Christian and Hindu zealots testing the boundaries of religious tolerance in Malaysia

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Breaking his silence over simmering religious and ethnic tensions in the country, Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has warned groups who challenge the status of Islam in the country against disturbing inter-religious harmony. "The issue of religion is very sensitive, more sensitive than the issue of race, so the press should be responsible and not blow it up," he said. While Abdullah’s era has seen less government interference –” to a certain extent –” and more liberalization of what the media can choose to report, the state of the local media is that they are controlled fully by a small opinionated group of people bent on imposing "de-Islamisation".

An end to any dictatorial rule will normally result in major transitions, such as more open debates, making seditious issues more difficult to deal with. Since the end of the Suharto era, Indonesia has been experiencing such a transition into more political openness. Muslims appeared to be the major beneficiary of this sudden freedom, coming out again after years of repression by Suharto, his brutal army and his Christian advisers, who forced the pagan pancasila ideology on Muslims and Islamic groups.

In Malaysia, the new-found freedoms since the departure of Mahathir Mohamad have been hijacked by a tiny sector of the population to push an agenda that suits their lifestyle. These groups fight for the legalisation of everything from prostitution to homosexuality, and of late have even begun to question the position of Islam and what few Shari’ah laws are still being implemented in the country. These activists’ purpose is to neutralise Malaysian Muslims’ Islamic commitment by demonizing the country’s Shari’ah laws, which are the last bastion of public, shared Islam in this Muslim-majority country. Although they have managed to rope in a few individuals with Muslim names who claim to speak on behalf of Muslims, and who are able to use the mainstream media to their advantage, they are mostly shunned by Muslims of every part of the political spectrum. With the country’s mainstream media in their hands, many of these self-confessed ‘liberal Muslims’ have painted a false picture of most Muslims’ views on many issues.

One such façade was demolished on July 23, when more than 10,000 people converged on Kuala Lumpur’s largest mosque to attend a public forum as a counter-gathering to many a gathering organized by the heavily-funded and well-publicised so-called liberal lobby. Organised by several Muslim NGOs and professional bodies, the forum’s main objective is underlined by the sheer number of Muslims who responded to text messages and email chains, bringing together Muslims from all party political loyalties. Their main concern was the increasing claims of several groups of non-Muslim activists, who have been on a nationwide tour to argue for a secular Malaysia, on the pretext that the country’s constitution is based on secularism. Many Muslims have hitherto chosen to ignore the arguments put forward by those attempting to complete the process of "de-Islamisation" begun centuries ago by the colonial powers, yet choosing to ignore them has become tantamount to shying away from confronting the well-oiled secular machinery.

The tiny secular movement, although posing neither an intellectual nor a numerical challenge to Muslims, mainly targets non-Muslim organizations which have hitherto remained neutral to issues affecting Muslims, trying to whip up strong feelings by means of claims about alleged mass-demolitions of non-Muslim places of worship and lack of freedom for Christian missionaries, for example. Even to a tourist in transit in Malaysia, such claims are laughable, but for the fact that these groups have been heavily funded, to judge by the kind of support they get from foreign NGOs and human-rights groups. So indiscreet is their hatred of anything Islamic or Muslim, that even the former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s rhetorical statement that Malaysia is already an "Islamic state" provoked them.

Although the Shari’ah courts in Malaysia have many bureaucratic flaws, as is the case in many Muslim countries, the non-Muslim lobby, backed by church groups, NGOs and some non-Muslim opposition politicians, has often challenged the very existence of the courts, rather than the way they are managed. This is what happens whenever Muslims –” whether those aligned to the ‘secular’ ruling party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) or the ‘Islamists’ (PAS) –” try to reassert their Islamic identity. Most of the time, the non-Muslim political parties and an array of NGOs, funded by interests in Europe and Australia, voice their "dissatisfaction", attaching their argument to ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. Yet they give a muted response to the Muslims’ parallel right to practise their own chosen lifestyle.

