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In a Nutshell

Posted: April 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

The following was what I had written to be submitted to the Immigration Judge when I was seeking asylum in the USA. However, I ended up not submitting it at all when I married a US citizen. It’s basically a summary of my life story: the reason of my life choices, my observations and experiences. Everybody has the right to tell their story, their own truth and I guess this is mine.

(This was originally written in the end of 2015, so news articles being referenced were up to that date.)

My name is Juli Sumardiati binti Mohd Jalaludin. I was born on August 31, 1972, aged 44. I am a reservoir engineer by background with almost 20 years experience working in the oil and gas industry. I graduated from Colorado School of Mines with a B.Sc. degree in petroleum engineering in 1995. A copy of my work experience is attached, similar particulars and references are also available on LinkedIn.

I am a citizen of Malaysia. I was born in Ketereh, Kelantan, a state in the northeast of Malay Peninsula, the only state in Malaysia which for long periods has been under the ruling of opposition party PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party), an Islamist political party with the long term goal of creating an Islamic state in Malaysia. Living in a conservative state, my family observes and conforms to the strict cultural and religious expectations of the local community.

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Drawing by Elya Rawther

I was brought up in an Islamic upbringing, learning the Quran by the age of 5 (and finishing it by the age of 9), attending religious classes in school and weekend classes in various mosques and madrasas (religious school) while in primary school. I went to a boarding school in the neighboring state of Terengganu, a Muslim conservative state as well, at the age of 13, where Muslim majority students were expected to attend prayers in the school mosque every night. By the age of 14, I was wearing hijab (a scarf to cover hair and neck) due to peer pressure of fellow students and religious teachers (girls who didn’t wear hijab were frequently singled out and harassed by boys and religious teachers).

As a child, I was sexually abused from the ages of 5 to 10. I don’t remember how it started, but I know who my abusers were, and memories of the experience play in my head up to this day. Since it happened at such a young age, I didn’t know what it was – I had no knowledge of sex yet – but when I finally knew, I blamed myself. I didn’t tell anyone about it until I reached adulthood for fear of being judged, shamed by my own people and religion (Muslim girls are expected to be virgins before marriage). I resisted my abusers continuing attempts when I turned 10 once I learned from kids at school that sex was a huge sin and that it produced a baby. I spent a whole year worried thinking I was pregnant even though I hadn’t gotten my period yet. I’ve written this in a blog.

While my traumatic childhood abuse may not be directly connected to my asylum claims, I think it’s important to mention because the experience had a major effect on who I am today as a person. It had shaped my way of thinking, it made me feel like an outsider my whole life which eventually led me to lose faith in the religion I was born into, Islam.

1912004_727795377255390_1701448098_nI graduated high school as state’s best student in 1989 and I won a full scholarship to study in the U.S. I graduated from university in 1995 and I went back to Malaysia to work
with ExxonMobil, and in 2004 I joined Schlumberger. During this time, I was still a Muslim, albeit a liberal and barely practicing one. I had discarded my hijab ever since I left high school, only wearing it when I visited my family in my hometown. Although I did not adhere to strict interpretation of Islam anymore, I still believed that Islam was the one true religion and that all Muslims would go to heaven and all non-Muslims to hell. All I needed to do was repent my sins and I would be back on track on my path to heaven again.

However, I was also becoming a skeptic. Having trained in science during the course of my studies and employment as an engineer – to think logically, critically as well as provide reasoning and facts to my solutions at work – I’ve become used to analytical thinking. What I did at work spilled over into my personal life and now, the questions I’ve had since I was a child, I could entertain and find answers to now that I’m resourceful. So my journey to losing my religion began.

As a child, I didn’t understand why Islam taught that infidels would go to hell. We had neighbors who were Chinese and they were very nice to me. One of them always remembered who I was every time I went back to hometown even after a few years of being away. I felt that Allah (the god of Muslims) wasn’t being nice throwing this lot into hell just for believing in the wrong God. At school, my religious teachers were being demeaning saying our Chinese teacher and our Malay female teachers who didn’t wear hijab were agents of Satan. I had a big problem with this teaching of exclusivity.

Slowly, my religious views evolved and my definition of God changed. I refused to believe that god was cruel but instead, he was a forgiving and loving one. I subscribed to a more liberal version of Islam, and this I had to keep a secret because Muslims around me were ones believing in the type of God who punished severely for the sins of not wearing hijab, for one. I dug deeper still.

