Issues surrounding religious freedom in South & South East Asia
By Imam Dr. Abdul Hai Patel
2015 Parliament of World Religions Conference
Salt Lake City, Utah. USA.
Date: October 15-19, 2015
As you heard that my topic is: “Issues surrounding Religious Freedom in South & South East Asia.” This area covers six very heavily populated multi religious countries. They are: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. In 15 minutes, I may be able to scratch the surface of the issues only. All these countries are supposed to be secular democracy, but its policies are deeply rooted and tied with religion. With the exception of India and Sri Lanka, all other countries have Islam as dominant religion. Constitutionally religious freedom is guaranteed in all countries; however, religious fanaticism is driving the masses to challenge minority faiths, creating a climate of fear among minority faith communities.
Let us look at these Countries beginning with Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has suffered from chronic instability and conflict in its modern history. Government policies strongly favour Islam, often in its most conservative interpretations. Government control is very limited outside of major cities. Many courts rely on Islamic law to deter or prosecute “blasphemy.
The Criminal code makes no specific reference to Blasphemy; however, this only means that courts rely on Islamic law to address the issue. Blasphemy, which can include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital offense under some interpretations of Islamic law.
As a result, atheists and freethinkers are forced to hide their beliefs and the only way they can express their thoughts anonymously or through social media. For males over age 18 and females over age 16 of sound mind, an Islamic judge may impose a death sentence for blasphemy. Similarly to apostates accused of blasphemy are given three days to recant or face death.
The penal code addresses “Crime against religions” and states that a person who physically attacks a follower of any religion shall receive a short term prison sentence of less than three months and a fine of between 3,000 and 12,000 Afghanis. Physical attacks on non-religious people are, by exclusion from this law, not technically as serious.
The ambiguity surrounding what constitutes offensive and un-Islamic material offers the potential for restrictions on and abuse of press freedom and intimidation of journalists. These rules also apply to non-Muslims and foreign-owned media outlets.
Amid wider sectarian and interreligious tension, Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws are a serious threat to peace and social stability. “Blasphemy” is punishable by death under law, and accusations often followed by mob brutality with fatal consequences.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion. Despite the constitution’s promise of adequate provisions for minorities to practice their religious beliefs freely, many of Pakistan’s laws and policies restrict freedom of religion or belief.
Chapter XV of Pakistan’s Penal Code contains a number of sections that institute blasphemy and religious defamation laws: Article 295-A outlaws “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”; Article 295-B outlaws the defaming of the Quran; Article 295-C bans the use of insulting remarks about the Prophet; Article 298 prohibits people from saying anything that had the deliberate intent to wound religious feelings; and article 298-B, punishes any misuse of epithets, descriptions, or titles reserved for certain holy personages or places.
The blasphemy laws are further bolstered by the Anti-Terrorism Act, which states that any action, including speech, intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Whilst applicable nationwide, the country’s blasphemy laws are used predominantly in the Punjab province.
Blasphemy laws carry the death penalty or life in prison, and tend to target non-believers, religious minorities and dissenting Muslims. Though there has been an effective moratorium on carrying out the death sentence in recent years, dozens of people at least remain on death row, and further more those accused of blasphemy are often murdered before or after any trial takes place.
Notably, for a charge of blasphemy to be made in Pakistan an allegation is all that is required – and it may be highly subjective, since the laws do not provide clear guidance on what constitutes a violation. Proof of intent or evidence against the alleged, is not necessary and there are no penalties for making false allegations.
Renewed threat of death for blasphemy
In September 2013, the Council of Islamic Ideology recommended against amending the blasphemy laws to add procedural safeguards, noting situations of misuse or fraud could be penalized through other sections of the Penal Code. In December, the Federal Shariah Court (FSC) stated that the death penalty is the sole appropriate punishment for blasphemy and recommended the removal of life imprisonment as an option when sentencing.
The government was looking to review this recommendation, but have taken no action as of today.