Many of these non-Muslim groups now oppose even an article in the constitution which was designed to ensure that Muslims are only tried by Shari’ah, whose repeal they are now demanding. The article accords the country’s Shari’ah legal system (which mainly affects property distribution, some forms of public morality law and family laws) the same status as the civil courts, so that the personal affairs of Muslims are regulated by the Shari’ah and not by civil laws. The amendment was a landmark achievement of the "Islamisation" policy of the Mahathir government: Mahathir attempted to give his administration a semblance of "Islamicity" to counter the fervour generated by the Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979).

This amendment to the constitution was the result of years of academic and political effort by Muslim groups and activists to reform the British legal system in Malaysian courts. Since then the Shari’ah system, as applied in Malaysia, which does not cover crimes such as murder and theft, has ruled matters touching the Muslim community, who comprise about 60 per cent of the population. The question is why some of the non-Muslims, most notably Hindu and Christian activists, should be unhappy about a set of laws that deals only with Muslims.

One of the main objections of the non-Muslims, particularly foreign evangelical organizations in the country, which have mushroomed in recent decades, is the fact that once a person converts to Islam he or she automatically comes under the jurisdiction of the Shari’ah courts. Thus any attempt to make the person revert has to go through the Shari’ah. This makes any kind of funding to woo back Muslim converts –” the easiest target of missionary groups –” useless, as Muslims are not allowed to commit apostasy openly.

Since early last year several church leaders in the country have been warning their followers not to convert to Islam. Their worry is understandable: a report by a Christian missionary bulletin suggests that increasing numbers of young Catholic men and women are "falling in love with Muslims" and, in order to marry, agree to become Muslims. Unlike the situation in Indonesia, a Muslim in Malaysia can only marry a Muslim, so if a Muslim wants to marry a non-Muslim, the latter must embrace Islam. This has been one cause of the non-Muslim lobby’s irritation.

The priests’ document also conjures up an image of Islam that is intended to scare off potential converts: "Your conversion to Islam will be registered in your identity card. Consequently, even if you do not practice Islam, you could be fined, whipped, held in custody or imprisoned for violating Shariah laws, for example, praying in church, eating in public during the month of fasting, khalwat [close proximity with opposite sex] and so on," reports a Vatican-based bulletin AsiaNews, an evangelical current-affairs bulletin which specialises in reporting the "persecution" of Christians in Muslim countries.

In a few weeks, Malaysia’s highest court of appeal will give its judgement on the long-running trial of a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity by marriage: her lawyers want the court to rule that she does not need to approach the Shari’ah court to declare her apostasy and change her religious status on her identity card. Many believe that the woman is being used as a pawn in the efforts of Christian zealots to push their agenda of undermining the legal aspects of the country’s Islamic identity.

The responses from Muslims, particularly activists and NGOs, have not been weak. Some Muslims shy away from involvement in such a debate, showing their lack of intellectual ammunition to counter the propaganda against Islam. There are others who unwittingly fall into the propaganda trap set by Christian groups. They argue that the impending judgment, if it does not side with the Muslims, will mean hundreds of thousands of Muslims going out of the fold of Islam. The question then is why Indonesia, despite the Christian lobby’s decades of Christianisation efforts and lack of laws such as the ones found in many Muslim countries, does not suffer a mass exodus from Islam?

Whatever the judgment, the reality on the ground determines the future, and legal technicalities and jargon will not able to affect that. The explosion that greeted the "Miss Universe" pageant in Nigeria, a country shared by Muslims and Christians, not long ago is only one example.

The issue has brought to the fore the complexities of having two legal systems in a Muslim-majority country with a large non-Muslim minority. More importantly, it underlines the kind of work that Muslim activists and those seeking to establish the Islamic state must do to lay the necessary intellectual and political foundations for such a situation to be stable. New ijtihad is needed, especially in a complex multi-religious society, while at the same time not letting anti-Islam forces to undermine Islamic authority merely because of bureaucratic flaws in the administration of the Shari’ah. Ultimately, how Islam is presented to the non-Muslims, and how Muslims conduct themselves, is our greatest asset for the future of Islam. The four-hundred-year grip of succeeding colonial powers on this region –” the Portuguese, Dutch and then the British –” and the negligible impact upon the Muslims’ loyalty to their faith, is a lesson for Christian missionaries and Muslim activists alike.

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