Malaysiakini News

Freedom of religion includes freedom of no religion, argue lawyers

Annabelle Lee  |  Published:  |  Modified:

The guarantee of freedom of religion in the Federal Constitution includes the freedom to be an atheist, lawyers told Malaysiakini.

They were responding to Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, who told the Dewan Rakyat that freedom of religion does not mean freedom not to have a religion.

Asyraf also said it was unconstitutional to spread the ideology of no religion in Malaysia.

Arguing otherwise, Bar Council chairperson George Varughese said the constitution does protect the freedom of no religion.

“The natural corollary to one's right of freedom to profess and practice his or her religion and to propagate it, as provided in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution, is the freedom not to profess and practice any religion and to spread the ideology of such a belief or practice.  

“There is no provision in the constitution which makes it mandatory for one to profess and practice a religion. I believe to date no one has been charged or punished for not believing in, or (not) practising a religion,” Varughese said.

Lawyers Syahredzan Johan, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and Eric Paulsen echoed a similar stand.

Paulsen (photo), who is Lawyers for Liberty executive director, criticised Asyraf's interpretation of the constitution.

“The way the deputy minister interpreted freedom of religion was a literalist view of the constitution. The constitution is not interpreted that way in a liberal democratic tradition.

“I think the deputy minister does not understand the fundamental point of the constitution. These articles are to protect citizens. (One should not) use all these precepts to oppress people,” Paulsen said.

Professing atheism not a crime

In addition to calling atheism and the spread of it unconstitutional, Asyraf stated the constitution especially prohibited the spread of other religions, beliefs or doctrines to Muslims in the country, as stated in Article 11(4).

The section states that “state law… and federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam”.

Asyraf (photo) also warned that “action could be taken” against those who spread atheism under the Sedition Act 1948.

Fadiah Nadwa warned against using the law to oppress minority groups like atheists and said the state had “no right to interfere” with individual beliefs.

Meanwhile, Syahredzan hypothesised that even if being an atheist was unconstitutional, a statement he disagreed with, this did not mean it was unlawful to be one.

“It is not a crime unless there is a specific law that outlaws being an atheist. Indulging in something unconstitutional is not a crime per se,” he explained.

However, the lawyers agreed that promoting atheism to Muslims would technically be prohibited in Malaysia.

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