I wanted to know the answers to simple questions I had since I was a child. For example, why was hijab mandatory? Why were dogs forbidden to be touched? Why were we still being taught the prayer and fasting rituals for a slave even though slavery had been abolished more than a hundred years ago? Slowly, I started to see the imperfections in Islam. I thought, what else could be wrong? Little by little, as I got more answers, my faith in Islam gradually weakened.

In 2005, in my mid 30s, I followed my mother and sister-in-law to perform religious pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. At this time, I was already agnostic.  I’ve stopped praying, fasting, or performing any Islamic religious rituals for a number of years already, yet I was still closeted, pretending to be a Muslim in front of family and friends. I hadn’t wanted to go to Mecca because of this; and a small part of me thought that if Allah did exist, this was the moment he’d prove his existence by striking me dead the moment I stepped out of the airplane onto his holy land.

Yet off I went – laterwpid-screenshot_2014-04-03-21-19-51-1 on, I found out that my mother wanted to take me there because my family knew my belief was waning and they hoped to steer me back to Islamic path – and what I saw in Mecca reaffirmed my suspicion that Islam was a human invention. I saw in Mecca how religion was used for profit. Thousands of pilgrims circled the square box that
was Kaaba; they came from all over the world bringing money into the country. Sell and export religion, and wait for the money to come pouring in. I also saw how Arabs behaved aggressively especially towards women. During the two weeks I was in Saudi Arabia, I was sexually harassed several times. My sister-in-law and mother were harassed as well and I knew this because it happened in front of me. I thought to myself why wasn’t anybody talking about this? People who came back from Mecca often told beautiful stories, e.g. how they were chosen by Allah to experience miraculous occurrences. I on the other hand experienced the opposite. Suffice to say, I went to Mecca an agnostic, and came back an atheist.

Back in Malaysia, I was still a closeted agnostic atheist. At home in Kuala Lumpur, I did what I wanted, living my chosen lifestyle, but during family visits, I pretended to pray, fast, wear hijab, etc. It was stressful living a double life, but at the time it was necessary to avoid crisis.

Then one day, I discovered Facebook. I joined a local apostate Facebook group called Apostates in Malaysia and Singapore. For years, I was alone and I didn’t know any other ex-Muslim apostate, but now in this group, I met many like-minded folks. It felt good to finally be able to get things off my chest. I felt as if a burden was lifted off my shoulders. The group was an open group, meaning the public could see the content, so administrators of the group advised ex-Muslims to use fake names for the sake of their safety. I hadn’t bothered, and soon after I started seeing members, especially girls being picked on one by one; the things they said screen captured and made viral in other Islamic Facebook groups. I saw them harassed online, Muslims sending death and rape threats, some so bad that they resorted to making police reports, making public declaration that they were still Muslims albeit liberal, or even deactivated their Facebook accounts; all this for questioning the teachings in Islam. Not long after that, it happened to me too.

AMS (Apostates in Malaysia and Singapore) Facebook group created a stir in Malaysia in August 2011 when many Muslims took offense to its existence and urged authorities to take actions against the group and its members. 

My photos were taken from my Facebook folders, my comments screen shot and I became the object for public shaming in various Facebook groups, blogs and Malaysian news. I received numerous death and rape threats in my Facebook inbox, my personal details were disclosed online, family members contacted, threatened for not being able to keep me in line. My brothers argued with me, my brother-in-law pleaded with me to make a public statement saying that I was still a Muslim, and my older brother threatened to speak with my boss at work and drag me back to my hometown. Not long after, my family came to my house; my mother and sister wanted me to quit my job, quit living in the big city and follow them home. My mother wanted me to sign up for madrasa (religious school) with her, so that I could read Quran all day – it was a form of rehabilitation to them, and to me, a mental and physical imprisonment in order to get me to revert to Islam and stop asking questions about Islam on the internet. I said if I did that, I would probably end up killing myself, so I refused, told them to go home, and that day in August 2011 was the last time I ever saw my family.

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Photo by Elya Rawther

I stopped being active on Facebook for a while, I suffered a depression episode; I even created a fake Facebook profile to escape online harassment from Muslims in my country. However, gradually I realized that my silence would only make bullies stronger. So instead of choosing retreat like many exposed ex-Muslims before me, I chose to fight back; using words. Slowly, I started both winning fans and amassing haters. By this time, I’ve basically not had much contact with family and Muslim friends anymore. I started making new friends on Facebook who knew the real me for a change.

