Focus on religion

Print edition : February 24, 2006

The constitutional place of religion emerges as a major subject of debate in multi-religious but majority-Muslim Malaysia.


Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.-RAJEEV BHATT

AN unusual debate on the place of religion in majority-Muslim Malaysia has entered an important phase. Several Ministers representing the non-Muslim ethnic minorities of Chinese and Indian origin have taken the unprecedented step of presenting a memorandum to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on the issue. However, with Abdullah counselling them that their memorandum was "procedurally inappropriate", the petition was withdrawn and the issue will be decided by the entire Cabinet in due course.

In prime focus has been the Federal government's move to "interpret" the existing constitutional provision on the place of Islam. Article 121 (1A) of the Constitution specifies the primacy of Sharia courts (Islamic judicial fora) on any matter relating to Islam and mandates that their decisions cannot be questioned by any civil court.

The issue of "interpreting" this Article came to the fore last December following the refusal of the High Court in Kuala Lumpur to decide whether or not a person belonging to the minority Hindu community had accepted Islam as his faith before his death.

The case relates to Mohammad Abdullah, earlier known as M. Moorthy, an Everest-mountaineer and a person of Indian origin. The Federal Territory Islamic Religious Council confirmed before the Sharia High Court that Moorthy had indeed become a Muslim prior to his death on December 20. With that, the question of Moorthy's faith was decided accordingly on December 22, and his body was eventually buried by the relevant religious department on December 28. The legal case was punctuated by a petition to the (civil) High Court in Kuala Lumpur by Moorthy's wife on December 21. She maintained that her husband had remained a Hindu until his death.

With the civil court deciding that it had no jurisdiction over such matters of conversion to Islam, the issue attracted considerable attention among the sizable minorities - both ethnic Chinese, and mostly-Hindu people of Indian origin.

A demonstration in front of the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on January 20 in support of upholding Article 121(1A) of the Malaysian Constitution, which stipulates that civil courts have no jurisdiction over matters relating to Islam.-TENGKU BAHAR/AFP

It was in this context that in early January Minister Mohammad Radzi Sheikh Ahmad of the Prime Minister's Department announced that the government wished to find a "solution" to the question of "interpreting" Article 121 (1A) so as to preclude any "misunderstanding". Following this, non-Muslim political leaders joined the debate.

In the meantime, as the issue of "interpretation" gained momentum, over 200 university students organised a peaceful march in Kuala Lumpur on January 20, calling upon all parties concerned to "respect the Federal Constitution".

The students, all belonging to Muslim university groups, said they "urge all quarters to stop questioning the credibility and powers of the Sharia courts". Opposing any proposal that might lead to an amendment of Article 121 (1A), they demanded that the provision be left untampered with.

For Abdullah, who has been propagating "civilisational Islam" as an alternative to the agenda of the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), the current controversy came as yet another challenge and an opportunity to clarify the religion issue. He knows that harmony among all communities is at stake and the relevant law needs to be interpreted suitably.

After receiving the agitated non-Muslim leaders, the Prime Minister said the Ministers were free to raise any issue, however "sensitive" it might be, for discussion with the Cabinet. With that, he hinted that the religion issue be better kept off the public domain as a matter of political debate and controversy.

However, with the minority leaders agreeing to withdraw their memorandum, he treated their action as "a closed chapter" and advised those who questioned these Ministers to "stop harping" on the impropriety of their perceived move to politicise the religion issue.

Lest they should be misunderstood as votaries of minority activism, as opposed to the PAS brand of assertive majority-oriented politics, the non-Muslim leaders quickly explained their positions over the memorandum controversy.

Minister Ong Ka Ting, representing ethnic Chinese, and Minister S. Samy Vellu, representing people of Indian origin, said they only sought to "reflect the view, appeal, and concern of the non-Muslims." They had no intention of exerting pressure on the Prime Minister and the government, they explained.

Samy Vellu said he would still speak out in the Cabinet even as he valued the advice and opinion of the Prime Minister. Ong was no less categorical that it was "agreed that there should be continued discussions on the legal and constitutional issues which concern the rights of non-Muslims."

Prime Minister Abdullah's fine-tuned management of the initial reactions to this legal case over Islam reflects his desire to sustain Malaysia's stability in the context of growing international focus on the activities of "Muslim fundamentalists" across South-East Asia. Besides Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are majority-Muslim states in the region. Among these, Indonesia, for long a state with a liberal image, is now finding itself grappling with the burgeoning problem of "radical Islam" in some quarters. Ever since Singapore first detected the existence of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a suspected South-East Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda, in 2001, the international community, and in particular Buddhist Thailand, have looked upon both Indonesia and Malaysia as potential frontline states in the "war against terrorism".

While the latest legal case over Islam in Malaysia has nothing whatsoever to do with JI-brand extremism, Prime Minister Abdullah has recognised the importance of interpreting the place of religion in a multicultural setting.

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