Renouncing Islam in Malaysia Is Dangerous. We Spoke to Those Who Did It.

We spoke to ex-Muslims in Malaysia about their “double lives.”
April 2, 2021, 3:23am
Hand Of Person Holding Holy Book - stock photo
Credit: Kitti Kahotong / EyeEm

Religion remains one of modern Malaysia’s most sensitive topics, especially when it comes to Islam, the country’s official faith practiced by more than 60 percent of the population.

Though the constitution enshrines freedom of worship, renouncing Islam—also often referred to as apostasy—is practically unheard of among the country’s Malay Muslim population. 

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“The government’s stand is that one cannot leave Islam if he or she was born Muslim,” Nizam Bashir, a Kuala Lumpur-based human rights lawyer, told VICE World News. 

While not a federal crime, religious courts have broad jurisdiction over apostasy and conversion, and punishments vary from state to state. Those who attempt to leave Islam are often persecuted by religious police, jailed or sent to rehabilitation facilities. Muslim leaders in the Southeast Asian country also continue to warn their followers of dire consequences should they decide to abandon their faith.

“Malaysia calls itself a modern and forward-thinking country but atheists and ex-Muslims remain in hiding over fear of violence and death threats,” said Armin Navabi, a vocal atheist activist from Iran who monitors religious freedom issues worldwide

Tensions have also been on the rise lately, with hardline police crackdowns being launched into alleged apostasy cases.

“As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, Malaysia should know better than to violate the fundamental rights of freedom of conscience and religion,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch.

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“The country remains an extremely dangerous place for those who dare to think or act differently.”

The federal territory mosque in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO: AFP

The federal territory mosque in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO: AFP

VICE World News spoke with four Malaysians who now identify as atheists and apostates. They asked that their names be withheld for fear of reprisals.

Johari*

Both my parents are Malay Muslim so by default, I was assigned the same at birth. 

Like many other Malay Muslim parents, my mother and father are both devout, conservative Muslims who believe in racial supremacy. They are also staunch supporters of the ruling UMNO Malay nationalist party, which isn’t surprising because race, religion and politics are closely intertwined in Malaysia. 

‘Race, religion and politics are closely intertwined in Malaysia.’

Growing up, I was always told to be a good Muslim. I was taught to fear sin and never question my faith. I prayed a lot with my family especially during religious holidays and always listened to my parents. 

But all that changed when I became a teenager and experienced a personal awakening in high school, which made me question my personal beliefs. 

In the eyes of Islam, homosexuality is considered to be one of the biggest sins and that was something I struggled with for years because I could no longer appreciate the values of my religion as it went against my personal beliefs. 

I was 24 when something traumatic happened to me. My school outed my atheism and sexuality to my parents. I was not even informed. 

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My father was shocked and my mother became hysterical and cried because she could not believe that her obedient son, the one who often joined hands with them in prayer, had chosen the dark path and abandoned his faith.

Members of the school board came down harshly on me and recommended that I meet preachers and religious heads. But my parents left the decision to me. 

I eventually dropped out of school because of the way the incident was handled. I didn’t feel safe anymore and developed major trust issues as a result of what happened. I also wanted to avoid further action from the authorities for my own personal safety. 

It’s been a few years since the episode but it still haunts me to this day. 

A Muslim man carries a copy of the Quran in a mosque in Bentong, Malaysia. PHOTO: AFP

A Muslim man carries a copy of the Quran in a mosque in Bentong, Malaysia. PHOTO: AFP

Under the law, I am still a Muslim but in my heart, I no longer identify with Islam. 

I try to keep an open mind about the religion but I despise the way it is policed and enforced in Malaysia.

‘I despise the way Islam is policed and enforced in Malaysia.’

Muslims in Malaysia often preach about Islam but many fail to understand what the religion is truly about. People should not be persecuted and punished for their values and beliefs or being themselves.