I continued writing and posting my views and experiences growing up as a Muslim on Facebook and in blogs. My ex-Muslim friends and I were subject to continual online harassment every now and then throughout 2011-2012. At this time, I also granted a couple anonymous interviews to make ex-Muslims’ voice heard. One interview was by an independent Swedish documentary filmmaker who made a film about religious freedom in the South East Asia region. In the end of 2012, I received a job offer overseas so after obtaining visa, I left Malaysia in June 2013 to pursue employment with a small consulting company, Envision AS in Stavanger, Norway.

In February 2014, a group of Facebook friends and I decided to create a Facebook page called Murtads (Apostates) in Pantai Timur (MPT). Pantai Timur (East Coast) is the name given to the states of Kelantan and Terengganu, the two most religious and conservative in Malaysia, so the title was making reference to us ex-Muslims hailing from these two states. It was an offshoot from the AMS page/group (Apostates in Malaysia and Singapore), and these pages were meant to be blunt, brash, sarcastic, and satirical in nature, not unlike what Charlie Hebdo, the Parisian satirical newspaper that was attacked by Muslim extremists, were doing with their cartoons. Our objective was to promote free speech, provoke thought among Muslims, and encourage questioning and critical thinking in general.

MPT page was a hit among ex-Muslims and Muslims alike. Muslims especially couldn’t believe that conservative states in Malaysia, the holiest place (Kelantan, my birth state, is also nicknamed “Negeri Serambi Mekah” which literally means Mecca’s porch) could produce apostates like us. They took offense yet they followed our page with such morbid fascination and inundated our posts with comments expressing their dissatisfaction (which was fine) or promises to spill our blood (which was not fine). In one week, MPT garnered 2347 likes, quite a feat by Malaysian standard, until Facebook shut it down due to mass reporting by Muslims.  I created another page called Murtads in Kelantan (MIK) not long after but it also suffered similar fate, closed down after getting 2270 likes, managing to stay online only a few days.

Speculations were made regarding who the admins for MPT and MIK were. I told my co-admins, should anything happen to let me take the fall, after all I was living overseas, where freedom of speech is guaranteed. My co-admins were in Malaysia hence if they were found out, who knows what action could be taken against them. Information somehow leaked out (even closed discussion groups had spies; Muslims pretending to be apostates or liberal in order to get ex-Muslims’ info for public shaming) so I admitted to being the person responsible for creating these pages.

My Facebook pages (and I) were all over the Malaysian news yet again. There was even a rumor that I was in a coma as punishment by Allah for the crime of insulting Islam. News like this were spread to scare others into behaving and see me as an evil person. Due to the time difference (Malaysia is 6 hours ahead of Norway), I woke up to messages from worried friends asking if I was really in a hospital. I made a post that day “Oh no! It’s so hot where I am!” Location: Hell. It was at this time that many parties have proceeded to lodge various police reports or making public statements, basically urging authorities to investigate and take appropriate action against me. These different parties consist of individuals and Muslim groups, both governmental and NGOs. Some are listed below:

  1. KAMI (Kelab Anak Muda Indera Mahkota), an NGO headed by Muhammad Faiz Hashim who is also UMNO Youth leader of Indera Mahkota division. UMNO is the governing political party of Malaysia.
  2. AP (Pertubuhan Anti Pengkhianat Islam), an Islamic NGO headed by Azman Salleh.
  3. Adnan Mamat, a religious official in government office.
  4. Abdul Rani Kulup Abdullah, leader of MJMM (Martabat Jalinan Muhibbah Malaysia), a right wing Malay/Islamic organization.
  5. PERKASA (Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia), whose president, Che Aseri Ali urging both police and MCMC (Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission) to investigate.
  6. A minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom, stated that the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) was working with the Home Ministry to handle this matter.  

In addition, I’ve also been featured in various blogs – a simple Google search will show this – and the message of these blogs is basically the same: calling for my repentance and return to Islam or else suffer God’s punishment, asking authority to take action against me, or the articles are simply designed to publicly shame and scare me into silence.

In one video, the UMNO Youth Leader also called for reinstatement of ISA (Internal Security Act), which was abolished a few years ago and replaced with Sedition Act, a milder version of ISA. The leader of MJMM also supported this in a separate video. In the past, Malaysian government has used ISA to detain any individual accused of rebellion against the government including peaceful protests to protect national security, and the detainment had no time limit and could be without trial for years. Some people were simply gone missing and never heard from for years under the ISA.

