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Politics: Rediscovering Secularism

Contributed by Anonymous on Wednesday, March 15 @ 17:56:19 CST

ReligionBy: Baradam Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR , Mar 14 (IPS) - Moderate Muslims and non-Muslims, fearful of incursions by Islamic 'Shariah' law into their private space, have launched a movement to rediscover Malaysia's secular constitution and restore it as the country's supreme law.

In a nationwide campaign they will persuade Malaysians to endorse a memorandum worded in guarded English that ''reaffirms the supremacy of the constitution''.

The campaign is being organised by the Bar Council and 'Article 11' -- a coalition of 14 non-governmental organisations, named after the constitutional provision that upholds fundamental rights for all Malaysians ''regardless of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender''.

Significant is the participation of 'Sisters in Islam', a leading Muslim feminist group.

Together, the campaigners demand that the Malaysian government and the judiciary uphold the supremacy of the constitution; ensure governance in accordance with the constitution; demand that the government reaffirm that Malaysia is not a theocratic state and urge the government to recognise the independence of the judiciary.

''It's time to take it (the constitution) down from the shelf, dust it and use it on a daily basis. The federal constitution must be treated as the most important do*****ent in our life because it is the supreme law,'' said prominent lawyer Cyrus Das at a well-attended forum on Sunday that discussed erosion of fundamental secular rights.

They fear that the country is inexorably moving towards an Islamic theocratic state as officers of the government, judiciary and parliament (which are more than 65 percent Muslim) are abdicating their duty to defend the secular constitution.

''They took an oath to defend the constitution but they are not doing it,'' said lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarvar, an outspoken defender of secularism, civil law and democratic rights. ''We want to reaffirm the supremacy of the secular constitution because there is a danger Malaysia is being turned into an Islamic state in a silent and insidious manner.''

''The minds of politicians, judges and civil servants have become cloudedąthey see themselves as Muslims first and citizens second,'' said Malik. ''The moderate Muslim majority is silent and we want to awaken them with our campaign.''

''Malaysia is not an Islamic state, Malaysia is a secular state and the constitution is the supreme law of the land,'' said Imtiaz, a key campaigner for secular rights.

He said fundamental rights have significantly eroded over the years and, left unchecked, Malaysia would end up as a theocratic state. ''The situation is something for all citizens to be very worried about.''

Already, over a 1,000 people, including prominent politicians, lawyers and retired judges --Muslims and non-Muslims alike --have signed the memorandum, addressed to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, urging that his government gives preeminence to the constitution.

''Liberty and justice for all Malaysians may only be through an independent judiciary. Sadly, Malaysians have witnesses the subordination of our judges to the legislature and executive,'' the memorandum said.

''In recent cases in the high courts, our judges have declined to adjudicate on pressing issues. Simply because of an element of Islamic law, litigants are left without any remedy,'' it said. ''This is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs and one which no civil society must endure.''

However the campaign clashes with Muslim groups that reject the constitution as un-Islamic because it is a man-made do*****ent and inherited from the British colonials.

Two debates are currently raging among Muslim intellectuals, political analysts say. At one level Muslim intellectuals say the Quran comes first for Muslims, not the man-made constitution.

Increasingly, this view is heard within government and the judiciary and, lawyers say, have coloured court judgments. Wherever Islam is a factor, civil rights, laws, legal protection are giving way, according to many lawyers.

At another level the debate is over reforming the constitution to make it more Islamic.

''A growing number of Muslim now believe in reforming the constitution and if they have sufficient numbers in parliament they can make the changes,'' an academic told IPS.

Unlike before, however, more Muslims and non-Muslims alike are now speaking up after years of silent suffering, something sparked by a more liberal climate under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

While moderate Muslims reject the right of the mainstream Muslim majority to speak for them, non-Muslims are opposing what they say is the 'silent and insidious' encroachment of mainstream Islamic Shariah laws into their lives.

Freedom of worship became a hot issue after Muslim clerics unleashed a mob on a harmless cult, last year, that worshiped giant teapots, flattening the entire commune with bulldozers. Some 100 followers of Ayah Pin, who preached a synthesis between Islam and other religions, are either in jail or on bail awaiting judgement as deviants.

Their plight has angered moderate Muslims and fired up human rights activists into demanding protection for minorities.

Another incident, in January, involving conservative clerics angered non-Muslims across the country. A soldier, who had allegedly converted to Islam, was buried as a Muslim over the objections of his Hindu wife. A civil court refused to intervene saying it had no jurisdiction. It also ruled that non-Muslims have no remedy under the law in such cases.

Few ordinary Malaysians are aware of the constitution, let alone the protection and guarantees it grants to citizens.

This supreme do*****ent was overshadowed by the autocratic executive, a tame media and rapid economic development that created a false confidence of human rights and fundamental freedom.

''Unfortunately, there is also no culture of constitutionalism both in the legal fraternity and society. There is also no coherent development of jurisprudence by our courts,'' Cyrus said, explaining why the constitution has remained in the background after nearly half a century of independence. (END/2006)

 
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