Hate crime in Malaysia is a very real problem. You aren’t allowed to express alternative views when it comes to religion. 

My parents, like many others, support the religious authorities because they say they uphold Islamic values. I fully disagree and this has often been a heated point of contention between us. I’ve seen how religious police go after those who choose not to fast on Ramadan or other religious holidays. It’s things like that which played a part in my decision to leave Islam.

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For the time being, I have chosen to live a double life and will not risk my peace and personal sanity for anything. 

Gerald*

I grew up with many ex-Muslims who came from strict and conservative Malay families. Many of them lived in fear and as a result, led double lives. 

In 2017, I organized a night gathering at a shophouse in Kuala Lumpur where members of our atheist community in Malaysia could openly discuss our views and experiences with religion, without fear of judgment or persecution. 

The night was a success. Dozens from all across Malaysia turned up. We laughed, played music and drank alcohol. I even witnessed some ex-Muslims try pork for the first time. 

No one was there to demonize Islam.

But I forgot that this was Malaysia, where outing others over religion is encouraged. And because there were Muslim apostates and atheists among us, the gathering was reported to the authorities and sparked a huge public backlash. It even made its way to parliament, where it was attacked by conservative Muslim ministers, one who infamously remarked that atheists “should be hunted down.” 

A conservative Muslim minister even remarked that atheists ‘should be hunted down’.

Looking back, I have no regrets. But unfortunately, Malaysia is still living in the dark ages. Laws are used to scare and intimidate atheists and apostates.

Is this how we want to move forward together as a country? We as Malaysians should be better than this. 

Lina*

I am Chinese by race and was given up by my biological parents at a very young age. 

The law in Malaysia states that all Malays, as well as those like myself who were abandoned at birth, must be registered as Muslim. It is even stated on our personal identification cards. 

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After being placed in foster care, I was registered as a Muslim and raised as one. 

Growing up, I abided by the teachings of the Quran and was taught to dress modestly. I even wore the hijab. 

But my life changed after I enrolled in a local university and made more Chinese friends, who exposed me to their beliefs and customs. I even tried pork and loved it, and haven’t looked back. I also met my future partner, a Chinese Christian. I fell in love with him and the freedom that came with being with him. But because I am unable to officially renounce Islam, we have not yet gotten married due to complications involving religious conversion. 

I am now in my mid-30s and no longer subscribe to the teachings of Islam because it was not a religion I had chosen out of my own free will.

Religion is taken to extremes in Malaysia. Despite what our government says, many of us know that religion will always dictate our way of life.

‘Religion will always dictate our way of life in Malaysia.’

I will remain a registered Muslim because I have seen and heard too many horror stories of people being outed over their faith, and I do not wish to subject myself or my loved ones to that. 

Muslim devotees at the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO: AFP

Muslim devotees at the Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO: AFP

Joy*

I have indigenous ancestry and was forced to convert to Islam under the law. 

I am not a Muslim by choice. 

Like other women in my family, I was taught to cover up and wear the hijab, something I was not comfortable with for years. 

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When I finally decided to stop, much to the dismay of my parents, I felt free. But I was judged very harshly based on my decision. 

Hijab-clad Muslim girls in Malaysia. PHOTO: AFP

Hijab-clad Muslim girls in Malaysia. PHOTO: AFP

I am a feminist and identify as a queer woman. I do not agree with many Islamic traditions, like genital mutilation for girls at birth and other restrictions that suppress free will. Malaysia’s Sharia laws also played a big part in my decision to renounce my faith.

I even rescue stray dogs and have adopted two of my own. But because dogs are considered “unclean animals” in Islam, I face many challenges - I get dirty looks when I take my dogs to see the vet.

Fear mongering tactics by our government and the religious authorities have become so common in Malaysia. It’s very sad to see our country transitioning towards an Islamic state governed not by democratic values, but by religion. 

Follow Heather Chen on Twitter.