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Interview with Zarinah Abdullah from Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/05/01

Zarinah Abdullah is a Member of Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists. Here we talk at in-depth about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us talk about some prior life for you, only need to speak about it, and to the extent that, you feel comfortable, of course. How was upbringing for you? Was education oriented around the secular public school system or the religious school system?

Zarinah Abdullah: I have to declare first that I grew up in Singapore, a secular country, in the 90s. As such, education was very much secular, especially since I went to government schools. However, I did receive religious education outside of my normal curriculum at a Madrasah — which is an Islamic religious school. I had a relatively strict Islamic upbringing, but because life in Singapore was secular for the most part, I was not coerced or pressured to wear the hijab. I did, however, dress conservatively according to Islamic standards of modesty for girls and women (long sleeved tops and bottoms where applicable).

The thing is that in Singapore, students in schools all wear short-sleeved shirts or skirts (for girls). Only boys in upper secondary wear long pants — this trend is the same for the whole of Singapore (maybe some exceptions exist, I am not sure). For P.E, we all wore round necked, short sleeved shirts with shorts. So regardless of your race or religion, you had to abide by the secular dress code in Singapore. However, sometimes Muslim students could request to wear long PE pants approved by the school. I opted to do so for modesty reasons.

Jacobsen: How was this educational system conducive, or not, to a more secular outlook on the world?

Abdullah: There were some times then that I felt like it was in conflict with my beliefs and understanding of modesty. However, as I grew used to it, it did not matter much to me — when I studied at a tertiary institution without a dress code, I opted to dress “modestly”, which got less modest as I grew older. I will admit that I was cocooned in a very strict, religious bubble, especially in my family.

That, coupled with my lack of exposure to the world outside of Singapore, resulted in very backwards and conservative beliefs that I kept with me until I grew up and decided to leave for, ironically, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. That was where my real emancipation began, as I was bereft of the grasps of religious shame and tyranny of my religious mother. I began to make friends with people outside of my circle, I befriended and learnt from atheists, learnt about atheism, and questioned Islam.

I still held strong Islamic beliefs during that time of adulthood, but it was getting harder and harder to reconcile the sexist, misogynistic, unjust teachings of Islam with my ethical and moral compasses. In summation, the educational system in Singapore did not do much to influence my outlook on the world. The main factor was actually my family.

Jacobsen: Within Malaysia, given its 20th into 21st-century development, what has been its merits and demerits regarding safety and security for its more secular or non-religious oriented members?

Abdullah: The important thing to understand about Malaysia is that it is still a highly conservative, majority Muslim country. As such, the majority of the population, who are Malay Muslims, are still not open about or understanding about the existence of people who do not believe in God. There is a ‘code of conduct’ of sorts for Malaysians — called the Rukunegara (National Principles), which demands ‘Belief in God’ as one of its tenets. While the Rukunegara is by no means a legal document, it was made with the intention to ‘guide’ the behaviour of Malaysians and foster cohesiveness amongst the different races. It was made by leaders after racial and religious unity here was threatened by the infamous 13 May 1969 riots.

Now that we have understood that historical context, let us fast forward to recent years. The change of government in the momentous 2018 elections from Barisan Nasional (BN) to Pakatan Harapan (PH) has done little to push for positivity or even safety for the non-religious. In fact, PH has even restructured its religious department to come directly under the Prime Minister’s department, signifying its importance.

The PH government still panders to the majority race — Malay Muslims, because they are the biggest voting base. Many urban voters and residents live in an echo chamber where they think that the country is secularising or being more religiously free. This cannot be further from the truth, because most Malaysians are not living in the highly urban KL or Selangor. Your everyday Malaysian still believes LGBTs are abnormal and sinful, and that those who are not Muslim are sinning, for example.

