The Growing Discrimination Against Minorities In Malaysia Saturday, Jul 7 2007 

by Luthfi Assyaukanie, Jakarta Post, 7 July 2007

The last minute cancellation of an international inter-faith conference in mid-May is the culmination of the crisis of religious freedom in Malaysia, and itself is a manifestation of the paradox of the oft-campaigned “Islam Hadhari”.

Over the past two years, the Malaysian government (under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi) has promoted the concept of civilized Islam, or Islam Hadhari, emphasizing that Malaysia is a moderate Muslim country which should become a role model for other Muslim countries in promoting harmony, progress and economic development.

The cancellation of the conference was criticized by several Malaysian Muslim leaders. Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim deemed it “a mockery of the government’s claims of being a moderate Muslim administration” (Malaysia Today, 16/5). The conference was aimed at minimizing the tension between Islam and religious minority groups in Malaysia. Its cancellation, therefore, only fuels religious disharmony in the country.

The relationship between Islam and religious minority groups in Malaysia has worsened over the last five years, despite the government’s ardent campaign of Islam Hadhari.

Two of the 10 principles of Islam Hadhari are: “Freedom and independence for the people” and, “Protection of the rights of minority groups”. Yet, the problem the Malaysian government currently faces is the issue of freedom and religious rights.

In January, Islamic officials arrested a Muslim woman and sent her to a rehabilitation clinic for marrying a non-Muslim. She was forced to divorce her Hindu husband and ordered to keep her baby away from the father, to avoid the child being converted to Hinduism. (Pseudo’s note: See the 20/04/07 Aljazeera English News video below followed by an Associated Press report)

In March, R. Subashini, a Hindu woman whose husband converted to Islam, failed to get a divorce from the Civil Court and was forced to proceed to the Sharia Court. According to Malaysia’s constitution, the Sharia Court was created to manage Muslims’ affairs, while the Civil or Federal Court deals with non-Muslims’ affairs. By being forced to go through the Sharia Court, Subashini ultimately lost custody rights of her children.

In April, Islamic authorities raided the house of a Hindu man and his Muslim wife. The authorities forced them to separate and they were charged with an illegal marriage. The authorities took their 3-year-old daughter to prevent her from being converted to Hinduism.

Other minority groups, particularly Christians, have also suffered from religious restrictions. The most widely-covered example is the case of Lina Joy, a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity. She was charged with apostasy and according to Islamic law, an apostate is condemned to death. (Pseudo’s note: Choosing to remain or convert)

These are just some examples of the mounting problem of religious freedom in Malaysia and the contradiction that is Islam Hadhari — which Badawi is trying to “export” to other Muslim countries.

Within Malaysia itself, it appears the concept has not yet taken root, despite Badawi’s claim it has been accepted as the ideal model by which all Muslims in the country should strive to follow. The problem is, a clear definition is lacking as well as the government’s commitment to the concept.

For secular and progressive Muslims, Islam Hadhari is an oxymoron, since many Muslims in Malaysia still believe in the superiority of Islam over other religions. It is impossible to create a tolerant environment if one group feels more superior to others.

In any case, Badawi’s Islam Hadhari seems to go against the spirit of the classical model of Islamic civilization, where dialogue and mutual respect are distinct characteristics.

Expressing his disappointment over the cancellation of the inter-faith conference, Anwar Ibrahim said: “A dialogue will enable us to quell the tensions that arise from our differences. Islam has always enjoined Muslims to engage in dialogue with people of other religions, from the Abbasids of Baghdad to the Andalucians of Cordoba,” (Malaysia Today, 16/5).

For progressive Muslims, the best model of civilized Islam was during the golden era of classical Islam — especially in Baghdad and Cordoba — where religious harmony and tolerance existed.

Here comes the irony: For many Muslims in Malaysia, the role model of civilized Islam is not Baghdad or Cordoba, but “the pious first generation” or, what is known as “al-salaf al-salih”, from which the ideology of Salafism takes its roots.

The later generation of Muslims, including those who lived in Baghdad and Cordoba during the golden era, are thought to have somewhat deviated from Islam. It is common knowledge that many Muslims are against philosophy and speculative thinking, one of the most significant symbols of the Islamic golden era.

