Alister Cogia, 22, was sentenced to almost 11 years in jail last week for a posting he made on Facebook deemed demeaning to Muslims in Malaysia.
He is not alone. Malaysian police are also investigating three others for making insulting comments about Islam.
On March 12, a 52-year-old man was arrested for making comments on social media deemed offensive to Hindus. The previous day, a court in Kuala Lumpur sentenced a jobless man to seven months’ jail and fined him RM10,000 (US$2,450) for insulting Islam in a Facebook post last month.
Prominent lawyer Latheefa Koya, executive director of the NGO Lawyers for Liberty
, has called for a review of Cogia’s sentence.
“[It’s] shocking and unprecedented that the court passed a sentence of 10 years jail over an offence like this. He had pleaded guilty, which should have been taken into account. Ten years consecutively is disproportionate and must be reviewed.
“This breaches the rule of law,” Koya posted on her Twitter account.
Others said the jail sentence should serve as a lesson to others to stop fanning racial and religious hatred.
If the sentence stands, Cogia will have spent a third of his life in jail by the time he is due for release in 2030.
The crackdown follows a spate of polarizing discussions and comments on social media about religious views and tenets, which Muslim groups, eager to impose their ethos
in the multi-cultural country, say are provocations. They had threatened "bloodshed" if the authorities had failed to act.
It is a time-worn warning. Since the ouster of disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak and his Barisan National coalition government — led by the long-ruling United Malay National Organization (UMNO) — last May, race and religion have taken on an added edge in Malaysian politics.
Segments of the Malay population, which had supported the previous government, believe Malaysia's non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indians are in the ascendancy and that they are about to lose their special status.
UMNO and the hard-line Islamic party PAS have gleefully exploited misgivings about a perceived loss of identity
among especially conservative Malays and Muslims and won two consecutive local elections this year on the back of this unease.
Observers believe that the political defeats suffered by the new government and rising racial and religious chauvinism has heightened fear they are losing religious credibility and prompted the crackdown.
The minister in charge of religious affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa set in motion the tough action against religious disparagement by announcing the formation of a special government unit to monitor insults against Islam.
He said the unit would "accept any complaints about insults towards the Prophet and Islam, and immediately report them to the police".
Police claim they have received over 900 complaints of religious slurs so far and all are being investigated under the Penal Code and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998.
“The public is advised not to misuse social media or any communications network by uploading or sharing any form of provocation which touches on religious and racial sensitivities," police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement on March 5.
“The act of challenging and insulting the beliefs or religion of any community, which can create racial tension among the multi-cultural people of this country, must stop immediately,” he said.
Critics however see the investigations and prison sentences as having a chilling effect on religious discussions.
They also note that when Muslims insulted other ethnic minorities senior politicians in the previous government cheered them on.
A notorious example was when former Home Affairs minister Hishammuddin Hussein held a press conference to support Muslims who demonstrated against the construction of a Hindu temple in their neighborhood. The protesters paraded a severed, bloodied cow's head in the street, then spat and stomped on it. This was an offense to Malaysia's Hindus, who consider the cow a sacred animal.
As former law minister Zaid Ibrahim
puts it in a sardonic Twitter posting: "When someone insulted Islam/the Holy Prophet, he gets 10 years' jail. But when a Muslim preacher insulted other religions, he gets to be a permanent resident."
It is a reference to the controversial Muslim preacher Zakir Naik, banned from entering the UK for making statements supportive of terrorists including Osama Bin Laden, who was given permanent residency in Malaysia by the previous government.
The stunning prison sentence handed down to Cogia has given Malaysians still celebrating the ouster of a corrupt government pause to consider their freedoms, especially the right to speak freely as well as the responsibility and consequences that come with it.
It may be of some help for them to remember Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote over a hundred years ago in her book “The Friends of Voltaire” the phrase: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" which is often cited to describe the principle of freedom of speech.