President Barack Obama spoke very conservatively about human rights during his visit to Malaysia. Unfortunately, he missed the boat by comparing the U.S. to a country where human rights legally remain in the Dark Ages.
Obama told students at the University of Malaya that the biggest conflicts in the U.S. “arose around race.” That was fine, although there were some pretty big conflicts in colonial times that had to do with high taxes and individual liberties as well as freedom of faith.
What’s upsetting is this statement and the failure of our president to separate government policy from individual behaviors. Obama said:
“There is still discrimination and prejudice and ethnic conflict inside the United States that we have to be vigilant against. So my point is all of us have within us biases and prejudices of people who are not like us or were not raised in the same faith or come from a different ethnic background.”
Most Americans are smart enough to know sometimes, people don’t like other people for superficial reasons like skin color or faith.
But the monumental difference between Malaysia and the U.S. is that discrimination and oppression are not technically government sponsored as they both are in Malaysia.
For instance, in 2012, an official screed against Jews aired in every mosque in Kuala Lumpur:
“An anti-Semitic sermon prepared and distributed by the Malaysian Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department was aired on March 30 in all the mosques of the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. The sermon called ‘to understand that Jews are the main enemy to Muslims as proven by their egotistical behavior and murders performed by them.’ The sermon, as the media outlet Malaysian Insider reported, also called on community leaders to understand the importance of Jerusalem for Muslims. ‘The honor of al-Quds [Jerusalem] and the al-Aqsa mosque must be defended by all Muslims, as it is holy land that must be blessed,” the sermon had stated.’”
Christians were also targeted:
“The day after the anti-Semitic speech in Malaysian mosques, an officially sanctioned state seminar was organized, entitled ‘Strengthening the Faith, the Dangers of Liberalism and Pluralism and the Threat of Christianity towards Muslims. What is the Role of Teachers?’. The seminar was convened by the Education Department and the Mufti Department of Johor, a Malaysian state in the south. Two religious teachers from 55 national schools across Johor were required to attend.”
Blasphemy laws still exist, and they are most often used to protect the majority, Sunni Muslims.
Renounce Islam in Malaysia, or declare yourself an atheist, and you could lose your head.
It’s important to note there are Muslims who criticize such harsh practices, and those critics endanger their own lives and those of their family members simply by speaking out. Imagine how brave you’d have to be to take that risk, and how you’d feel if the leader of one of the world’s greatest powers tiptoed around the issue.
As for women’s rights and family law in general, Malaysia has a very long way to go—centuries, in fact. Divorce laws favor men, inheritance laws are unjust, and domestic violence usually draws little attention from authorities. A man can have multiple wives, but a woman certainly can’t have multiple husbands.
There can be no valid comparison whatsoever between U.S. freedoms, and limits on government power to transgress them, and Malaysia’s antiquated laws.
It is of course the business of those who live and vote in Malaysia to determine law and policy, but it’s the false comparison President Obama made that we should take issue with. Continuing to downplay real outrages committed in other countries is an insult to those who pay penalties for being of a different faith or sexual orientation or gender.
As a matter of fact, LGBT issues received no attention although the president’s party aggressively messages this single issue bloc in the U.S. Accusations of sodomy are wielded in Malaysia as a political weapon in a manner similar to the way IRS targeted conservative groups in the U.S. purely for political purposes.
One Malay blogger said Obama “has been less emphatic to the woes of opposition politicians in Malaysia” because of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement the president is keen on.
Ironically the Democrats have positioned their party as a protector of women’s rights, yet their party blows opportunities to promote women’s rights in countries like Malaysia.
The sharpest difference between our countries is the difference our president failed to point out—oppression is official, legal government policy in Malaysia, not in the U.S.
(Commentary by Kay B. Day/April 28, 2014)
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