Print a word: get your license revoked. Post a picture of yourself to Facebook: land in prison.
On Tuesday, the Malaysian government argued that banning the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims is necessary for public order. This is the latest development in a drawn-out legal row between the Herald, a Catholic weekly newspaper, and Malaysian governmental authorities. In 2008, the ministry prohibited the Herald from writing "Allah" in reference to "God," citing fears of "confusing" Muslims, and for the sake of "public security." Although the Herald successfully challenged the government in court, officials have taken the matter to the court of appeals. While Malaysia's constitution guarantees citizens the right to freedom of speech in Article 10, the escalation of Islamic fundamentalism in the country highlights a disturbing trend of trampling human rights.
The majority of Malaysia's 28 million people are Muslim, which is roughly 60% of the population. Disciplinary measures have become startlingly hardline with a growing focus on enforcing Sharia law. The country already suffers from a less-than-stellar reputation regarding freedom of speech. As radical Islam continues to rise in Malaysia, the religious undertones are putting an uncomfortable spotlight on its implications.
This July, sex bloggers Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee were charged and imprisoned without bail for posting a photo of themselves dining on pork stew. This was considered highly offensive because the duo posted the images during the holiday of Ramadan that featured pork, which is considered haram — forbidden — to Muslims. Tan and Lee face up to eight years in prison.
While the bloggers' were insensitive in their actions, the heightened public emphasis on Islamic codes of conduct is impossible to ignore. For example, for the first time last year, Malaysian authorities sentenced three women under Malaysian for reportedly having sex outside of marriage.
The friction between international standards of freedom of speech and the Sharia law underscores the troubling space that religiously-inclined governments occupy in today's world. Even more troubling is that the trend in Malaysia will only continue.
Whatever the outcome is from the court of appeals, the clear verdict is that freedom of speech in Malaysia is on the out.