Protect cultural freedoms in Malaysia; reject fundamentalist ideology, urges UN special rapporteur

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Concrete action would demonstrate the government’s commitment to cultural diversity and pluralism and its unequivocal rejection of fundamentalist ideology, says Karima Bennoune.

Rising tides of fundamentalism and extremism, in diverse forms, today represent major threats to human rights, including cultural rights, elsewhere in this region and worldwide, and are growing challenges internationally that must be faced with urgency, using a human rights approach. This is also true in Malaysia.

Fundamentalisms are: “political movements of the extreme right, which in a context of globalization … manipulate religion, culture or ethnicity, in order to achieve their political aims”. Fundamentalisms have emerged out of all of the world’s major religious traditions.

Opposition to fundamentalism is not akin to an anti-religion stance. Both religious believers who do not conform to fundamentalist dogma, including clergy, and non-religious people have often been targets of fundamentalist movements. Both have played important roles in the human rights struggle against fundamentalism.

The impact of fundamentalism and extremism on cultural rights is the Special Rapporteur’s priority theme for 2017, and one of her major concerns during her mission to Malaysia as stated in the background note for the mission.

The Special Rapporteur deeply appreciated Malaysia’s response to her thematic report on fundamentalism, extremism and the cultural rights presented to the 34th Human Rights Council in March 2017. “[T]he challenges and threats of fundamentalism and extremism to cultural rights, as highlighted in the Special Rapporteur’s report, deserve more consideration by this Council. In Malaysia’s experience ensuring a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-ethnic population have freedoms to practice their cultures, traditions and religious belief has been essential and integral to our nation building and progress.”

The Special Rapporteur also noted the commitments of the Malaysian government to representing a “moderate and progressive Islam,” including important statements made to this effect by Prime Minister Najib Razak while she was in the country which she welcomed.

The prime minister noted that Malaysia’s government “will also contribute in terms of the ideological warfare because you need to win the hearts and minds. And the key to it is to support moderate and progressive Muslim regimes and governments around the world, because that is the true face of Islam; that is the authentic face of Islam. The more you align with progressive and moderate regimes, the better it would be in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.”

He also asserted about defeating terrorists that “this is a battle that cannot be won solely by military means. It is just as important to fight the ideology that drives them.”

However, many sectors of Malaysian society encountered in different locales expressed concern at what they saw, in contradistinction to these important stated commitments, as the growing Islamisation of the Malaysian society and polity, based on an increasingly rigid and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam which represents a significant break with the past.

It is critical to ask what accounts for this striking discrepancy between rhetoric and lived reality recounted by many, and what its consequences are for the enjoyment of cultural rights. One lawyer said “I fear for my country.” A writer said, “there is a fire here. Wahhabism is creeping fast and deep into our society.” Some experts indicated that it was infusing the educational system and affecting the corps of teachers.

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As stated before, this tendency has reportedly had deleterious consequences for the cultural rights of religious minorities, for indigenous peoples, for women, for human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders, for LGBT persons, for artists and cultural experts, and many others in society, and most especially for the cultural rights and the freedom of religion of Muslims and people of Muslim heritage. In other words the freedom of religion or belief of Muslims themselves is now at stake in the struggle against fundamentalism in Malaysia.

Fundamentalist movements in many contexts often seek to impose a form of religion at odds with local forms of practice. In keeping with the spirit of the slogan, Malaysia Truly Asia, she hopes that the authorities will consider how to foster and allow to flourish the diversities of Malaysian Islam which represent the plurality and complex history of Southeast Asian Islams. Allowing religion to be homogenized under a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula undermines the cultural rights of Malaysians.

The Special Rapporteur salutes the stated commitment of the Malaysian government to combating terrorism which is vital to the protection of human rights. However, she notes that acquiescing to aspects of the underlying ideology of terror groups, such as that there is only one way to be Muslim or that religion should be used as a tool of state policy, can only create conditions that are more conducive rather than less conducive to the radicalisation that heightens the risk of terror. She notes with concern that one state in the country, Kelantan, is referred to as “the Islamic State of Kelantan” by some of its state representatives with whom she met. She is also deeply concerned at the level of involvement of religious authorities, and often only those of the majority religion, in policy decisions throughout the country, including in the cultural and cultural rights areas.

The Special Rapporteur is deeply concerned that Parliament is consideration adoption of legislation under RUU355 expanding the punishments – including corporal punishments that violate international law – that can be imposed by Sharia courts, and regrets that some religious authorities with whom she met clearly support this expansion. She believes that such punishments pose a threat to human rights in the country and are difficult to rationalise with stated commitments to moderation and progressiveness

One example of the impact of a particular form of Islamisation on cultural rights that the Special Rapporteur found worrying was the idea she heard repeatedly of a de facto dress code for Malaysian Muslim women in many contexts which has resulted in a transformation of the way women dress. This has reportedly normalized “modest” dress which is not traditional to Malaysia, homogenisation of many women’s attire, and a reduction of Muslim women’s cultural choices in this regard, in a short span of time which was described to her as from 10-20 years.