This is exacerbated by the far right extremist politics in states such as Kelantan and Terengganu, where you will find most residents to be very orthodox Muslims with very problematic, wahhabist ideas. Malaysia has blasphemy laws codified in its constitution, and various other laws in the Syariah as well. In fact, under the new PH government, they are tabling three new bills: the Anti-Discrimination Act, National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Act and the Religious and Racial Hatred Act, all of which criminalise ‘insults’ to Islam or religion. In fact, we already have had people hauled up through the sedition act for sharing pictures of prophet Muhammad.

The PH government is serious about clamping down on people who criticise or insult Islam. I guess as long as you do not publicly criticise or insult Muslims and Islam (or other religions), nothing can legally be done to you for being non-religious. However, this does not extend to those who are born Muslims (because Muslims are identified on their ICs), who are governed automatically by each state’s respective Syariah laws.

In some states, apostasy can carry the death penalty (but not practiced), and in most other states, it carries criminal punishments such as a fine, or being thrown to an Islamic rehabilitation centre (IRC). It is a running joke amongst non-religious circles that non-Muslims have more rights to freedom of religion than born Muslims. As long as you keep your head low and avoid publicity, the Islamic religious authorities won’t come after you.

So in terms of safety for non-religious Malays, it’s pretty bad over here because not only do they have to live in fear and silence, they are forced to adhere to social expectations such as fasting or Friday prayers, which affect the men more severely than women. We have things such as Ramadan patrols by Islamic authorities who deliberately go to eateries to ‘catch’ Malays eating during Ramadan.

In some states, if you are caught not going to Friday prayers, you can be fined. And I have not even touched on the social ostracisation they face from their friends, families and colleagues!

Jacobsen: How did you find, become involved in, and begin to contribute to the Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH)?

Abdullah: I’ve been on a journey to irreligiousity for years; I started as a typical Sunni Muslim, then I rejected the hadiths and became a Quranist because I’m a feminist, and then when I couldn’t reconcile the misogyny in the Quran and the concept of a powerless God, I discovered irreligiousness.

I was in several atheist groups on Facebook (yes, they exist), and made friends with decent people. I got tired of the main atheist group in Malaysia (cannot name it for privacy reasons) because of the toxicity and misogyny of the people there — I call them asshole atheists — and sought friendships with more humane non-religious people.

Currently, I consult with MASH in terms of operations, strategy and communications. MASH members are all humanists first, and it is an important distinction we make because we don’t want people who don’t give two shits about other people in our group. We are all feminists, for instance.

We realised our ethics and moralities were human-first, in a do-no-harm way, that is in line with respect and dignity for all human beings. All of us prefer reason, science and logic to drive our decisions — so Humanism was a natural thing for us to embrace. We then banded together, and from a social group, MASH became little more formal.

We got our constitution up, we thought about our aims, and found that Malaysia needed a reputable and reliable voice of reason from the non-religious, humanist community. We are not the typical religion-hating angry atheist with a bone to pick with Muslims — we believe coexistence is definitely doable, and much preferred, but our priority is to represent atheistic and secular humanist voices in the community.

We embrace diversity and humanity, and some of our planned programmes are meant to be inclusive of both religious and non-religious people. We respect where respect is deserved, and we criticise where criticism is needed.

Jacobsen: What are some of the major initiatives and community events for MASH?

Abdullah: So far, we have co-hosted a couple of debates, the most recent one was on the topic “Does God exist?”. However due to impending structural reshufflings and a lack of funding (because we are not exactly formally registered yet), we don’t have the capability to host full-on events.

We are exploring community-building events, however, working the grassroots to help the disadvantaged — it reduces costs on our side and we get to help the people who really need it. Once we are more financially stable, we MAY plan to bring events such as forums to the public space.

But even so, we might face problems finding speakers, and risk being scrutinised by the public. We do have a real fear of being investigated by the police and Islamic religious authorities for doing so as well. So it’s a risk we are still weighing.

Jacobsen: What are the major human rights concerns for Malaysian Atheists and Secular Humanists?

