Most of Malaysia's 16 states have laws which prohibit the propagation of other religions amongst Muslims. Recently Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has called for the remaining four states which do not have these laws to introduce them.
The debate about the supremacy of Islamic and Secular law and religious freedom has come to the fore given the publicity for the Lina Joy case, and some Muslims are trying to force Malaysia closer to becoming an Islamic state. Badawi is regarded as a moderate, but is coming under increasing pressure from Islamists.
Article 11(1) of the Malaysian constitution states that: "Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and subject to Clause (4), to propagate it". This article is subject to Article 11(4) which says "State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Lubuan, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam." This means that states within Malaysia have passed laws which make it an offence to persuade, influence or incite a Muslim to follow another religion and to send or deliver publications about non-Islamic religions to a Muslim. The proselytizing of non-Muslims faces no similar obstacles, as Islam is given a privileged position in Malaysia and other religions do not have the same protection.
There are four states which have not passed this law; they are Federal Territories (Kuala Lumpur and Lubuan), Penang, Sabah and Sarawak. Badawi has argued that these states should also adopt restrictions on the propagation of non-Islamic religions amongst non-Muslims. He recently said, "Why are they still not doing it? Those states that have not (passed such laws) should consider it. Take whatever action is needed." Badawi regards freedom of religion not as a right that needs to be protected, but rather as a source of conflict. He thinks that the free discussion of non-Islamic religion will provoke the majority and lead to discord. Badawi is also responding to the calls of Islamists who have grown more and more vocal in demanding tighter restrictions on non-Muslim religions and a more prominent role for Islamic law.
In 2004 Badawi decreed that the Malay language version of the Bible should have "Not for Muslims" printed on the cover and that it should only be distributed in Christian churches and bookshops.
Badawi believes that clamping down on the rights of members of the minority religions will prevent ethnic and religious conflict. However, empowering Islamists by accepting their demands will lead to much greater conflict in the future. It must be understood that the real threat comes from the Islamists, not from religious minorities who merely wish to be able to freely worship as they choose. Malaysia is at a crossroads and Badawi must do everything in his power to ensure that Malaysia takes the path towards becoming a country where human rights are protected.