Despite the famously secular constitution of the world’s largest democracy, concerns about Hindu nationalism and interreligious tension have risen under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Playing into this threat, “blasphemy” laws exist and are being increasingly used and cited.
Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes insult to religion; it allows up to three years imprisonment and fines for “whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class.”
In spite of the rise of RSS, India is still a model of pluralism, where, freedom to practice religion anywhere is unrestricted. Special provision exists for Muslims with constitutional entrenchment of Muslim Personal law, which governs the family life of Muslims according to Islam. However, Courts and Governments reserve rights to censor any movements, movies, media or gatherings if found to cause religious tensions.
While Muslims enjoy the protection , other minority religions such as Sikh, Jain and Buddhist, are lumped with Hindu religion under Article 25 of the Indian constitution . This article states: ” In sub-clause (b) of clause (2), the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly. All along in the last six decades, Sikhs have protested this text and have sought that this article be removed because this means that for practical purposes Sikhs are Hindus. The only guarantee granted by the Constituent Assembly to the Sikhs was the right to wear and carry Kirpans, being the Essential Article of Faith. This right is conferred in Explanation 2 of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. Through executive fiat, the Indian government has attempted to bar Sikhs carrying Kirpans from time to time.
Though in theory a secular democracy, the ruling government have frequently given into pressure from Islamic parties, and continue to prosecute atheists and others on malicious charges for “insult to religion” and related crimes.
Section 295A of the penal code states that any person who has “deliberate” or malicious” intent to “hurt religious sentiments” can be imprisoned and this has been used in practice to prosecute and imprison atheist and secularist activists.
Similarly, the Code of Criminal Procedure includes several clauses (99a-f) that states “the government may confiscate all copies of a newspaper if it publishes anything subversive of the state or provoking an uprising or anything that creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.”
Various forms of artistic expression by freethinkers— including blogs, books and films—have been banned or censored.
In August 2013, following the unrest by Islamic groups against “atheist bloggers”, Bangladesh Government amended the Information and Communication (ICT) Act, criminalizing defamation of religion, creating a de facto “blasphemy” law. Any statement published or transmitted by any person if found to cause to hurt or may hurt religious belief, then that person will be regarded as committed an offence. The troubling amendment was created by presidential decree, bypassing any discussion in parliament. The amendment gives police unchecked power against the offender allowing police to act as jury and judge, all at the same time.
Malaysia curbs blasphemy, any insult to religion by rigorous control of what people in that country can say or do. Government-funded schools teach young Muslims the principles of Sunni Islam and instruct young non-Muslims on morals. The government informs the citizenry on proper behavior and attitudes and ensures that Muslim civil servants take courses in Sunni Islam. The government ensures that the broadcasting and publishing media do not create disharmony or disobedience. If someone blasphemes or otherwise engages in deviant behavior, Malaysia punishes such transgression with Shariah or through legislation such as the Penal Code.
Articles 295-298A of the Malaysian Penal Code provides penalties for those who commit offenses against religion. The penalties are up to three years in prison or a fine of up to US$1,000 (approximately). Prosecutions for blasphemy usually target those who offend Islam, but an insult to any religion can give rise to prosecution
In May 2007, the Federal Court ruled that Muslims are not entitled to freedom of worship, even though such freedom is guaranteed by Malaysia’s Constitution. By a two-to-one decision, the Court held that the secular courts have no jurisdiction over any Islamic matter even if non-Muslims are involved. In July 2007, the Federal Court ruled that a Shariah court has jurisdiction over any matter that involves non-Muslims only if a state legislature gives the Shariah court such jurisdiction. The Federal Court’s decisions have for context the Constitution’s Article 121(A), which states that any issue which falls under the jurisdiction of a Shariah court cannot be overruled by a secular high court. The Court’s decisions have also for context the Constitution’s Article 3, which states that Islam is the religion of the Federation.
The Government maintains an official list of fifty-six sects of Islam which the government considers “deviant” and a threat to national security. Muslims who deviate from accepted Sunni principles may be detained and subjected to mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. Muslims generally may not convert to another religion, although members of other religions may convert to Islam.
