Malaysian state to open Islamic ‘rehab center’ for same-sex convicts

Minderjeet Kaur and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian state to open Islamic ‘rehab center’ for same-sex convicts Students shout slogans, hold signs and pride flags as they take part in an LGBT+ Pride vigil organized after India’s top court declined to legalize same-sex marriage, in New Delhi, Oct. 18, 2023.
Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Malaysia’s Johor state next year plans to open the country’s first permanent “rehabilitation center” for people found guilty of same-sex relations, a local official said Wednesday, to the consternation of LGBTQ+ and rights activists in the Muslim-majority country.

The official didn’t say whether admission to the center would be voluntary or compulsory, and merely noted that it would, among other things, provide awareness and counseling. 

The center will also “tackle” those who have strayed from the path of Islam and monitor people in the state from non-Sunni Muslim sects, said Fared Khalid, chairman of Johor’s religious affairs committee. Malaysian Muslims are mostly Sunni.

“The rehabilitation center will not only tackle those who have veered from the right path, it will also help those convicted [by the Muslim personal law court] of committing same-sex relations,” he said in the state legislature.

Fared said the Johor state Islamic religious department would conduct programs and activities at the center to restore Islamic faith, including regular counseling sessions for individuals or groups.

Fared added that a little more than U.S. $85,000 (400,000 ringgit) had been allocated for the center, which is expected to begin operations next July.

Malaysia has a dual legal system with civil laws for the general population and Muslim personal law, or sharia, for Muslims in matters related to family, morality and religious practices. In Malaysia, same-sex relations are a crime and sodomy is punishable with up to 20 years in prison.

Fared disclosed the information about the “rehabilitation center” in response to a question about state programs to help Muslims make their faith stronger asked by a member of the Malay Muslim-centric opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional. 

The Johor state assembly is controlled by UMNO, a partner in the federal coalition government led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is chief of the multi-religious Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Before the November 2022 general election, many saw Anwar as a liberal and a moderate, but after becoming PM, he said that LGBTQ+ rights would never be recognized in Malaysia.

Malaysian Muslims hold signs as they protest against rights for gay people, outside Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 4, 2011. [Samsul Said/Reuters]

Anwar told Radio Television of Malaysia in January that opposition politicians often spread untruths about him.

“Sometimes these politicians will say that if Anwar becomes prime minister then Islam will be ruined, secularism and communism will gain a foothold, and LGBT [rights] will be recognized,” he told the national broadcaster.

“This is a delusion. Of course, it will not happen and, God willing, under my administration this is not going to happen,” he said, according to state news agency Bernama.

During a discussion in September at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Anwar said it was a misperception that only Islam prohibits same-sex relations.

“I have engagements with the Christians, with the Buddhists, with the Hindus. That is the position that they take. And I think for our government, we have to be mindful and sensitive to the demands of the – of the majority, vast majority of our people,” he said.

Most of these religions’ followers in Malaysia “cannot accept the open display/practice” of LGBT.

But Malaysians should “not use our differences to excessively punish or harass innocent people. That is where we draw the line,” Anwar said.

Critics say, though, that his administration has broken his campaign promises to review and cancel laws that curb free speech and stifle dissent, and instead used them to ban books and a film, cancel a music festival and criminalize the possession of some retail items – all because they had an LGBT theme.

‘Dangerous move’

Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, who heads the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), said she had questions about how the Johor center’s programs would function exactly.

“How is the center going to work” for people who don’t want to be there, she said.

“It should not involve emotional and physical torture. They are human beings, and enforcement officers must not embarrass them in public and [should] ensure their dignity,” she told BenarNews.

A former Suhakam commissioner, Jerald Joseph, said it was a “dangerous move” to open such a center.

“If at all a person is seeking to find out more and discover the complexities of sexual identity issues there are many counselors available [who are] trained and can help. But that’s voluntary.”

He said he feared that admission to the center would not be voluntary.

Some are also very concerned that people admitted to such a place may face abuse, violence and torture.

Ivy Josiah, a human rights activist, said any attempt to change sexual identity should be done away with completely.

“Coercion and conversion practices should be changed to acceptance, inclusion and non-discrimination,” she said.


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