Another politician from my hometown, Tan Sri Annuar Musa, who also happened to be a friend of my late father, tried to approach me, claiming that he had spoken to my family and was trying to help me return to the righteous path of Islam. I had grown disillusioned especially with folks in political positions who only had Islam as priority, ignoring basic human rights in the process so I turned down his friend request on Facebook.

Responding to the public, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Datuk Mohd Bakri Mohd Zinin, stated that they would proceed with investigation once reports were received and found that the case fell under their jurisdiction. He also mentioned that they were aware that I was stationed overseas.

It is my sincere belief that if I had been in Malaysia at the time, I would’ve been taken in for questioning under the accusation of disrupting racial and religious harmony of the country. If that had happened, I believe my freedom would be restricted, my communication tools e.g. phones and computers would be taken away from me, and I could risk losing my job as well. All this because I dare to exercise my freedom of speech by creating Facebook groups that are critical of Islam in order to:

  1. Raise awareness that apostates like me exist in Malaysia.
  2. Promote thinking and encourage questioning in Islam.
  3. Let closeted apostates know that they are not alone, and that they don’t have to suffer in silence.

In April 2014, a Malaysian reporter contacted me via Facebook chat requesting for an interview. It started as an informal chat, and seeing this could be an opportunity to spread awareness, I agreed to be interviewed. Over the next few days I talked to the reporter, giving him my views and opinions on Islam, apostasy and other social issues in Malaysia, especially those that are affecting people like me. I hadn’t asked which newspaper he represented, not that it would matter anyway. I believe in order to change people’s mentality, you have to engage them in discussions, and not alienate for it can create us vs. them mentality. I have made available the transcript of the full interview on my blog.

However, when the interview was published, it was for a Malaysian tabloid newspaper; and it was clear that the reporter wasn’t interested to hear my side of story. It was another “let’s shame the apostate” type of witch hunt. I talked openly about suffering depression due to the harassment I’ve received; he wrote that this was clearly punishment from Allah and that I had deserved it. I became famous again. A photo I provided was in the front page, my face blurred, to indirectly imply that I’m a criminal, guilty of apostasy.

18-Harian Metro Interview

First page Harian Metro May 4, 2014

I saw an increase in the number of my followers on social media. At the moment, I have over 10,000 friends and followers on Facebook. The number of hits on my blogs soared – at one time reaching over 100,000 hits in one day – but along with it, death and rape threats of various kinds increased too. I received angry messages from my sister telling me to stop speaking against Islam, and that they were also being harassed back home. She mentioned my mother’s home being hounded by reporters, and as a consequence, my mother decided to stay at a local madrasa, devoting her days to reading Quran and learning Islam. My brothers, sisters and their children were embarrassed to go out, and my youngest sister’s fiancé’s family had broken their engagement. I replied to my sister saying that I was sorry for what had happened, but this was exactly why someone needed to speak out about taboo subjects such as apostasy. Besides, I had pretty much broken ties with family ever since the day they came to my house to make me go with them back when I was in Malaysia; part of the reason was to make it easy for them to dissociate themselves from me should anything like this happened. Let the backlash to my doings be my burden alone, and not involve other parties in my symbolic crucifixion.

The publicity brought on by the newspaper had started to make me feel unsafe in Norway. I hadn’t been secretive about my location so I was afraid, at times thinking someone could knock on my door and it’s a Muslim jihadi, ready to carry out my death sentence. A friend who also was residing in Stavanger, Norway also told me that the small Malay Muslim community in town was avoiding me, and they advised her to keep a distance from me as well. Stavanger had a sizable Muslim immigrant community, and I walked the streets in fear thinking somebody would recognize me.  The stress was getting to me that I couldn’t focus at work, so I decided to quit my job and stayed temporarily with an ex-Muslim friend in Sweden.

My friend in Sweden is another high profile ex-Muslim; she has settled down in Sweden after leaving Malaysia a few years ago and is now a Christian. Like me, she has also been subjected to online harassment, and various police reports had been lodged against her for criticizing Islam on social media as well. At one point, it was reported that the Malaysian police had contacted Interpol to arrest her for her criticism of Malaysian monarchy.  Now a Swedish citizen, she had in the past temporarily stayed under police protection.

I am seeking asylum right now because I do not feel it is safe for me to return to my home country. I am still very active on social media, criticizing Islam in general and more specifically commenting on the current socio-political events in Malaysia that are closely linked or affected by Islam. I want to continue speaking my mind, writing about my experiences, opinions, and recording my observations. I want to give a voice to my ex-Muslim friends in Malaysia, those who are unable to speak, or those who do not have the right words to express what they’re feeling. I want to affect change to Malay Muslim people, one tweet/post at a time, so that they are more accepting and tolerant to minority groups that are subjugated in the name of religion, not just apostates, but groups like LGBT or women in general.

