In Malaysia, “sensitive” topics that involve race, religion, and royalty are often viewed as overly controversial to the point of being rendered taboo. Many Malaysian people, particularly those who were born Muslim, are forced to leap through giant hoops if they wish to leave the religion. The process is not only tedious, but often yields devastating results.
What Happens When Muslims in Malaysia Try To Leave Islam?
Growing up Malaysian made me aware of diversity from a very young age. The experience of a pluralistic society where…
The right to choose to believe in a religion (or not to) shouldn’t be regulated by a government, but the reality in Malaysia is that Ex-Muslims face threats of persecution for simply choosing to live a life that is separate from Islam.
In order to avoid scrutiny, many Murtads (People born as a Muslim who later rejects Islam) live double-lives; they’re forced to hide their true beliefs out of fear of being targeted and harassed.
Below is a testimony from Luqman (a psuedonym), regarding his experience living life as a Malay Ex-Muslim in Malaysia.
Q: How was your upbringing and how were your earlier experiences with faith like? Were you raised in a religious household? Did your life revolve around religious values?
I grew up in a family where the tenets of Islam were expected to be followed, but it wasn’t enforced in a strict way. Until this day, I wouldn’t necesarrily describe my family as super religious, though I think that most Muslims in Malaysia are this way; in the way that they go through the usual and typical motions of being a ‘Muslim’, culturally speaking.
Before my apostasy, I was actually quite invested in the religion. I always had ambitions to deepen and strengthen my knowledge of Islam, in order to become some kind of ‘Pendakwah Bebas’ (Independent preacher) because I always viewed the act of spreading God’s word as the noble and righteous thing to do. While I was still a Muslim, I enjoyed being religious. At the time, it provided me with great comfort and a never-ending sense of serenity and peacefulness. However, I started to realize that it was all a “mental game”, it dawned on me that it was all in my head. I had an epiphany and thought to myself, “Of course you’ll feel connected to something that you put a ton of effort into focusing your mind on”. I think that as humans, we tend to find something to cling to in life… Whether as a consolation, an aspiration of hope, etc. Things that force us to give some kind of meaning in this vast and mysterious life.
For me, I thought that if I clung to Islam for sure I’ll achieve those expected feelings. I thought that Islam would solve all my problems and fill the void that I had. The same concept applies if I were to cling to Christianity, Buddhism, or any other form of beliefs/worshipping system. I realized that my feelings of conviction were because I wanted to believe in all aspects of my religion. But at one point in my life, Islam just didn’t give me satisfaction anymore.
Q: Malaysians typically stigmatize apostasy. Have you told anyone about your journey towards becoming an Ex-Muslim? How have they reacted?
I actually came out to two of my lecturers while I was in university. Surprisingly, they reacted quite positively… Despite the socio-geographic circumstance (I went to uni in Kelantan, one of the MOST Islamically conversative states in Malaysia). Much like most devout Muslims, my lecturers reacted negatively; along with other cliché religious advice, they told me that they hope and pray that someday, somehow, Allah will lead me back to the “right” path.
In an attempt to salvage my crumbling faith and steer me back to Islam, one of my lecturers somewhat forced me to participate in a 3-Day Dakwah¹ session at a local Kelantan mosque. I participated in the session and went in with an open mind; I asked a lot of questions about Islam, especially regarding certain topics that were alarming and led me to have doubts. The answers that were given to me by the religious scholars were not satisfactory… It seemed like they performed major mental-gymnastics and justified different events as “metaphors” or pertaining to the historical context of the time.
Q: How many people know that you are an Ex-Muslim? Do you have any support system? How does that affect your daily life/mental health?
Everyone in my close social circle knows that I’m an Ex-Muslim. We have a mutual understanding of respect with each other, despite having different personal and religious beliefs. For me, leaving Islam.. Or in general, leaving an indoctrination is amazingly freeing.
Now I truly feel like an explorer that’s journeying through this life trying to uncover its mysteries. Listening to theories and other life philosophies is so intriguing. I am on the agnostic side, I’m open to the possibilities of a higher being, but viewing the world without an “Islamic lens” makes it more interesting.
I don’t feel empty like how some people do after they abandon their religion. I actually feel an enormous sense of freedom and relief; it feels like I broke the chain that enslaved my mind for the longest time. It was the best decision that I have ever made.
Q: Many Islamists look up to Zakir Naik, especially in Malaysia… What are your thoughts on him & his dakwah?
Ironically, Zakir Naik is one of the reasons I left. I used to watch him a lot back when I was still Muslim. It was like an affirmation that I was a part of the best and ultimately the most perfect religion on earth. It was ‘the feel good’ moment and was an exciting experience to see him dismantle and dumb down other religious beliefs.
But then after having watched him a lot, I started to notice how ridiculous his debating skill are. He always came up with really bad analogies when explaining things. If I were to watch it without bias, then I would notice these flaws; His explanation never satisfied me. He just twists different words here and there, give stupid analogies all in a confident/victorious tone, thus portraying him “winning” the debate. If you’re a Muslim and listen to him with an Islamic bias, sure… Of course, you’ll cheer for him. But if you’re a doubtful Muslim seeking for truth, then you’ll realize how ridiculous of a person Zakir Naik is.
Q: Many Islamic conservatives in Malaysia tend to perceive atheism and apostasy negatively. If you had a chance to express yourself to them, what would you say to try and make them understand your feelings?
I’m not sure if I can or should bother explaining myself to such people. For example, even if I were to travel back in time to explain how I feel to my past Muslim-self, it would also be a waste of time.
My former Muslim-self would never agree with my current self. I became an apostate 5 years ago, now I’m 25. I wish people like the ‘Apostate Prophet’ channel on Youtube keeps on making videos and educating people on different teachings of historical Islam.
Q: What is life like for you as an Ex-Muslim living in Malaysia?
Being an Ex-Muslim in a majority conservative country like Malaysia is honestly quite annoying. I just can’t do whatever that I want without the social pressure and judgement from society. My family still thinks that I’m a Muslim except for my younger brother. I do have dreams to migrate one day, maybe to Canada or the US. But it’s a bit less probable and possible financially speaking. Until then, I’ll pretend to be a Muslim to appease Malaysian society.
In my honest opinion, I think religion or any belief systems should not be forced onto human beings since their first day of existence. We should get to choose our own path when we reach the appropriate age. It’s supposed to be an individual’s right. But it’s hard… Most religions and beliefs are hereditary. People are most likely born into a specific religion and are raised to think that their religion overrides all the rest.
: General Malaysian term for missionary work, proselytization, and Islamization. Specifically refers to the political Islamist movement that emerged in the 1970s through the activities of youth organizations. Seeks greater application of Islamic laws and values in national life and articulates a holistic Islamic perspective of social, economic, and spiritual development.