Religious freedom for Muslims is a contentious issue in Malaysia but well-known law lecturer Azmi Sharom has no qualms defending it.
He said judges, who are mostly Muslims in the country, are terrified of being seen as bad Muslims for supporting freedom of religion.
Azmi said judges would not rule in favour of it although the Quran says there is no compulsion in religion.
“My argument is that, if you are so scared, don’t be a judge,” Azmi said to loud applause from a packed hall at the Nusantara Forum in George Town last night.
“You swore to uphold the constitution, not to uphold your own personal beliefs,” he added, in response from a question on religious freedom for Muslims from the floor.
“If you cannot do that, quit, by all means, quit, because I am sure there are many companies out there who would like you to be their directors,” he quipped to much laughter from the crowd.
Azmi, who is facing a sedition charge for his comments on the Perak constitutional crisis, is popular with his bold and frank remarks about the country's struggle to uphold the Federal Constitution, especially in cases of freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.
The crowd who attended the forum titled 'It’s the Constitution, Stupid', gave Azmi a standing ovation when he entered the hall.
Accompanying him at the forum as discussant was former Penang Bar Council chairperson and famous poet Cecil Rajendra, while the forum was moderated by Gerak Budaya Bookshop owner Ismail Gareth Richards.
Freedom of religion for all, not just non-Muslims
Azmi noted that Article 11 of the federal constitution says “all persons” have freedom of religion, and does not say that it is “only for non-Muslims”.
“But the issue for Muslims is not just wanting to leave Islam and become a Buddhist, the issue is even within Islam, if you are a Syiah, it is unlawful,” he said.
Azmi said this despite former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (photo) and his ministers signed an international declaration saying Syiah is a branch of Islam.
“When they are overseas, these ministers do all kinds of wonderful things but back in Malaysia, people are being persecuted for what they believe in.
“The constitution is clear, but the courts have been afraid to support people’s freedom of religion,” Azmi noted.
Azmi said contrary to what some Islamic scholars fear, there is no huge number of Muslims leaving the religion.
When these cases happen, they mostly concern those whose marriages to Muslims have fallen apart and the partner who converted to Islam is thinking of reverting to his or her former religion, he claimed.
“That is fair enough, as we do not want to force people into our religion,” Azmi said.
However, no court has said that this is a constitutional issue and that the courts cannot stop or punish people for leaving the religion, Azmi added.
In the past, Muslims who want to leave the religion merely needed to sign a statutory declaration, he recalled.
“But now if you do it, for example, in Kelantan, you can be put in jail for two years.
“In Selangor, you get put into a rehabilitation center which is just like being in jail because you can't leave. It is a shocking state of affairs,” he said.
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