Malaysia's constitution establishes Islam as the state religion. Though this is ostensibly only symbolic, meant to affirm the importance of the Islamic faith to the Muslim-majority country, in practice there is much overlap between mosque and state. Blasphemy laws target anyone who insults religion or incites religious hatred in the judgment of the authorities; atheists, agnostics, and other religiously unaffiliated are discriminated against.
Today, Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, split across two land masses. According to the 2010 census, 61.3% of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent Buddhism; 9.2 percent Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; and 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions. Malaysia officially became an Islamic state in 1963, and officially restricts blasphemy as per Articles 295-298A of the Malaysian Penal Code. Prior to British rule, Malaysian states were ruled by independent sultans, who practiced Shari'a as early as the 14th century. During the colonial period, the British made treaties with Malay rulers, and introduced a system prescribing Islamic law only in personal matters and civil law for all others, including penal law.
Historical accounts differ, but it is possible Islam arrived via Muslim merchants as early as the 9th century. By the 15th century, Islamic law was incorporated into the first digest of Malaysian law, the Hukum Kanun Melaka and in the Maritime Laws of Malacca.
Development of Blasphemy Laws
Malaysia’s criminal code went through multiple iterations during British colonialism. Prior to the implementation of British Penal code in 1871, Islamic law was most commonly applied, and under British policy, solely to personal matters. In 1957, Malaysia became independent, and under article 3 of its new Constitution, declared Islam the official religion of the Federation. Independent Malaysia continued its use of the inherited federal legal system based on a modern secular state, while implementing some aspects of Islamic law for those who practiced. The Constitution was not without contradiction; while Article 3 provides that other religions may also be practiced in peace and harmony, Article 10 allows Parliament to pass laws that restrict these freedoms in the interest of “public order, morality and security.”
Debates over the role of Islam in public life intensified in the 1930s, eventually leading to a schism in the United Malay National Organization and the consequent formation of the Malaysian Islamic Party in 1951. The following years saw a move away from a secular state and towards an Islamic one went in tandem with ethnic conflict; largely Muslim ethnic Malays adopting an Islamist outlook and minority communities being more secular.
Throughout 2000, the Minister for Law announced he considered invoking section 298 of the Penal Code against those who “disunite Muslims,” which punishes “uttering words, etc, with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person” and “causing ... disharmony, disunity, feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will, or prejudicing ... the maintenance of harmony or unity on grounds of religion.”
In May 2014, Prime Minister Najib Razak called “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” dangerous threats to Islam and the state. In July 2018, the Malaysian government declared its intention to introduce the Religious and Racial Hatred Act, to protect Islam and other religions in the country from insult, though legislation was never passed.