Last week, the Atheist Republic Consulate of Kuala Lumpur held its annual gathering and posted a photo of the members on its Facebook group.
Just days later, the seemingly innocent photo sparked a nationwide debate on apostasy in Malaysia.
"The Atheist Republic Consulate of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia held its annual gathering and it was such a blast! Atheists from all walks of life came to meet one another, some for the very first time... each sharing their stories and forming new friendships that hopefully will last a lifetime! We rock!" read the status that was posted along with the photo on 3 August.
The photo was posted on a Facebook page named, Atheist Republic, which is a Vancouver-based non-profit group that provides atheists a platform to share their views and help each other express their atheism. The group has over 1.6 million followers from around the world on its Facebook page.
It all started with the comments on the photo. A large number of furious netizens issued thinly veiled death threats to Muslim apostates, while some called it an agenda to topple Islam in Malaysia.
One even went as far as to say that apostates "don't deserve to be Malaysian citizens"
While another reminded other angry netizens that we're a democratic country, not an Islamic nation
Simply put, the comment section was basically used as a platform to spew hate speeches against atheists and apostates
The comments got the attention of the local authorities, who have now launched an investigation on the group, as many have claimed that Malaysian Muslims are also part of the atheist club
Bernama reported Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki as saying that a detailed investigation will be conducted on the issue, urging the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to look into the matter as it involves the faith of Malaysian Muslims.
"If it is proven that there are Muslims involved in atheist activities that could affect their faith, the state Islamic religious departments or Jawi could take action. I have asked for Jawi to look into this grave allegation," he stressed, as reported by Bernama on 6 August.
"We need to determine whether any Muslims attended the gathering, and whether they are involved in spreading such views, which can jeopardize the aqidah (faith) of Muslims," Dr Asyraf told Reuters.
Dr Asyraf explained that ex-Muslims would typically be sent for counselling, adding that attempts to spread atheist ideologies could be prosecuted under Malaysian laws
"We need to use the soft approach with (apostates). Perhaps they are ignorant of the true Islam, so we need to engage them and educate them on the right teachings," he added.
It was also reported that the Malaysian government has carried out many programmes that aim to strengthen the beliefs of Muslims from school-level onwards.
Responding to the matter, Atheist Republic's founder Armin Navabi, has stressed that the group and its meetings are harmless
In a report by Malay Mail Online (MMO) yesterday, 7 August, the Iran-born founder said that the group organises meetings like that in other parts of the world too and there has been no issues with it.
"We have consulates in every country including Philippines which is in the same area, but guess what, we don’t have these nonsense attacks on them. No government cracking down on our people simply for the fact they change their minds.
"What does this group do to anybody? How do they harm anybody?" he asked, when speaking to MMO.
Atheist Republic's chief executive, Allie Jackson agreed with Armin, saying that it was a harmless hangout session
"A group of beautiful people got together to hangout with each other, it made them happy and they took a picture. They didn't hurt anyone, they didn't mean to cause harm, they just wanted to be together and have a good time.
"The next thing we know...the government is getting involved. They are being told that they should be beheaded, or run out of their country," she added.
Apostasy is a highly sensitive issue in Malaysia. While it is not a federal crime, issues related to Islam are parked under the Syariah law in Malaysia and most states have their own laws governing Islamic affairs.
In 2014, MMO spoke to the Department of Syariah Judiciary Malaysia (JKSM) about apostasy and leaving Islam in Malaysia.
Here are are some highlights from the report on converting out of Islam in Malaysia:
- Five states in Malaysia prohibits apostasy or attempted apostasy and they are Perak, Pahang, Malacca, Sabah, and Terengganu. Conversion out of Islam is a crime punishable by a fine or imprisonment in these states.
- In Sabah and Kelantan, those convicted of apostasy or attempted apostasy can be detained in Islamic Rehabilitation Centres for up to 36 months.
- In Melaka, people found guilty of apostasy or attempted apostasy can face up to six months of detention in the rehabilitation centres.
- In Perak, people convicted of apostasy can be fined for up to RM3,000 or jailed for up to two years, or both.
- In Pahang, these people can be fined for up to RM5,000 or jailed for up to three years or caned for up to six times or a combination of any of these punishments.
- Negeri Sembilan is the only state in the country with laws on the procedure to renounce Islam.