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Politics: Race, Religion Cleave Cabinet and Country

Contributed by Anonymous on Monday, January 23 @ 19:38:19 CST

ReligionBaradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR , Jan 21 (IPS) - Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has moved to head off trouble brewing between the country's indigenous Muslim-Malays and minority Chinese and Indians, demanding protection against encroachment into their personal affairs by Islamic Shariah laws.

Matters came to a boil on Thursday when nine non-Muslim ministers, or almost a third of Badawi's cabinet, handed him a memorandum urging him to amend the constitution to ensure protection of minority rights.

Ethnic Chinese and Indians, descended from immigrants, follow Buddhism, Christianity or Hinduism and constitute 40 percent of Malaysia's 25 milion people. Malays, on the other hand, are all deemed to be Muslim by the constitution.

Responding to the memorandum and the storm it has kicked up, Badawi promised ''subsidiary legislation'' that would protect non-Muslims, but said there would be no changes to the constitution which gives Islamic Shariah courts equal powers to civil courts.

''This controversy can be controlled if we limit ourselves to objective discussionsągive important views that can be weighed," Abdullah said in a televised message. ''Do not be emotional and raise issues that could make people angry."

In the memorandum, the non-Muslim ministers had asked the government to review Article 121(1A) of the constitution, which stipulates that civil courts have no jurisdiction over matters relating to Islam, which fall under the purview of the Shariah courts.

Disquiet among the minorities began in December after the civil high court refused to intervene in a case where a celebrated soldier and mountaineer, M. Moorthy, who was born a Hindu, was forcibly buried with Muslim rites over protests from his widow.

The high court said it had no jurisdiction over a case in which a Shariah court had pronounced that the man had converted to Islam and, therefore, could not offer remedy.

Article 121(1A), as amended in 1988, states that the civil courts have no say in matters in which the Shariah court has jurisdiction. Civil court judges, mostly Muslims, have consistently, and some legal experts say erroneously, interpreted the article to mean they have no jurisdiction to question any matter involving Islam even if non-Muslims are involved.

The unusually bold move of the Indian and Chinese ministers has unsettled Malay-Muslims and is stoking fears that the deeply divisive issue could boil over into religious or racial strife.

Such a ''breaking of ranks'' at the highest level of government has not happened since the 1969 race riots that established ''Ketuanan Melayu'' or Malay political supremacy as a given factor in Malaysian politics and as a precursor for inter-racial political peace and for social and economic development.

It is also rare to see all non-Muslims -- Hindu, Christian and Buddhist -- unite over any issue and challenging the ruling Malay elite.

''Their united front is a response to pressure from their various supporters to make a stand on this fundamental issue," said an academic who declined to be named on the sensitive issue.

''Such a united stand has never happened in the last four decades,'' the senior academic told IPS. ''Always treated with contempt for their slavish attitudes, their rebellion has caught the Malay political establishment by surprise.''

Almost all Malays are Muslims and any attempt by Muslims to leave the religion is strongly condemned and apostates punished with fines, jail terms and forced rehabilitation.

Orthodox Muslims and clerics fear that if the civil courts are allowed to interfere Malays who renounce the religion may seek refuge in the civil courts.

Reacting, members of the Pan Malaysian Islamic party or PAS and university students demonstrated in the city on Friday demanding the government protect Islam and the Shariah courts and reject any demand to amend the constitution. They carried placards that said the memorandum was a ''direct challenge to Islam''.

The National Human Rights Society has been petitioned by various Muslim advocacy groups demanding that Shariah law be elevated above civil law and Islamic criminal justice replace the penal code.

''This is a very sensitive issue, and it is not proper to act in this way (submitting a joint-memorandum). It should have been brought to the cabinet and discussed in the (consensual) manner of the National Front family," said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The youth wing of the ruling United Malay National Organisation or UMNO party was blunt. ''They behaved as if they are not cabinet ministers but opposition MPs,'' said Firdaus Abdullah head of the wing's Islamic bureau. ''They showed disrespect for Mr Abdullah.''

''We do not agree with the ministers ganging up on the prime minister. What is the purpose of their action when the matter could have been resolved during cabinet meetings,'' said Hatta Ramli, a senior PAS leader. ''It means they are challenging the federal constitution.''

Non-Muslims want civil law to take precedence when a clash over jurisdiction occurs as when one parent converts to Islam. Under Shariah children automatically become Muslims if one of the parents converts-- although the civil law guarantees freedom of religion.

''It is an issue regarding the law, our constitution, and human rights. It should not be looked at as only a religious issue. It is a social issue emerging out of a religious matter,'' said Wong Kim Kong of the Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS)

Religious issues are ultra sensitive in multi-racial Malaysia, especially with politicians ready to exploit sentiments.

''The discussion on Article 121 has threatened to enter that all-too-familiar territory of incendiary language and emotional outburst -- a stark reminder that having a mature, public discussion on matters of race and religion in this multi-racial country is as tricky as a jog through a minefield,'' wrote the semi-official New Straits Times daily on Saturday, urging caution and welcoming Badawi's attempts to calm emotions on all sides. (END/2006)



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