Accordingly, the same spirit is demonstrated by the staunchest political opposition in Malaysia; the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). PAS leaders often launch their criticism to Badawi’s concept of Islam Hadhari on the grounds it emphasizes too heavily the worldly aspects of life and neglects spiritual aspects exemplified by the early days of Islam.

Like many Salafis, PAS leaders prefer the Prophet’s era as a model of civilized Islam rather than the later one represented by the Abbasids of Baghdad or the Ummayads of Cordoba.

A clear definition of Islam Hadhari is needed here in order to decide which position the Malaysian government takes. It seems the absence of conceptual ground and a lack of commitment to its implementation have created many contradictions in Badawi’s Islam Hadhari.

On one hand, Malaysia’s leaders wish to make their country modern, progressive and tolerant — but on the other hand, they have failed to secure civil liberty and religious rights for their citizens.

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Malaysian woman still insists she wants to be Hindu after 6 months in Islamic rehab

by JULIA ZAPPEI,Associated Press Writer, 6 July 2007

SHAH ALAM, Malaysia – A Muslim-born Malaysian woman who was held at an Islamic rehabilitation center for six months because she tried to live as a Hindu insisted Friday she will never return to her original faith.

The Islamic Religious Department in southern Malacca state detained Revathi Masoosai, an ethnic Indian, in January and sent her for religious counseling after officials discovered she had married a Hindu man despite being born to a Muslim family.

Revathi was released from the rehabilitation center Thursday, and she appeared in a High Court on Friday in an attempt to have her detention declared illegal.

Revathi, 29, claimed officials at the center tried to make her pray as a Muslim, wear a head scarf and eat beef, but she refused.

“Because of their behavior, I loathe Islam even more now,” she told reporters. “They say it’s a school, but it’s actually a prison.”

No one at the Islamic Religious Department could be immediately reached for comment.

Revathi was born to Indian Muslim parents who gave her a Muslim name, Siti Fatimah. But she claims she was raised as a Hindu by her grandmother and changed her name in 2001.

Revathi married Suresh Veerappan in 2004 according to Hindu rites and gave birth to a daughter last year. But the marriage was not legally registered because under Malaysian law Suresh would have had to convert to Islam first. Revathi’s official identification documents state she is a Muslim because Malaysians who are born as Muslims are legally barred from changing religion.

Islamic officials seized the couple’s 18-month-old daughter from Suresh in March and handed the child to Revathi’s Muslim mother.

Revathi said officials have ordered her to live with her mother and her baby for now and to continue undergoing counseling.

Her case highlights an increasing number of conflicts affecting the religious rights of the ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities.

Indians, who form about 8 percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people, are mostly Hindus while some are Christians, Muslims and Sikhs.

Activists say a string of recent religious disputes have ended in favor of Muslims – who comprise nearly 60 percent of the population – and strained ethnic relations in the multicultural nation, which has enjoyed racial peace for nearly four decades.

Choosing To Remain Or Convert Wednesday, May 30 2007 

I’ve been following developments in this case since it began. I was disappointed with the verdict today by Malaysia’s highest court. But first, here are news reports about the case and the verdict………

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Malaysia’s Lina Joy loses Islam conversion case, Wednesday May 30

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (Reuters) – Malaysia’s best known Christian convert, Lina Joy, lost a six-year battle on Wednesday to have the word “Islam” removed from her identity card, after the country’s highest court rejected the change.

The ruling threatens to further polarise Malaysian society between non-Muslims who feel that their constitutional right to religious freedom is being eroded, and Muslims who believe that civil courts have no right to meddle in Islamic affairs.

“You can’t at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another,” Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said in delivering judgment in the case, which has stirred religious tensions in the mainly Muslim nation.

He said the civil court had no jurisdiction in the case and that it should be dealt with by the country’s Islamic courts.

“The issue of apostasy is related to Islamic law, so it’s under the sharia court. The civil court cannot intervene.”

