Malaysian Muslims responses to conversion

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.

The Merdeka Poll (2006) indicates that 69 percent of Malay respondents, like the 63 percent Indians and 66 percent Chinese, expressed preference that their ethnic groups maintain own identity. As Muslims in Malaysia often conflate Christianity with the West – even though today 80 percent of Christians are no longer in the West but in Africa, Latin America and Asia – it is heartbreaking for a Malay family when a family member becomes a Christian, as this is associated as becoming Westernised.

Many Malaysian Muslims over simplify the lives of Christians as what is seen on Western television programs and movies. This also clearly indicates that there is very little interaction among the 9 percent Malaysian Christians with the Muslims and that the true essence of Christian life is unfamiliar among the Malays. The poor pedagogy on world religions especially the main faith traditions inMalaysia, and the control of media on faith matters are some of the primary contributing factors to this lack of understanding. Government policies too do not support and facilitate engagement that goes deeper than mere tolerance.

For the older generation, Christians tend to be associated with the colonials who occupied this nation for almost five centuries. The narrative in the ahl-Kitab or “People of the Book,” such as the story of King Negus of Abyssinia, a Christian who kindly provided hospitality, refuge and protection to the Muslims in the first Hijrah, and Prophet Muhammed mutually respecting interactions with the Christians as recorded in the bibliographical source on ‘Sirat Rasul Allah – The Life of the Prophet of God’ by Ibn Ishaq’s (767 AD/150) is almost unheard off in Malaysia. Christian figures such as Mother Teresa who devoted her life caring for the needy, Francis of Assisi – the apostle of love, and William Wilberforce – the man who led the movement against slave trade, are known only by a tiny fragment of the population, mainly among those with higher education.

One of historical accounts on Christianity that shaped a negative perception among many Muslims is the infamous “crusade”. The word itself triggers distrust and animosity, and this sentiment impacts the Muslims response to apostasy. British historian, Steve Runciman, in his writing captured the historian Nicetas Chionates (1155-1215) cry on the Fourth Crusade in 1204 on the crusaders who defeats the Christian teaching – God is love:

“The sack of Constantinople is unparalleled in history. For nine centuries the great city has been the capital of Christian civilisation…But the Frenchmen and the Flemings were filled with lust for destruction…Neither monasteries nor churches nor libraries were spared…Wounded women and children lay dying on the streets. For three days the ghastly scenes of pillage and bloodshed continued, till huge and beautiful city shambles. Even the Saracens (i.e. term used for the Ishmael tribe/ Muslims during medieval) would have more merciful, cried the historian Nicetas, and with truth.”

After the Cold War in 1990, the political theory, “clash of civilization,” that is championed by Samuel Huntington highlights the emerging political tension between Christians and Muslims as the potential future power struggle. This rekindles the crusade and jihad. The last President George Bush unintentional declaration of crusade after the September 11, for example, can be misinterpreted as another reminder of militant Christianity from the ninth to eleventh century, under a new name “War on Terror.” The aftermath of this war was more deaths; 30,000 casualties in Afghanistan compared to 3000 people in the 9/11.

The fact is that “apostatising” from other faith traditions into Islam is increasing in the West. The number of Muslims in the West is growing, although the West is populated by Christians, Muslims, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindus, Mormons, atheists, agnostics, etc.  Thus, a Western country or a Western block should not associate any religion to the war or any imperialist acts on others that they opt to, especially when the state and church are separated. The contested compartmentalisation of faith, “Christians as the West,” also need urgent remedy so that the majority of Muslims understand that those who decide to follow Jesus Christ, like the Malays who embrace Christianity are the “people of the book” or “Ummat Kitab” and not traitors.

Norani Abu Bakar is a Post Graduate Fellow and the Asia Project Director of YCFC-PFMR. She can be contacted at norani.abubakar@yale.edu and blogs at  Loving God and Neighbors. This is the first of a series of articles by Norani discussing Muslim – Christian relations. 

This article is part of a series of articles under the theme, “Faith in Malaysia.”

[Editor's note: New Mandala readers may be interested in several other articles on NM discussing the impact of race and religion in Malaysia. The following are several interesting reads: The Allah dilemma in Malaysia and Patani and Turkey: What's the connection? by Amrita Malhi, Moving forward from racial tensions by Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad and Malaysia - a simple institutional analysis by Greg Lopez].

About Norani Abu Bakar, Guest Contributor