Malaysia requires every citizen (from age twelve) to be issued with a national identity card, the My kad. This card has a microchip which contains, among other information, the name of the cardholder’s religion. All Malays (an ethnic group comprising more than fifty percent of the population), of whatever religion, have cards with the word “ISLAM” on the card’s face. The identity cards enable “religious police” to identify Muslims who are violating Islamic precepts.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution. First, Article 11 provides that every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion and (subject to applicable laws restricting the propagation of other religions to Muslims) to propagate it. Second, the Constitution also provides that Islam is the religion of the country but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony (Article 3).
The status of freedom of religion in Malaysia is a controversial issue. Questions including whether Malaysia is an Islamic State or Secular State, remains unresolved. In recent times, there have been a number of contentious issues and incidents which has tested the relationship between the different religious groups in Malaysia.
According to SRI LANKA 2012 INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT, the constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respect religious freedom. The trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year. In certain instances, local authorities failed to respond effectively to communal attacks, including attacks on members of minority religious groups.
There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Sporadic violent attacks on Christian churches by Buddhists and some societal tension due to ongoing allegations of forced or “unethical” conversions (i.e., the use of bribes to persuade people to convert) continued, although the number and scale of attacks were reportedly fewer than in recent years. Intolerance of, and discrimination against, Muslims by some Buddhists increased during the year.
People across the South-East Asia region continue to be imprisoned for peacefully expressing opinions and ideas on the state institutions that govern over them. This violates human rights commitments made by these states at the international level. States’ increasing engagement with regional and international human rights bodies offers the opportunity to highlight such violations which are common to the region and to develop ideas on how to address them at the national level.
No constitution can achieve its declared aims or cherished ideals, if it has no crisis management machinery or control mechanism, to exercise checks and balances in respect of those who would impose the culture of the majority on others through the use of the infinite power of the modern state. These are notoriously missing from Constitutions of these Countries, which is necessary to “protect minorities from unrestricted and tyrannical use of the democratic principle, expressing itself solely through majority power”.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has made important strides over recent years in transforming itself into an organisation which is concerned with improving the human rights situation in the region, in addition to its traditional focus on economic development and national security. This progress is illustrated by the two ASEAN bodies that are now up and running with mandates to promote and protect human rights.
States in South-East Asia are also increasingly engaged with the UN’s human rights bodies. For instance, all states will now have their human rights record reviewed by the Human Rights Council (of which Thailand currently holds the presidency) through a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
However, while these developments are encouraging, we should not lose sight of the fact that states need to take action at the national level to actually improve the human rights situation on the ground. Indeed, it is the primary role of regional and international human rights bodies to support states in this task.
A litmus test for the current state of human rights in any region is the extent to which the people can exercise freedom of expression. The freedom of people to express their opinions is fundamental to and inseparable from the existence of a healthy democracy that respects human rights. By allowing people to express their views on the institutions and people that exercise power over their lives, they are able to play a role in shaping these institutions and the decisions that affect them. Not only is the creation of an environment where people are free to express their views and opinions an end in itself, it is also a means of developing state institutions that place the interests of human beings at their centre.
South and South East Asia is suffering form Religious inspired terror, where adherents of religions are clamouring to monopolize space, rule and order. For this growth of fanaticism, I blamed the religious leaders for their provocative sermons of hate and silence of the moderate leaders.
In Canada, for number of years, Human Rights groups have called on Government to tie our Foreign Aid to records of human rights violations. We need to remind current Government that the Office of Freedom of Religion, has so far failed to stop persecution of minorities in Pakistan, Egypt and in other countries.
We hear all the time that no religion condones violence, yet we are witnessing unprecedented rise in violence based on religious ideology. International community is not addressing the ever increasing gap of poverty in the world and as long as the economic empowerment of the masses is neglected, we may unfortunately continue to see such violence shredding the good name of God and His teachings.