Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Malaysia's secular status quo threatened by Muslim groups

By Maznah Mohamad

Malaysian society is now gripped by a fundamental question: is the country, which is more than half Muslim, an Islamic state?

In practice, various religious and ethnic groups give Malaysia a distinctly multi-cultural character. But the Malaysian Constitution provides room for arguments on both sides of the question, and the relatively secular status quo is facing a serious challenge.

Drafted by a group of experts in 1957, under the auspices of the country's former British rulers, the Constitution includes two seemingly contradictory clauses. On the one hand, Article 3 states that Islam is the religion of the federation, and that only Islam can be preached to Muslims.

On the other hand, Article 11 guarantees freedom of religion for all. As a result, Malaysia has developed both a general civil code, which is applied universally, and Islamic law, which is applied only to Muslims in personal and family matters.

Recently, however, some Muslim groups have pressed the government to proclaim Malaysia an Islamic state, on the basis of Article 3 and the Muslims' population majority. Ultimately, they would like Malaysia to be governed by Islamic law.

For years, there was little need to resolve this constitutional issue. For example, if a Muslim decided to renounce his faith, the matter would be handled outside the legal system, or conversion records would be sealed.

Today, however, every Malaysian must declare a religious affiliation, which is registered with the government -- a requirement that has made it difficult for a Muslim to leave Islam without formalizing the change of status through the legal process.

The country is now riveted on the fate of ordinary citizens like sales assistant Lina Joy and former religious teacher Kamariah Ali, who are trying to change their religious affiliation through the legal system. Muslim professional organizations and the Islamic opposition political party hold the view that renunciation of Islam is punishable by death.

Likewise, the defense by Malaysian civil reform movements of individuals' freedom of conscience has been denounced by some religious leaders as an attack on Islam. Currently, Malaysia has no law that would impose the death penalty on apostates. Yet public movements have been formed to highlight this Islamic tenet. If it is not applied, the argument goes, there will be a massive exodus of Muslims to other faiths. The immediate goal is to keep the courts from allowing Lina Joy or Kamariah Ali to convert.

Attempts by other democratic civil society groups to debate this issue in peaceful public forums have been thwarted by threats of violence from a coalition of Muslim non-governmental organizations calling themselves BADAI (the Malay acronym for Coalition against the Inter-Faith Commission).

Concerned about sparking an ethnic clash, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has proclaimed a ban on open discussion of these issues, threatening to arrest Internet news providers and activists if they continue to fan such debates.

Badawi is right to be worried. Since independence, national politics in Malaysia has reinforced group identity, especially among ethnic Malays, an exclusively Muslim community. Identity politics allowed ethnic Malays to assert their claims to control over land, language, and religion.

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