Other women are also effected by the regulation of “modesty.” Security guards are reportedly being allowed to police dress in some official buildings and it is impermissible to appear sleeveless therein. The Special Rapporteur was particularly concerned to hear reports that in school some girls had been told by teachers that they had to pay a fine if they came to school unveiled, and another report that a teacher said that the girls who covered were her children, but those who did not were not. She notes increasing representation of only one form of dress for Muslim women in official publications, including some given to her.

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The Islamisation that many perceive in the present has also affected official views of the past, with reports that the pre-Islamic history of Malaysia, as well as non-Muslim cultural heritage, are being omitted from textbooks. The Special Rapporteur would also like to carry out further research into the destruction of an archeological site in Kedah by a private actor. It is vital to keep alive the histories of Malaysia which are critical to promoting and protecting diversity and tolerance today.

The Special Rapporteur is especially concerned at the situation of cultural rights in this regard in the state of Kelantan where the state government is controlled by the Islamic Party of Malaysia or Pas, and where a state education official told her that there is only one way to be Muslim and any other form of practice is based on ignorance.

One of the most worrying developments about which the Special Rapporteur was informed is the emergence of several abduction cases reportedly targeting those associated with religious minorities, including Pastor Koh. This suggests the possibility of extremist violence, something currently experienced in many places in the world and in the region. She strongly supports the planned public inquiry to be held by Suhakam, the National Human Rights Institution, into these cases, and hopes that they will be afforded every assistance and support in this regard. She calls for every effort to be made to locate the missing persons in question.

There appears to be no official recognition or acceptance of non-religious persons, though experts indicate that there is nothing in the constitution against being an atheist. Moreover, the Special Rapporteur condemns the reported statement by a deputy minister charged with religious affairs that those involved in a recent gathering of atheists should be investigated. He apparently stated: “If it is proven that there are Muslims involved in atheist activities that could affect their faith, the state Islamic religious departments or Jawi could take action.”

She believes that the rule that those choosing to leave Islam must undergo counselling and must obtain a certificate from a Sharia court to do so is demeaning and a limit on their right to take part in cultural life without discrimination. She was sorry to learn that some of the lawyers who represent clients in such cases are reported to be shunned.

Non-religious persons must also be recognised, alongside the wide variety of religious believers as part of the fabric of a diverse and tolerant society. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has regularly reiterated “the right to freedom of religion or belief applies equally to theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs. Furthermore, the right not to profess any religion or belief is also protected”.

The Special Rapporteur is gravely concerned about the misuse of the concept of extremism to repress activities undertaken in accordance with international human rights standards, as warned against in her thematic report, which undercuts the much-needed fight against actual extremism. She was very sorry to receive reports that progressive Muslim groups and LGBT rights defenders have been erroneously labelled extremists, or like Daesh, in certain instances by authorities. This undercuts the struggle against actual extremism and undercuts the critical efforts of these human rights defenders.

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In general, she was sorry to hear reports of the difficulties that human rights defenders and others face when they try to challenge fundamentalism, defend the diversities of Muslim culture and promote cultural rights. Whereas she has experienced Malaysian civil society as outspoken, several individuals declined to meet with the Special Rapporteur to discuss these particular issues reportedly due to fear of reprisals – the only area in which this was the case. The author Faisal Tehrani, six of whose books have been banned, has had booksellers afraid to sell his other books due to the chilling effect of the bans, has repeatedly received threats, has been accosted and insulted in public, as has a member of his family.

The Special Rapporteur deplores the fatwa against the Muslim women human rights defenders Sisters in Islam who are globally renowned for their work. This fatwa has compromised their important work protecting the rights of women, led to the cancellation of some of their events and made it harder for them to organise such events due to the stigma, as well as resulted in increasing threats and online harassment of their activists. The Special Rapporteur calls for the withdrawal of the fatwa, and will be watching developments in this case closely. The Malaysian authorities must take all needed steps to respect and ensure the rights of human rights defenders.

Conclusion

It is time to ensure that the lived reality of moderation and progressiveness in Malaysia is consistent with the rhetoric of its government. This is essential for the enjoyment of cultural rights.

Human rights defenders report that not enough people are speaking out against the human rights impact of Islamisation. More voices of actual moderation must be raised and those voices must be allowed to express themselves.

Malaysia is a wonderful diverse country with a rich history, vibrant and multi-faceted cultures and a sophisticated set of cultural institutions in which many people can and do enjoy their cultural rights. However, the many gains achieved since independence and the cultural freedoms historically enjoyed and still enjoyed by many must be protected with vigilance.

They cannot be preserved by rhetoric alone but rather by concrete action demonstrating the effective commitment to cultural rights of all, to cultural diversity and pluralism, and to unequivocal rejection of fundamentalist ideology.

The above is an excerpt from Karima Bennoune’s full report of her preliminary observations.

Karima Bennoune was appointed UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in October 2015. She grew up in Algeria and the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. Bennoune has worked in the field of human rights for more than 20 years.

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