Things have reached a point in Malaysia where most of us instinctively cringe when we get mentioned on international news. Tap on the Malaysia section in the BBC app, and the list of recent headlines speaks for itself.
So, you’ll be forgiven if you’ve just tuned out the Malaysian news ticker completely. However, you have to burrow really deep underground to avoid the so-called Atheist Republic scandal, which set social media on fire last week for all the wrong reasons – and, of course, made international headlines.
OK, so what’s the fuss about? Last week, news broke that a group called “Atheist Republic” organised a gathering of its Kuala Lumpur “Consulate.” Naturally, since freedom of expression is so highly cherished here, they shared a picture and accompanying summary to their Facebook page – upon which all hell broke loose.
Let’s back up for a minute. What is the “Atheist Republic” and why do they have a Malaysian consulate? As you’ve probably guessed, the Atheist Republic is no real republic. In fact, as far as I could tell, it’s little more than a Facebook community gathering atheists together from around the world. The Kuala Lumpur “consulate” appears to be less of an embassy building and more of a Facebook group for private discussion. The whole thing was founded by an Iranian-born former Muslim, Armin Navabi, who lives in Vancouver now, for obvious reasons. His journey out of Islam began when he jumped from a window in the hope of instant salvation before his 15th birthday. Suicide of this kind is a rare and unendorsed path to paradise, so his story seems doubtful. The backgrounds of many of the contributors to the page and its attached website have a comical ring to them, including a guy who lost his faith after watching Bill Nye the Science Guy.
In fact, scroll through their Facebook page and you’ll find more memes and t-shirt sales than serious discussion of religion. That’s not to say they don’t make a difference at times, such as when the group raised funds for victims of unrest in the Phillipines. So, what we have is a memes and merchandise page, doing some humanitarian work on the side, organising a “Reddit gathering”-style meet in an undisclosed location with 30-odd people somewhere in Kuala Lumpur. The reaction?
And those are just some of the shorter comments. Not all were so bloody, though, as one commenter merely urged them: “Don’t live on this earth created by God. Creates your own earth or similar if you can.” Last we heard, the KL Consulate is heeding this man’s words and busily preparing its rocket for launch.
The uproar even triggered a government response, with one minister promising to hunt them down , though another suggested using a soft approach.
On a serious note, the laws prohibiting or restricting apostasy from Islam are extremely strict in many states in Malaysia – but the death penalty has never actually been applied in such cases, with counselling and rehabilitation being the preferred option. Even with such a high-profile incident, no officials have suggested harsh punishment for the attendees. Besides, nobody knows for sure that any of them were actually Muslims.
Whatever your opinion on religious freedom, we can all agree that nobody is ever allowed to take the law into their own hands. Death threats definitely fall under that category.
Article by Visvamba Nathan
Pictures from Atheist Republic Facebook, more Facebook