Malaysia, Egypt: A Fight over Faith

Recent violence against Christians in Malaysia and Egypt points to rising tensions over religious freedom and Islamic identity. Legal expert Angela Wu argues these issues must be considered more carefully in U.S. foreign policy.

January 15, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Violence in Malaysia over use of the word Allah in reference to the Christian God, and the murders of Coptic Christians in Egypt in retaliation for an alleged rape, highlight growing tensions over religious freedom and Islamic identity, particularly in Muslim countries. Angela Wu, international law director at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, says though both countries have constitutions that protect religious freedom with "a special place carved out for Islam," the current legal environment "naturally begets interreligious tension and violence." She says the issue of religious freedom should not be overlooked in U.S. foreign policy. "The idea that you can see sectarian violence flare up, watch it die down, [and] that it doesn’t have deeper roots, is a mistake," she says. "And the idea that you can have legal systems that do not actively protect religious minorities is a mistake because that legal environment, as technical as it is, ultimately does create a social norm that affects the way people behave."

What precipitated the murder of Coptic Christians over Christmas in Egypt, and why does it matter?

The government has said that the mob attack may have been retaliation by the Muslim community for the rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian man who currently awaits trial. This has been the worst known incident of sectarian violence in a decade. It resulted in seven deaths, six Christians and one Muslim. It speaks of tensions that have been building for quite some time between the two communities. But what is important to note here is that there was an arrest and trial for the man accused of the rape, and the government acted specifically on that. It is incumbent on the government to act justly in this instance of the seven murders as well.

In Malaysia the burning of Christian churches was precipitated by a court ruling allowing a Catholic magazine to use the term ’Allah’ in reference to God. Why has this been such a contentious issue?

Religious freedom has been causing major tensions in Malaysia for years now. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding conversion and child custody issues, where one parent converts to Islam and the other remains a Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian, and then the entire case is sent to Sharia court. Malaysia has a parallel Sharia and civil law system that is only supposed to govern Muslims, but in the cases of conversion and marriage these tensions arise. The controversy over the use of Allah and whether or not non-Muslims should be able to use it is just the latest iteration of those.

Forced conversions and not recognizing conversion are also problems in Egypt, aren’t they?

A lot of the forced conversion issues are at the heart of tensions between Coptic Christians and majority Muslims in Egypt. For quite some time, Copts have suffered what a lot of people consider petty harassment compared to murder and arson [faced by Christians in some other countries]. But it is pretty fundamental that they are not able to get identity cards, which gives them no legal personality so [they] can’t do anything. In addition to that condition, which makes life pretty difficult for Copts in Egypt, there have been quite a few reports of forced conversion of Copts to Islam , which goes against prevailing rhetoric that Christian missionaries in majority Muslim countries have been aggressive in proselytizing.

Why is proselytizing such an issue?

A lot of people don’t consider proselytizing a form of free speech. Proselytizing has become a pejorative synonym of persuasion. Political persuasion, persuasion about social ideas, about public health policy, is generally accepted. But in a religious context people have become allergic to the marketplace of ideas where people are free to argue about truth claims and argue about questions of god and who we are. The problem is people increasingly want to base free speech standards on whether or not the speech is offensive to another person, rather than whether or not the speaker has a right to speak peacefully.

Can you talk about the difference between Christians in Egypt and those in Malaysia? These two countries are very different in their makeup and politics.

Their legal systems are quite different, but there are some similarities in the situation of Christians. Both states have a legal environment where on paper, at least, religious freedom is protected in the national constitution but a special place is carved out for Islam. The difficulty comes with who the state considers Muslim, how they treat non-Muslims, and [what happens] when those areas intersect, which they inevitably will.

It is also a legal environment where the enforcement of laws protecting religious freedom and expression leaves a lot to be desired. That legal environment of intolerance of minority religious expression naturally begets interreligious tension and violence. That’s what you see here. The latest violence and firebombing of churches in Malaysia in reaction to the court case are a natural expression of a normative environment where people feel that the minority shouldn’t be able to say certain things, have ID cards, [or have the state] recognize who they are. In addition to that you throw on political tensions or economic tensions or social tensions between communities like this alleged rape, and religion begins to show itself as a proxy for these other tensions that is easily manipulated.

How would you contrast these incidences with the minaret ban in Switzerland?

[T]he idea that you can have legal systems that do not actively protect religious minorities is a mistake because that legal environment, as technical as it is, ultimately does create a social norm that affects the way people behave.

Switzerland is very different from these other countries. Not only are its laws very good on their face for religious freedom, but in general the enforcement of those laws is also very good. The minaret ban is truly incomprehensible to me in that context. But it strikes at the heart of the question that is important for each of these countries in relieving tensions between religious communities. Is the state’s role going to protect religious expression the way it protects other expression or is it going to be much more active in controlling public dialogue and deciding what ideas enter into the public space?