About 200 mostly young Muslims welcomed the ruling outside the domed courthouse with shouts of “Allah-o-Akbar” (God is great), but Christians and non-Muslim politicians were dismayed.

“I think it’s a major blow,” opposition politician Lim Kit Siang said. “It casts a large shadow on civil liberties and the constitutional rights of Malaysians.”

Malaysia’s Council of Churches was saddened.

“We still go by the possibility that the constitution allows any citizen of the country to exercise his or her right to choose a religion and practise it,” council secretary Rev. Hermen Shastri said outside the court.

“I don’t think this decision is going to stop an individual from exercising that right for whatever reason.”

Dissenting Ruling

The three-judge appeal bench ruled 2-1 against Joy. The dissenting judge, the only non-Muslim on the bench, said the department responsible for issuing identity cards should have complied with Joy’s request to remove “Islam” from her card.

He accused the National Registration Department of abusing its powers. “In my view, this is tantamount to unequal treatment under the law. She is entitled to an IC where the word Islam does not appear,” dissenting judge Richard Malanjum said.

Malaysia’s Muslim Youth Movement welcomed the ruling, which asserted the overriding jurisdiction of the Islamic or sharia courts in cases centring on a Muslim’s faith.

“We hope that we have seen the last of such attempts,” said the movement’s president, Yusri Mohamad. “We invite anyone who feels that they are aggrieved or victimised within the current system to choose other, less confrontational and controversial attempts towards change and reform.”

In practice, sharia courts do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, preferring to send apostates to counselling and, ultimately, fining or jailing them if they do not desist.

They often end up in legal limbo, unable to register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Many keep silent about their choice or emigrate.

Lina Joy, 43, was born Azlina Jailani and was brought up as a Muslim, but at the age of 26 decided to become a Christian. She wants to marry her Christian boyfriend, a cook, but she cannot do so while her identity card declares her to me Muslim.

In 1999, the registration department allowed her to change the name in her identity card to Lina Joy but the entry for her religion remained “Islam”.

Malaysia, like neighbouring Indonesia, practises a moderate brand of Islam, but Muslims account for only a bare majority of Malaysia’s population and are very sensitive to any perceived threats to Islam’s special status as the official religion.

Malaysia has been under Islamic influence since the 15th century, but big waves of Chinese and Indian immigrants over the last 150 years has dramatically changed its racial and religious make-up. Now, about 40 percent of Malaysians are non-Muslim.

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Malaysia woman loses appeal on religion, Wednesday May 30

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (AFP) – Malaysia’s top secular court on Wednesday rejected a woman’s bid to be legally recognised as Christian after converting from Islam, saying the matter must be decided by a religious court.

Lina Joy, 43, had sought to have the word “Islam” removed from her national identity card but the Federal Court threw out her case, deciding that only an Islamic sharia tribunal could legally certify her conversion.

Renouncing the faith is one of the gravest sins in Islam, and Joy’s case has raised questions about religious freedom here as well as the exact legal relationship between the mainly Muslim country’s secular and religious courts.

“Apostasy is within the powers of the Islamic law and the sharia courts. Civil courts cannot interfere,” Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said in the majority decision.

“In short, she cannot, at her own whim, simply enter or leave her religion… She must follow rules.”

Joy, an ethnic Muslim Malay born Azlina Jailani, had argued she should not be bound by the Islamic courts because she is now a Christian.

The ruling comes amid mounting racial and religious tensions in multiracial Malaysia, where minority religious groups fear their rights are being undermined, even though the country is traditionally seen as moderate.

“God is great!” a crowd of about 200 people, who had been holding a mass prayer, shouted in unison outside the court complex when they learned of the verdict.

Islam is Malaysia’s official religion. More than 60 percent of the nation’s 27 million people are Muslim Malays.

But while the constitution defines the ethnic majority Malays as Muslims it also guarantees freedom of religion. The country’s minority Chinese and Indians are mostly Buddhists, Hindus or Christians.

Joy’s appeal to the Federal Court centred on whether she must go to a sharia court to have her renunciation recognised before authorities delete the word “Islam” from her identity card.