Abdullah: Definitely the safety of our Malay, Muslim-born atheist members. Some of them are loud n proud in their school/personal lives, but because they are so culturally Malay/Muslim, they face challenges from the religious authorities who are actively clamping down on Muslims who do not “behave” like Muslims, as well as their families.

Some of them even have been betrayed by their family members or schoolmates and brought in for questioning by the religious authorities. They are suffocated in Malaysia, being unable to live their lives as non-religious people publicly, a privilege the non-Muslims in Malaysia are afforded, and being silenced for speaking their minds out.

While it is true that non-Malay/Muslims in Malaysia generally have lesser privileges than Malay/Muslims, when it comes to freedom of belief, the born-Muslims who are non-religious are the most persecuted and oppressed.

Jacobsen: How can individuals help with the international implementation of human rights frameworks to protect freethinkers there?

Abdullah: In the last UPR in Geneva, a country (cannot remember which one) suggested in their recommendation for Malaysia, to remove the religious status in the citizen’s identification card. That is a move we can get behind because there is no reason only Malay/Muslims should be singled out to have their religion printed on their ICs — it only perpetuates criminal action against them if they choose not to behave as a ‘Muslim’.

The government and states should never be able to dictate how citizens should religiously behave — religion is a personal endeavour and should rightly remain personal, not institutional. However, the government has made it clear that they would not be allowing this because apparently it would be in conflict with the ‘special position’ of the Malays as per the constitution. I do not understand that argument, but our politicians often say things that don’t make sense anyway. *shrugs*

Jacobsen: Who are prominent Malaysian freethinkers, men and women, who deserve more exposure?

Abdullah: *laughs* we do not really have any ‘prominent’ freethinkers per se; firstly, they won’t have much of a following, and secondly, they risk courting trouble with the police. We do on occasion, have individuals speaking up on Twitter (sorry I do not want to share their handles because I don’t want to unnecessarily draw attention to them) or sending in op-eds to the Malay Mail about secularism.

We do not have a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens here — they would be hauled up by the police and charged under the sedition act if they so much as question Islam. MASH aims to grow, however, to approach secularism and humanism, CAREFULLY, within a Malaysian context, taking into account her history and religious climate.

This means we cannot actually do much now because the Muslims here are super antsy about religion, and the government is more than ready to be trigger happy on clamping down on non-religious discourse in Malaysia, especially if they feel Islam is in any way threatened. Even MASH is somewhat anonymous, operating under the radar of the Islamists on social media.

There’s one prominent secularist and lawyer, Siti Kasim, who has made it her life’s mission to fight against Islamists and the religious authorities in Malaysia. But she’s Muslim herself, not a freethinker, however. She is known for speaking up for the rights of Orang Asal (aboriginals).

Jacobsen: What are good books and speeches on the Malaysian brand of freethought?

Abdullah: Not that I know of.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Abdullah: Malaysia has a long way to go towards freedom of belief. There are already NGOs such as Sisters in Islam and COMANGO that have been working for years to address the lack of FoRB here, but they have their hands tied.

I think we can only make more headway when more of the population decide to embrace secularism and non-religiousity more. Many Malay/Muslims still think it is impossible for a Malay to be an atheist and react aggressively towards such persons, but rest assured, there are atheist Malays, and there are quite a number of them. They are hiding amongst you because they’re scared.

It is this climate of fear that irks me the most here. One more thing — the rich and well-connected Malay Muslims can drink, fornicate and gamble as much as they want, but when it comes to the common man, there are suddenly khalwat raids or syariah crimes to answer for.

It has not right, and nobody should be religiously policed to begin with, Islam or not. But fear is what drives politicians and institutions of authority, either to control people or exert their power and influence; and over here, it is fear of Islam and Malays losing power. Malaysia has so much opportunity to succeed and become a high performing nation with quality talent but is held back by racial and religious politicking and control. It is unfortunate.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Zarinah.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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