Kuala Lumpur - After a landmark Malaysian Superior Court decision downgraded secular law and constitutional guarantees against Islamic rules, a storm of protest has been building up as government and civil society rush to find a solution to the religious impasse.
The verdict held that the constitutional right to freedom of worship does not apply to Muslims and the civil court has no jurisdiction over Islamic matters.
The verdict denied official recognition to Lina Joy, a Muslim who converted to Christianity a decade ago, and told her to appear before a sharia (Islamic law) court to renounce Islam, ironically an offense in Malaysia punishable with three years in jail.
After the verdict, neither judge nor politician was willing to enter the fray to unravel the dilemma and ease the great disquiet that has gripped this multi-ethnic society.
Malay Muslims form close to 60% of Malaysia`s 26 million people, and their civil, family, marriage and personal rights are governed by sharia courts. The personal laws of ethnic Chinese, Indians and others who form the remainder are administered by civil courts. However, the constitution is vague on what happens to converts such as Joy.
Failure to correct the imbalance created by the new verdict, legal experts said, will crack the system founded on secular law that guarantees religious freedom for all Malaysian citizens.
"It is a clash between individual rights on the one hand and, on the other, a growing Islamization of Muslims and their sense of siege fueled by wars across the world and by active Christian proselytizing," one independent constitutional expert said but declined to be named for fear of persecution.
"The judgment has ignored the supremacy of the constitution ... the only solution is to reassert that supremacy," the legal expert said. "We need to constitutionally reorder society."
On independence from Britain 50 years ago, Malaysia`s founders found it convenient to deem the country a secular state in order to foster a multi-racial society while making Islam the official religion to take care of the interests of native Malays. However, this solution has proved problematic, with Malays beginning to look on their religion as a mark of their distinct identity.
One solution that could accommodate individual interests, suggested privately by some experts including Muslims, is to provide a proper and legal exit for Muslims wishing to follow other religions.
However, the mere suggestion of such a solution, which would require amendments in the existing sharia laws, would spark Muslim anger, and no political leader from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi downward is willing to take the risk.
Even opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, who has promoted moderate Islam far longer than any other Malaysian leader and is trying to make a political comeback after six years in prison, is unwilling to grab the bull by the horns.
In a statement, Anwar, to whom many Muslims and non-Muslims look up to for alternative leadership, took the position that Muslims can only renounce Islam through the sharia court and Islamic laws.
"The verdict is not about compelling Lina Joy to return to Islam ... it is about the rules that must be complied with when an individual wishes to renounce Islam as his or her religion,`` said Anwar, a religious scholar himself. "I believe that such a matter must remain within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts, and whether or not such a renunciation is appropriate is a matter for the sharia courts to decide.`
"The government has failed to deal with this issue in a manner that would reassure non-Muslims that their constitutional freedom in respect of religion has not been compromised," Anwar said. "It is also most deplorable that instead of demonstrating a new resolve to forge interfaith harmony in the light of this decision, the government is trying to gain political mileage from it."
Critics of the verdict point out that apostasy is already a crime in Malaysia and punishable with jail, fine and forced rehabilitation. Even the dissenting judge in the 2-1 majority verdict had pointed this out, noting that asking Lina Joy to go to the sharia court to "leave Islam" was unfair and discriminatory because she could end up incriminating herself.
Despite reassuring statements from Muslim leaders, widespread disquiet is on the rise as people realize that the court failed to uphold the supremacy of the secular constitution and its bill of fundamental liberties.
The court also ruled that civil courts have no jurisdiction on Islamic matters - a sweeping decision that leaves scores of non-Muslims in a legal limbo.
An example is the case of Mount Everest climber Moorthy Maniam, a Hindu by birth but buried as a Muslim in 2005. Islamic administration officials "acquired" the body after a headline-grabbing tussle for it with Moorthy`s wife Kaliammal, saying he had secretly converted to Islam.
Kaliammal disputed the claim and asked the court to declare her husband a Hindu, but the court instead said that since one party was a Muslim, the court had no jurisdiction to hear the case.
Kaliammal has appealed to a higher court to exhume her husband`s body and dispose of it according to Hindu rites and customs.
But with the apex court ruling that civil courts have no jurisdiction in Islamic matters, aggrieved citizens like Kaliammal remain without a remedy, a situation that is intolerable in any society respecting justice and rule of law.
"The decision has a devastating effect on issues of fairness and justice. Citizens will rightly wonder whether the judiciary is capable of delivering justice for those who turn to it," Aliran, a social-reform movement, said in a statement.
In an interview, opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said: "The judgment does not end the Muslim-non-Muslim divide but has instead worsened it by introducing Islamic principles into secular, constitutional matters.
"A political solution is urgently needed now to resolve rising disquiet," Lim said, urging Prime Minister Abdullah to take steps to satisfy non-Muslim fears of "creeping Islam". Abdullah "must take immediate steps to promote and protect the supremacy of the secular constitution and its bill of rights", Lim said.
Outside of a political solution there is little anybody can do now that the high court has ruled, said opposition lawmaker Kulasegaran Murugesan. "The verdict is binding on all the lower courts."
"A political solution is urgent and must come from Badawi, who espouses a moderate form of Islam," Kulasegaran said, urging the prime minister to amend relevant parts of the constitution to clarify the issues and uphold the supremacy of the constitution.
"Badawi must make it clear that non-Muslims should not be subjected to sharia law," he said. "Even a political statement on these lines will help to ease non-Muslim fears." Abdullah Badawi`s ruling National Front government has a stranglehold on Parliament, controlling 90% of the 217 seats - a massive majority that can be used to make or change laws.
Referring to a general election widely expected this year, Lim said: "Ultimately the solution is in the hands of the voters."
Abdullah strongly denied the verdict was "a political decision", but public belief is that the judges made their ruling with an eye to their political masters and Muslim sensitivities.
"They must have a hole in their head. I have never ... coerced the judiciary into making a political decision," an exasperated Abdullah said when refuting charges that the verdict was manipulated to satisfy one section of society.
While Abdullah insists that the constitution remains supreme, public confidence in his pronouncements have taken a beating after many promises remain unfulfilled.
With dissatisfaction among non-Malays growing over this and other issues, Abdullah is under pressure to smooth out things before facing voters, 45% of whom are non-Muslims.
One government suggestion that may be pursued is the creation of a multi-ethnic "religious commission" to receive, arbitrate and resolve religious issues and disputes.
Source: www.atimes.com (14 Juni 2007)