The chief justice said the National Registration Department (NRD), in charge of issuing identity cards, had the right to demand that the sharia court certify Joy’s conversion.

But the only non-Muslim judge on the three-member judicial panel disagreed.

Judge Richard Malanjum said the NRD’s demand was “discriminatory and unconstitutional,” and it was unreasonable to expect a person to “self-incriminate” herself before a sharia court.

“In some states in Malaysia, apostasy is a criminality,” Malanjum said.

Sharia courts have been loath to approve apostasy.

Malaysia’s civil courts operate in parallel to sharia courts for Muslims in areas of family law including divorce, child custody and inheritance.

But the question of which takes precedence has been unclear in cases that involve both Muslims and non-Muslims, who have little say in sharia courts.

Joy fears retaliation from Muslim groups and was not present in court.

Her lawyers refused comment on the verdict.

But opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok, of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), said it was “a setback against religious freedom.” She called for a constitutional amendment to entrench the civil courts’ superiority over sharia courts.

Lawyers and human rights activists who monitored the decision agreed it has not settled anything.

“The Federal Court, the apex court of the country, is divided over this issue, as the country is divided on this issue,” said Zainah Anwar, of Sisters in Islam, a rights group for Muslim women.

Yusri Mohamad, president of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement, welcomed the verdict.

He said Joy’s appeal to the Federal Court should be seen as part of an effort to revamp Malaysia’s balance between Muslims and non-Muslims.

“We hope that we have seen the last of such an attempt,” he said.

“This decision should not be perceived as a victory for Muslims and a loss to non-Muslims.”

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Its a personal decision whether one wishes to remain or to convert.

If one wishes to convert, bringing unbearable pressure on them to remain in the fold will most likely make one a superficial Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc, etc. Most who choose to convert must have spent many agonising and difficult moments thinking about it. They could do without the additional haranguing and threats (subtle or otherwise).

I’ll just leave you now with these links: Marina Mahathir’s Do we believe in the Quran?, Littlespeck’s Talking Apostasy and Aliran’s Lina Joy verdict: No freedom, no compassion.

Still Waters Run Deep Thursday, May 17 2007 

Singapore is a multiracial and multireligious country. We have heard that line so often. But does it really mean anything especially relations between the different races? How strong are these relations? More importantly, will it withstand any troubles or problems which may, and can, happen?

I’ve been pondering these questions for quite sometime now. I see it mostly like how most ordinary Singaporeans see it, which is, from a layman’s point of view. Call me a pessimist but I think racial relations here are quite superficial and needs much more strengthening and go deeper then what we have today.

I say this ‘cos I’m more worried about the undercurrent than what’s on the surface. There have been many a times when I’ve heard remarks like these in the HDB heartlands in which about 90% of us live: the Chinese are always about money with no scruples and they’re mostly assured of good jobs here because they’re in the majority; Indians are just drunkards, loud and troublemakers; Malays are lazy, drug addicts, have too many children, etc, etc. My god its endless. And extremely disturbing.

We need to have frank and open discussions and interactions between the races about racial and religious issues AND be mature about it so it doesn’t degenerate into name calling, stereotyping or even violence and mayhem. And I mean ordinary folks like us. Those who sit around in coffeeshops, go to the wet markets or supermarkets, go to work or studies and come back home dead friggin tired, etc, etc. And I think we, as a people, can do that. Let’s start slowly if we must but start somewhere.

1964 Racial Riots

We can’t keep holding back (or kept holding back) because of what happened in 1950 and 1964. Surely they can be lessons but we can’t let them be albatrosses around our necks weighing us down forever.

Muslim Moderates Face-Off Extremists on CNN Friday, Jan 19 2007 

Apart from the now (in)famous Thaksin interview, I also recommend watching another CNN program over this weekend.

War Within is an “hour long documentary reported by Christiane Amanpour which looks at Muslim extremism in the UK…” One of the interesting things to watch out for is a debate between a group of extremists and moderates.

Amanpour on why Brit radicals shock her. Plus another related CNN report on British Muslims at crossroads.

It airs on Ch14 on Sat at 1500hrs & 2300hrs and again on Sun at 1500hrs.