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Politics: Islam becomes hot topic in Malaysia

Contributed by Anonymous on Monday, January 09 @ 21:21:57 CST

ReligionBy Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR - Islam tops Malaysia's long list of "sensitive subjects" that are forbidden from being raised in public. However, it was as if nothing else could be discussed over the past two weeks.

Two dissimilar events coming one after the other in late December have put religion on notice. One was passage of an Islamic family law, opposed by feminists and moderate Muslims. The other was the forced burial, according to Muslim rites, of a Hindu soldier by Islamic authorities who insisted he had converted to Islam.

Both issues have questioned the role of an increasingly puritanical Islam in a multi-ethnic society that prides itself on tolerance and an easygoing, modern way of life.
Under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's more liberal and less authoritarian administration, long-suppressed frustrations are rising to the surface and there are growing calls for fairness and justice.

On one side, the debate is between Islamic fundamentalists who dominate the burgeoning Islamic Affairs Department that administers Sharia (Islamic) law and mostly Western-educated Muslim feminists who say the department, in its overzealous interpretation of the Koran, has gone overboard in making new laws that discriminate against women and children.

Since the 1980s, they say, women's position vis-a-vis Muslim men has gradually eroded. The latest is a new Islamic family law that makes divorce and polygamy easy and allows husbands to lay claim to a wife's property, even to the extent of freezing bank accounts of former spouses and their children.

"Nowhere is there, in the Islamic world, a law that discriminates so thoroughly against women," said Zainah Anwar, executive director of Sisters in Islam, a feminist movement that is spearheading a national campaign to repeal the new law.

The campaign has won widespread support within the government, in academia and among the general public.

Likewise the forced burial of M Moorthy, a Hindu soldier claimed by the Islamic authorities to have converted to Islam, has sparked a storm among non-Muslims and moderate Muslims alike. They are demanding that the government amend the constitution to make civil law supreme over Sharia law especially in matters where non-Muslims are involved.

Islam, once a taboo subject, is now openly debated by mainstream media, on television and over the Internet.

Newspapers that are linked to government and normally would not have touched the subject now freely publish strongly worded letters and commentaries by their own writers and outside experts, many of whom are Muslims. Letters from the public are published.

Internet chat rooms are racier and less inhibited in their comments. A coalition of human-rights non-governmental organizations, including Muslim feminist groups, has also launched a month-long candlelight vigil outside the High Court to protest a Muslim judge's ruling last month that the civil court has no jurisdiction over Islamic matters.

Relying on an ex parte Sharia court order, Islamic religious authorities last week gave Moorthy a Muslim burial over the protests of his Hindu family. Anger boiled over when Judge Raus Sharif washed his hands of the case, saying the civil court had no jurisdiction.

"They have been telling lies. Nothing but lies," said Kaliammal Sinnasamy, Moorthy's wife. "I was shocked when they told me that they would take the body when he died."

The court refused to intervene or hear evidence from the family that Moorthy could not have converted, saying it had no jurisdiction over matters under the purview of the Sharia court. Three days later, the same court gave similar arguments while rejecting an application by two formerly Muslim women for a declaration that they had left Islam.

"We cannot allow a small group [of Muslim administrators] who are extreme in their views to dominate the nation's social and religious life," said Wong Kim Kong, a spokesman for the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS). "If no action is taken by the government then it might sow disharmony."

The council launched a campaign to amend the constitution to allow civil-law supremacy over Sharia in cases involving non-Muslims, ie conversion, child custody, disposal of property and other family or personal matters.

The main opposition Democratic Action Party has called for a major review of Article 121(1A), which states that the civil courts have no jurisdiction in respect of "any matter" within the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts.

The clause was inserted into the constitution by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1988 after he had jailed more than 100 parliamentarians and democracy activists and closed down three newspapers, including the influential mass-circulated Star daily.

Mahathir's government had given a truncated parliament a day's notice of the constitutional change, which was carried with overwhelming support by government backbenchers.

In the case of the Islamic family law, a little more time was given but arms were twisted to ensure its passage in parliament last month, only to face an avalanche of protest from civil-society groups and Muslim feminists.

The law affects only Muslims, who make up about 60% of the population of 26 million people. Restrictions against Malaysian Muslim men taking four wives under Islamic law have been eased and they no longer have to prove financial capacity or the ability to treat all wives fairly.

Women's groups are planning petitions, letter-writing campaigns and other strategies to put pressure on the government not to gazette the bill into law.

Judging from the numerous letters in mainstream newspapers and in Internet chat rooms, most Malaysians are outraged and feel that injustice has been done to minorities and moderate Muslims alike.

"This entire episode has painted a negative image of Islam not just to Malaysians of other faiths, but to the rest of the world," said Ezam Mohamad, a senior leader of the National Justice Party.

"More must be done to enhance mutual trust and harmony among the different communities, and the manner in which the present authorities are doing it represents a step backwards in interracial and interreligious relations."

Abdullah's brand of tolerant Islam, or Islam Hadhari, is taking a beating as people question the wide gulf between his moderate leanings and the fanaticism of the Islamic authorities, which gained strength under Mahathir's 22-year rule.

Abdullah, who is equally respected by Muslims and non-Muslims, has the difficult and unenviable task of reining in the runaway horses or see his popularity rating plunge.

If he fails to contain excesses, his grand vision of all the races living together happily under a caring and tolerant multiculturalism stands to be stillborn.

Experts say success for Abdullah lies in tackling and resolving the racial and discriminatory policies that form the bedrock of Malaysia's so-called "happy" society.

"Unless the deep-seated issues of racism and religious freedom are openly discussed and resolved, Malaysians would continue to live in fear and suspicious of one another," said S Arulchelvam, secretary general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia. "Malaysian unity is a farce unless these issues are met head-on and adequately resolved.

"All discriminatory policies based on race and religion must be outlawed. It is impossible to build unity based merely on slogans and propaganda."

(Inter Press Service

 
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