Malaysia’s new religious affairs minister urged the public Tuesday to stop discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) people in the workplace as long as they don’t openly declare their sexuality.
All people, including members of the LGBT community, have equal rights and freedom, Mujahid Yusof Rawa told reporters. His groundbreaking comments stirred criticism from other politicians and religious figures in majority-Muslim Malaysia, where Islam is the official faith and homosexual acts, such as sodomy, are outlawed and punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
“No one should be discriminated at work or barred from working,” said Mujahid, a member of the faith-based National Trust Party (Amanah) who is minister in charge of religious affairs under the Prime Minister’s Department in Malaysia’s new government.
Mujahid, who left the conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to join Amanah, said LGBT members should be free to work.
“As long as they can work and they do not try to challenge the system where it can bring damage to Islam, then there should be no problem,” the minister told reporters at parliament.
His comments on the sensitive issue of LGBT rights appeared to be unprecedented for a Malaysian government official, but he did draw a line. Mujahid said people who were open about their sexuality could create problems if they did not mirror the Islamic values of Malaysia.
However, it was not immediately clear whether his statement signaled a policy change on LGBT rights or whether Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), Malaysia’s new ruling coalition to which his party belongs, would move to abolish laws criminalizing homosexual sex and sodomy. In its electoral manifesto, Pakatan did not mention LGBT people but it promised to “build an inclusive and moderate” nation.
Mujahid’s statement came after Numan Afifi, who is pro-LGBT, was forced to resign as press secretary for the minister of youth and sports in the new government.
“Whatever, his sexuality is, he remained professional and he kept it quiet. Therefore, he did not breach any law,” Mujahid said.
PAS member Takiyuddin Hassan challenged Mujahid’s “uncalled for” comments, telling BenarNews that they could lead Muslims to think that being LGBT was permitted in Islam.
“As a minister, he should know what to say. From a legal point of view, becoming an LGBT itself is an offense,” Takiyuddin said. “His interpretation may lead to confusion, and Muslims and non-Muslims alike would think that being gay is OK in Islam.”
Both Mujahid and Takiyuddin were raised politically in PAS but Mujahid left the party to form Amanah with other progressive PAS members.
Mujahid is serving as a minister in the government because Amanah joined the Pakatan coalition that defeated the Barisan Nasional government in the May 9 general election. PAS did not join either coalition.
Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the People’s Justice Party, a key ally in Pakatan, was serving a prison sentence on a second sodomy conviction, when the coalition won the election. Following the upset at the polls, Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V granted Anwar a full pardon, allowing him to return to political life.
Anwar is expected to take over as prime minister when Mahathir Mohamad, 93, steps down as PM in a year or two.
‘We just want recognition’
In response to Mujahid’s statement, Abdul Rahman Osman, the mufti of Pahang state, said the new religious affairs minister should be wiser.
“I do not know his real intention, but if he does not want any discrimination at work he should explain why,” Abdul Rahman said. “His statement must also explain why Muslims must reject LGBT [people].”
Meanwhile, an LGBT rights activist applauded Mujahid’s stand.
Nisha Ayub, who was jailed for cross-dressing and attacked by homophobes several years ago, thanked the minister.
“I was surprised when I heard it. Coming from a minister with an Islamic background, for me is more than enough,” he said. “We just want recognition, the right to work and the right to education. That is all.
“I would like to thank him for making such a statement. It meant a lot for us,” he added.
Wan Ji Wan Hussein, an independent preacher who was once investigated under Malaysia’s Sedition Act, supported the statement.
“If LGBT [people] can’t work, so it should be the same for those who don’t pray. In Islam, he who does not pray, his sin is as big as being an apostate,” Wan Ji said.
“We should engage and try to explain Islam rather than push them away from the religion. That is not the way to promote Islam,” he said.