We often see that the dialogue is such that religious identity becomes a proxy for nationalism. You see Hindu nationalist movements in India that cause a lot of tension and sometimes violence, or you see Islamic nationalism that says Malaysia is for Muslims who also happen to be mostly ethnic Malay. Similarly in Switzerland, I do think there is a tension in what the identity and recognition of historical roots of Switzerland are going to be.

What about this issue of religious identity? How do you deal with that when your identity is basically proscribed?

You’ve hit on the most contentious, difficult issue in religious freedom today and the most difficult issue for religious minorities, the question of identity. The state has a huge role in either permitting people to explore that or controlling it. The iteration of this problem is different per country, but what is common in Islamic nations is that it is almost impossible to convert out of Islam. In Egypt, the problem is exacerbated especially for Coptic Christians, many of whom are born into Coptic Christian families but can’t obtain ID cards. The Coptic Christian community has dealt with that by tattooing their children at a very young age so that the state cannot argue that Coptic Christian family claiming a child as Christian is actually lying or has taken the family from an Islamic family. Without an ID card you have no legal personality, you can’t get a job or driver’s license.

In Malaysia, there is a similar problem even though there aren’t laws that outright forbid conversion and even though people actually do quietly convert and don’t necessarily have to report that to the state. The difficulty only exists for people who are born into Muslim families or ethnic Malay families. Ethnic Malays make up about 60 percent of the population and for the most part, traditionally, ethnic Malays have been Muslim. So if you have an ethnic Malay name, the government automatically recognizes you as Muslim. In order to convert out of Islam you have to obtain a statement of apostasy from Sharia court, which only has jurisdiction over Muslims. But the only people who have applied for an apostasy statement in the Sharia courts have actually been sent to reeducation camps. So you can imagine that not a lot of people are asking for these statements. What is ironic about all of this is that Muslims in Malaysia have ID cards that ID them as Muslim. But if you’re not Muslim, 40 percent of the population, you don’t have any religious ID marked on your ID card. So it’s a bit of an unusual discrimination really only against Muslims; that is if you’re Muslim you can’t change your faith without the Sharia court stamp of approval. But if you’re not Muslim you can convert as you wish.

Can you talk more about intra-faith freedom of expression?

Quite a few countries have blasphemy or defamation of religion laws. Pakistan has probably the worst, where blasphemy is punishable by death. In those countries the blasphemy laws affect Muslim dissenters the most. While I would say the effect of those laws and their enforcement disproportionately affects religious minorities, but ultimately the largest number of people being affected are actually Muslim. So a state can easily use speech control laws to control political dissidents of any sort. If you look at the data on the kinds of blasphemy cases in Pakistan, at least 50 percent are brought against traditionally professing Muslims. It’s really about controlling speech generally, not just targeted against religious minorities. It’s about state power and how it’s being wielded to control public dialogue.

Is there any other world religion where if you convert away from it you are basically breaking the law? Or is Islam unique in that aspect?

Islam is not unique. We need to look at the tensions we’re seeing in a broad historical context. Christianity has had a 2000-plus-year history, but for a large chunk of that history it also did have a political iteration. That has changed over time so that pretty much every country that has a Christian majority is no longer a religious state, [and] there are very active protections for religious minorities. But there was a period in Christian history where conversion was similarly forbidden. That’s what we see today in Muslim nations. But not all Muslim nations behave in the same way. People have different levels of freedom and there are other countries where anti-conversion laws do exist in favor of other faiths, like in India. There are anti-conversion laws at the state level, in effect in favor of Hindu nationalism. Those laws have been at the root of lots of communal violence against non-Hindus. So the idea of conversion of Hindus into other faiths including Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, has been a major point of contention in India.

Looking at the bigger picture of Muslim-Christian relations, what is your recommendation for handling these types of issues, and what should we be concerned by?

The fundamental mistake is the policy of appeasement that says religious minorities don’t have a right to speech, don’t have a right to share their faith in a peaceful way. Often what we endorse is a policy of appeasement that doesn’t lead to peace down the line. What it does lead to is oppression of the conscience in a way that will cause tension down the line.

We live in a world where we cannot afford to ignore [the question of religious freedom] in our foreign policy. It affects our allies, our enemies, it affects our shores. These questions are pretty fundamental to the stability of countries we have an interest in. It has a major impact on state security and the ability of countries like Malaysia and Egypt and Pakistan to maintain stability in their societies. The idea that you can see sectarian violence flare up, watch it die down, that it doesn’t have deeper roots, is a mistake. And the idea that you can have legal systems that does not actively protect religious minorities is a mistake because that legal environment, as technical as it is, ultimately does create a social norm that affects the way people behave.