible advertisement espousing converstion to any religion should be banned from being displayed, distributed or broadcasted as such. This should include government-funded advertisements, and should span not just direct messages of proselytisation, but also indirect messages. These range from "Pray before you are prayed upon," signs visible along the highway in certain states to television programs glorifying conversion to any religion.

Proselytisation should be strictly limited to the confines of individual religious places of worship -- the natural venue for such ventures. There should be no compulsion for any Malaysian citizen to attend religious programs at a place of worship, just as there should be no restrictions on whether or not a citizen can attend such a program if they want to. One of the flipsides of the strongly Muslim-centred anti-proselytisation laws in Malaysia is that non-Muslim religious instutitions can easily find themselves accused of proselytisation even for relatively routine religious programs. This firstly creates an atmosphere of fear on the part of the non-Muslims, as anything they can say or do might be misconstrued and misreported to the authorities, and secondly creates an aversive, suspicious spirit on the part of Muslims, who will not participate in any non-Muslim religious program on the basis that it may shake their faith. There are Malaysians who would not even set foot in each other's places of worship, fearful of both legal and presumably, deity-inspired repercussions. This neuroses extends to joining their neighbours in celebrating community-wide, but religious-related, celebrations. For example, when I was a teenager, all the Muslims in my Catholic high school were herded into a classroom so that we may not even accidentally catch sight of Stations of the Cross reenactments downstairs, when the school was celebrating Lent. This colourful, important celebration to the Catholic community was open to non-Muslim students, and to my knowledge, there were no mass converstions into Catholicism during Lent for the 2 years I studied there, but lots of good memories of bonding between the student community. I have also known Muslims who think attending their non-Muslim neighbours' weddings and funerals, and participating in the rituals, might be "un-Islamic", even if these rituals do not involve anything that would contravene their faith. Some Muslims even believe eating at "non-Muslim" restaurants, here defined as either non-Malay restaurants or restaurants that do not come from a traditionally Muslim culture or show overt Islamic-related signage, will be against Islam, even if said restaurants have "Halal" signs posted upfront, as eateries that serve Muslim-safe food are required to do in Malaysia by law.

Confining proselytisation under the law to places of worship establishes a boundary that all Malaysian citizens can understand and adhere to. It would further establish that they are free to enter each other's religious institutions and participate in religiously-affiliated programs and celebrations, with forewarning that specifically, places of worship may contain proselytisation material.

d) Integrate anti-proselytisation laws into personal anti-harassment laws

In virtually every culture, there is the nosy biddy stereotype, that neighbour, aunt, cousin or villager who must make it their business to improve upon their fellow man's behaviour, often aggressively, and without invitation. We know that in Malaysia, it's rude to comment on perceived deficits in another person's culture. And yet, this does not extend to another person's religion, an attitude prevalent from the administration down to the grassroots. It should be immediately obvious just how impolite it is to tell a stranger what (and who) they should call their personal god, but the federal government has stepped into the private sanctum of Christian churches and declared that the God of Christians is "Tuhan" (lit. God) but never "Allah". "Allah" is the Arabic word for God, and commonly used in the Middle East by all the Abrahamic faiths to refer to their deity; although most people would be particularly familiar with Muslims using this word to refer to God. In an unusual act of defiance, the Catholic church in Malaysia took the Home Ministry to court, on the grounds that the government's intervention in this instance was un-Constitutional. And although the High Court ruled in the church's favour earlier this year, it almost immediately had grant a stay order as the Home Ministry then raised the issue to the Court of Appeal, with no further developments (to my knowledge) to date. When news of this became public, Malaysian Muslims across political lines came together to petition and protest in mosques around the country, and three churches in Kuala Lumpur were attacked in the night. No one was physically hurt from the attacks, but the point remains, there should never have been a need for this to have escalated so far.

On the ground, Malaysians habitually ask each other what race another person comes from, and what religion they adhere to, almost as a greeting. Although often spoken in a friendly manner, it speaks of the deeper roots of our collective culture, which has been thoroughly ingrained with the idea that fellow Malaysians are defined in their relationship to each other by their race and religion. For years, civil rights groups and commentators in the country have lobbied and run educational campaigns to encourage fellow citizens to embrace the true meaning of being Malaysian; that is, the certainty that all of us are Malaysian and Malaysian first, whatever our individual ethnicity, and furthermore, that this spirit, so often touted in our government-sanctioned histories, should be extended to the way we live -- from the way we list down our details on any official document and how our children interact in schools.

An individual's choice of religion is a personal choice, between that person and their deity. Pressuring an individual to reconsider or change their faith is an invasion of that individual's private space. All Malaysians, whatever their religion, should have the right to say no and have their decision respected when faced with a situation where any party pressures them to convert to a different faith. Not even the government is exempt as a force of conversion. After all, our Constitution guarantees the right of all Malaysians to profess their own faith.

The scope of proactive anti-proselytisation regulations should take into account the rights of individual to their privacy (and the ability to lead private lives). Key to any such legislation is the acknowledgement of personal choice. For example, being invited to a religious ceremony at a place of worship is not in and of itself personal harassment if the guests' choice to attend is fully respected, and invitation made in a respectful manner. Discussions on religious matters between peers of different faiths is also not a form of proselytisation if the persons involved are all consenting adults. But if declining an invitation to a religious ceremony or discussion carries with it some threat to an individual's safety, livelihood or position in the community, that should be acknowledged as an invasion of personal rights. It should be a matter that the law addresses, and it should be a matter that all Malaysians can feel that they are protected about within the law.

Some readers may wonder why I have chosen not to discuss a fifth point in this essay, that is, the right of the individual Malaysian to choose their own faith, whether it be Islam, Buddhism, Christianity or any other religion we may or may not yet have a name for. It is true that this is a topic close to my heart. However, I have tried to steer this discourse into what can work within the framework of current Malaysian conventions. Indeed, I believe once we are able to consider the intrinsic scope of proactive, encompassive anti-proselytisation regulations, why it should be implemented and how it can it be done, that essential fifth element of the discourse, the right of the individual to a personal, private choice of faith, comes naturally.

The experience I recounted at the start of this essay about my own run-in with pressure to recant my faith is one of many situations, large and small, that I have encountered during my time growing up in Malaysia, although it was by far the most memorable. I do not believe I am at all unique in how I was treated, and based on even cursory research, it seems clear to me that beneath the surface of our society, there are whole communities of people living behind masks to practice what they believe. They sincerely deserve to enjoy the full meaning of their constitutional right to profess their individual faith openly, adding to the rich fabric of Malaysian society and helping our culture mature and grow.

But just as this essay considers protections for Malaysians' right to believe in what they will, it is just as important to note that this is not a call for a meddling, heavy-handed watchdog society, however well-meaning, in people's private lives. Temperance and mutual respect, not fear and threats, are the keys to building the cultural framework necessary to support religious freedom in Malaysia; its basic medium of harmony and support. And that, I believe, is the ultimate prerequisite and goal of any anti-proselytisation regulation.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 27th, 2011 01:56 am (UTC)
I know you love your native country, but reading this makes me so glad I was born in the United States. Freedom of(or from) religion is one of the greatest things that the founding fathers gave us.
Marcovy Duwin
Dec. 20th, 2011 10:38 pm (UTC)
People believe what they want to believe. To believe in the presence of something is the same as to believe in the absence of something, because you still believe. Anyway, good article.^^
Dec. 22nd, 2011 01:42 am (UTC)
Thank you!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )