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Mentega Terbang, Article 11 And Apostasy In Malaysia

Currently there is this indie movie titled "Mentega Terbang" which is deemed as going against the Islamic creed by JAKIM after the film caused an uproar among netizens. "Mentega Terbang" centers on a 15-year-old girl who becomes curious about faith and the afterlife because of her mother’s declining health. Born and raised in a Muslim family, she questions the afterlife from the point of view of different religions, mainly from the books of the Quran, Bible, Torah, Veda and more. The story touches on the differences and similarities of the major religions in Malaysia.

The controversy revolving around this film brings back the question of freedom of religion in Malaysia, which is a sensitive topic for Muslims especially the Malays since they are obliged to embrace the Islamic faith both culturally and constitutionally. Article 11 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution provides that "every person has the right to profess and to practice his or her religion", however this provision is subject to applicable laws that restrict the propagation of other religions to Muslims. 

Following the case of Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan [2005], it may seem that the law ad infinitum condemns Muslims, particularly Malays, from converting to other religions as those who wish to leave Islam face strong disincentives. However, even though apostasy is considered as a "major sin in Islam" it is not a federal crime. 

When it comes to matters concerning religion the state governments will handle them in accordance with different state laws. For example, the states of Negeri Sembilan, Perlis and Selangor allow Muslims to leave Islam after a process of counselling, in which they are repeatedly asked to repent, and if they refuse, a sharia court may declare the person no longer a Muslim. This means that apostasy is legal in these three states as long as the apostate does not "defame and insult Islam" or propagate other religions to Muslims after his or her conversion.

Meanwhile, in the states Kelantan and Terengganu, apostasy by a Muslim is a crime punishable by death and forfeiture of property; however, federal law prohibits the death penalty from being carried out. Therefore no one dies in the hands of shariah law in Malaysia so far.

In the states Malacca, Pahang, Perak, and Sabah, apostasy is a crime punishable by various sanctions ranging from a fine of up to RM5,000, imprisonment up to 3 years, or detention in an Islamic rehabilitation centre up to 3 years. In Pahang, apostates can be lashed six times with canes as well. There are unclear laws regarding to apostasy in Kedah and Sarawak, therefore it is possible that apostasy goes unpunishable in these two states.

Despite the decriminalisation of apostasy in several states, the application process is strict and time-consuming. For example, a Muslim who wants to convert to another religion must get an explicit permission from a syariah court. The syariah courts rarely grant such requests, except in cases where a person has actually lived his or her whole adult life as a person of different religion, and only wants to change the official documents to reflect this fact. The Islamic interpretation of the situation is that only the syariah courts can decide who is a Muslim and who is not.

Malaysiakini reported that the syariah courts of Malaysia received 863 applications to leave Islam between 2000 and 2010; only 168 people were granted permission to do so. Sabah has the highest number of applications (238) followed by Negeri Sembilan (172), Selangor (99) and Perak (47).

Personally, what I think about "Mentega Terbang" is that just as a butterfly is seen as a symbol of transformation, the film appears to seek to challenge and reform the viewer's mindset when it comes to values and faith.

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