A Facebook photograph of an atheist gathering has caused an uproar in Malaysia, with one official suggesting that the people pictured should be tracked down to “fix their faith” if they are Muslim.
The Malaysian government has also ordered an investigation following a meeting of the local chapter of the Canada-based nonprofit Atheist Republic in Kuala Lumpur last week, during which the group posted a photo on social media of people smiling, with their arms in the air.
Shahidan Kassim, a senior official in the Prime Minister's Department, on Tuesday called on the public to help locate the group members, so that action could be taken.
"I would like to propose that we go all out to hunt them,” he said, without elaborating. “Help us to identify these groups.”
"Secondly, we need to bring them back and fix their faith if they are Muslims," he was quoted as saying in a MalaysiaKini report Tuesday.
Shahidan also called on religious groups and muftis to "educate" Muslims who have decided to choose atheism.
Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor, a mufti from the northern state of Penang, criticized the minister’s statement, saying Islamic authorities should have approached the matter more gently.
“I disagree. If one starts to be rude, the reaction would indeed be harsh. When they use such words, people would then misunderstand the word of God,” Wan Salim told BenarNews. “They will call Islam a violent and cruel religion.”
Other legal experts agreed.
"It is an uncalled-for remark, exaggerated and can alarm the public unnecessarily,” Eric Paulsen, executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, told BenarNews.
Belief in God
Malaysia is home to about 19.5 million Muslims who make up more than 60 percent of its population. Buddhists, Hindus and Christians live side by side with Muslims. Religion is considered a sensitive issue in multi-ethnic Malaysia.
On Monday, Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs, said he had instructed officials from the government’s religious department to investigate the Atheist Republic’s local chapter to find out if Muslims participated in the photographed event.
“If it is proven that there are Muslims involved in atheist activities that could affect their faith, the state Islamic religious departments or Jawi could take action,” he was quoted by the Malay Mail Online as saying on Sunday. “I have asked for Jawi to look into this grave allegation.”
While apostasy is not a federal crime in Malaysia, religious scholars have expressed concerns about deepening fundamentalism within the nation of more than 31 million people.
Malaysia does not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam and those who have tried have found themselves going through lengthy, unsuccessful court proceedings.
Armin Navabi, founder of Atheist Republic, complained in Facebook posts on Wednesday that members of the group’s Malaysian chapter did not harm anyone and do not deserve to be investigated.
The group has more than a million followers, with chapters called “consulates” in every country, including the Philippines, Armin said.
"Targeting atheists will ruin the so-called ‘moderate’ image, Malaysia thinks it has. Well, not anymore,” he said, confirming that several members in Malaysia had been questioned by authorities.
"We are also in search of lawyers in Kuala Lumpur that would be willing to help them out pro bono,” he said.
Authorities should provide counseling to atheists, instead of lambasting them on social media, said Zaim Azizi, a religion teacher at a local university.
“From an Islamic point of view, they have gone astray from their belief, but the current law on such issues has not been strong enough,” he told BenarNews.
Wan Salim, the mufti, called on Malaysian authorities and Muslim preachers to approach the issue carefully.
“We are learned people. We should preach the religion in a more scholarly fashion,” he said. “Islam is a beautiful and simple religion.”
Fairuz Mazlan in Penang, Malaysia contributed to this report.