Sometimes people tell me “you’re already living outside of Malaysia, you don’t have to criticize Islam anymore.” I thought about that little girl who was raped, feeling alone, unable to tell her parents for fear of being blamed for it, and how she wished someone would speak on her behalf, but nobody did. That little girl was me. So now I’m speaking on behalf of that little girl and other closeted ones suffering in silence especially from my country due to whatever discrimination they face committed in the name of Islam.

Additional references are included per below; while they may or may not be directly related to me, they illustrate the growing religious fundamentalism and strict conditions in Malaysia towards free speech in general.

  1. Critics of Islam on social media are regularly reported to police.
  2. Growing fundamentalism pushing Malays to flee the country.
  3. News report alerting another Facebook page of mine. This page for Malaysian ex-Muslims also didn’t survive very long.
  4. News article on arrest of Khalid Ismath, with 11 charges under Communication and Multimedia Act and 3 charges under Sedition Act for the postings he made on social media critical of Malaysian government and monarchy. Khalid Ismath was notorious due to his involvement in socialist party and being a member of Shia, an Islamic sect considered deviant by the Sunni majority of Malaysia.
  5. Malaysian cartoonist, Zunar, faced prison under Sedition Act for his cartoon commentary of political situation in Malaysia
  6. Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, in a speech said he had instructed the Inspector General Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, to use whatever power to take action against any Malaysians who insult Islam regardless if they are residing overseas. The specific case he cited was of Alvin Tan, a Malaysian who sought asylum in the US after being arrested in Malaysia for his various comments on social media critical of Islam and Malaysian authority.

References:

  1. Laporan Khas RTM1: AMS (Apostate in Malaysia and Singapore) August 2011
  2. Religious Freedom in Asia (Interview with Swedish filmmaker) 2012
  3. Pemilik Page Murtad Koma Diazab di Dunia! February 23, 2014
  4. KAMI Buat Laporan Polis Akaun FB Hina Nabi Muhammad SAW FreeMalaysiaToday February 19, 2014
  5. Police Report against FB account insulting Islam mysinchew.com February 19, 2014
  6. Isu page Murtad di Pantai Timur February 2014
  7. Siasat “Murtads in Pantai Timur” Sinar Harian February 19, 2014
  8. (Minta Pantas Bertindak) FB “Murtads In Pantai Timur” & “Murtad in Kelantan” Makin Melampau February 21, 2014
  9. FB Murtads in Pantai Timur Cubaan Provokasi Terhadap Islam February 2014
  10. Perkasa: Probe those Insulting Islam on Facebook FreeMalaysiaToday March 27, 2015
  11. Revisiting Adlin and Juli, the other “wanted” duo The Rakyat Post December 14, 2014
  12. Ali, Adlin, Juli, “Lejen” paling dikehendaki Malaysia The Rakyat Post December 13, 2014
  13. Betina Celaka Ganu ni Nok Cemar Nama Baik Kelate Pulok February 23, 2014
  14. Tan Sri Annuar Musa Kesal Anak Kelantan Murtad Tak Dengar Teguran _ University News Capital University News Capital February 26, 2014
  15. Sedia siasat Wanita Hina Allah Sinar Harian February 24, 2014
  16. Bakri Tidak Diberitahu Sudah Ada Laporan Polis? Free Malaysia Today February 24, 2014
  17. Cops urged to probe Facebook user who Insulted Prophet Muhammad The Malaysian Insider July 2, 2015
  18. Growing Islamic Fundamentalism seen pushing Malays to quit country MalayMail Online October 30, 2014
  19. Malay Muslims fleeing country as fundamentalism takes hold South China Morning Post December 14, 2014
  20. FB Murtad muncul lagi Harian Metro November 1, 2014
  21. Suaram: 14 Charges against Khalid Ismath an attempt to intimidate public Civil Society Voices October 15, 2015
  22. Zunar: Cartoonist arrives in Britain as he faces 43 years in Malaysian prison for “sedition” The Independent October 27, 2015
  23. Tangkap Mereka Yang Hina Agama – Zahid Free Malaysia Today November 17, 2015
  24. Zahid: Using Al-Quran as Toilet Paper is “kurang ajar” Free Malaysia Today  November 17, 2015