Malaysian court charges filmmakers for deliberately ‘wounding religious feelings’ through movie

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian court charges filmmakers for deliberately ‘wounding religious feelings’ through movie Mohd. Khairianwar Jailani (second from left), director of the Malaysian feature film “Mentega Terbang,” and the film’s producer, Tan Meng Khen (second from right), speak with their lawyers as they arrive at the Kuala Lumpur Magistrate Court, Jan. 17, 2024.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

A Malaysian court on Wednesday charged the director and producer of a now-banned feature film about a Muslim girl who explores other faiths with deliberately “wounding religious feelings,” making them the first filmmakers in the country to face criminal prosecution.

Human Rights Watch and other groups slammed the government’s move to bring charges against the two filmmakers.

“Crude political pandering” that restricts free speech is how the global rights watchdog described it, while other critics said the government of Anwar Ibrahim appeared to be looking for votes from the burgeoning section of religious conservatives in the Muslim-majority country.

The director of the film “Mentega Terbang,” Mohd. Khairianwar Jailani, and its producer, Tan Meng Kheng, were charged separately under Section 298 of Malaysia’s penal code that deals with punishment for intentionally hurting anyone’s religious feelings with words, sounds or actions. 

The two pleaded not guilty and were released on bail, although gag orders were imposed on them to prohibit them from making any public statements about the case.

“The charges were under Section 298 for producing, directing, and writing the script. … We don’t think it’s right, and we will take it up with the High Court,” N. Surendran, the filmmakers’ lawyer, told reporters. He would seek an answer from the High Court and then use that as a reference in the case.

“[Section 298] is an antiquated legislation, as it is pre-independence legislation and we cannot let it stand anymore. We have informed both the magistrates and filed to refer to the High Court in order to strike down Section 298 as being unconstitutional for this case. If we are successful, the charges will be gone,” Surendran added.

The magistrates in the cases of both the film’s producer and director set March 14 for the next hearing.

“Mentega Terbang” was released in 2021 and had limited screenings. But it came to people’s attention last March when it debuted on a Hong Kong-based streaming service called Viu, before it was taken down. 

The service removed the film as criticism against it became hateful and violent. The director and the actor received death threats and the former’s car was vandalized.

The film was also screened at the Jogja-Netpac Indonesia Film Festival 2021 and became the closing film for the Aceh Film Festival 2022.

A screengrab from the trailer for the film “Mentega Terbang” shows the protagonist, 15-year-old Aisyah, entering a mosque. [YouTube/Anomalist Production]

The film’s protagonist is Aisyah, a 15-year-old grief-stricken Malay Muslim girl, confronting the imminent loss of her terminally ill mother. The situation makes her explore perspectives on life after death from the viewpoints of various religions. 

During this process, Aisyah challenges some Islamic norms, asks her friend to let her taste pork and gets her father’s approval to explore other religions. There’s a scene of Aisyah reading the Bible as well.

It was these aspects of “Mentega Terbang” that had a vocal section of Muslims up in arms and asking how such a film was allowed for public viewing. Conservatives from the country’s Islamic majority said it encouraged Muslims to desert their faith.

So great was the furor that the Home Ministry eventually banned the film last September, saying that allowing screenings of it was “contrary to public interest.”

The ban came soon after the government outlawed LGBT-themed Swatch wristwatches, two children’s books and a novel, also for allegedly being harmful to the multi-faith nation where Islam is the official religion and Muslims make up 70% of the population.

These bans and other incidents of moral outrage and intolerance have raised concerns among many Malaysians about a rise in Islamic conservatism and made them question the intentions of Prime Minister Anwar, who has a reputation of being a progressive moderate.

A screengrab from the trailer for the film “Mentega Terbang” shows the character, Aisyah, reading the Bible. [YouTube/Anomalist Production]

Many critics attribute the Anwar administration’s seeming about-face to an attempt at gaining votes from the Malay Muslim majority, which has traditionally been suspicious of his multireligious and multiethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Sure, his Pakatan coalition won the most parliamentary seats in the November 2022 general election. But it was hardline Islamic party PAS that won the largest number of seats by any party, a first for the group accused of divisive religious rhetoric and pushing Islamic fundamentalism.

Nine months later, the conservative opposition Perikatan Nasional coalition, which includes PAS, made significant gains in six state assembly polls, at the cost of Anwar’s federal alliance.

Analysts say Anwar is desperately looking for a piece of that Malay Muslim electorate.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, lambasted Anwar for kowtowing to any section just for votes.

He said the filmmakers’ prosecution  under a “vague and arbitrary” statute was “outrageous and unacceptable.”

It “shows very clearly how Anwar Ibrahim and his government are fundamentally failing to protect freedom of expression, and pursuing criminal cases for political motivations,” Robertson told BenarNews.

“This sort of crude political pandering at the expense of human rights is precisely the sort of thing that Anwar accused previous governments of doing when he was in the opposition. But now he’s hypocritically changed his tune after assuming power, and using the same censorship and persecution.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaks at a news conference on his first day at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Nov. 25, 2022. [Prime Minister office via AP]

Meanwhile, several human rights groups said in a joint statement that Section 298 of the penal code, under which the filmmakers were charged, was a blasphemy provision.

The section “makes the insult of any religion a criminal offense,” the groups’ statement said.

It added, though, that close monitoring of human rights violations showed that the section’s  provisions “are largely used against those deemed to have allegedly insulted Islam.”

The provisions’ enforcement “has had a disproportionate and negative impact on minority communities, political dissidents, atheists, comedians, artists, religious scholars, and others who express opinions,”  the statement said.

But one scriptwriter, Zabidi Mohamed, applauded the decision to criminally prosecute the makers of “Mentega Terbang.” He considers the film to be blasphemous and peddling liberal ideas.

“This is the first case in the history of the country’s film industry where a movie addressing liberal ideas that insult Islam [blasphemy] is charged in criminal court,” he wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, when it was reported that charges would be filed.

“As a Muslim, I adhere to the belief that the truth lies only in Islam, and I hold on to the religious principles approved by Allah, which are solely Islamic.”


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