Uproar over Claim of Malaysia as ‘Islamic State’ Is Silenced – Government gags media discussion of minister’s claim

A government halt to media discussion of whether Malaysia is an “Islamic state” last month was one indicator of how close to the surface strong religious feelings are raging.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak drew such protest and counter-protest from religious groups for claiming that Malaysia is an “Islamic state” that the Internal Security Ministry felt compelled to issue a gag order on media coverage of the issue.

At the International Conference on the Role of Islamic States in a Globalized World, organized by the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia, Najib said on July 17 that Malaysia was an Islamic state and had never been a “secular nation” according to Western definition, since governance has “always been driven by our adherence to the fundamentals of Islam.”

He qualified his remarks, however, by saying that the Federal Constitution guarantees religious freedom to non-Muslim minorities, who make up about 40 percent of the population.

The deputy prime minister’s claim drew immediate protests from religious, political and civil society groups who fear restrictions on religious freedom, especially in the wake of a recent Federal Court decision unfavorable to Lina Joy, a Christian convert who tried unsuccessfully to remove “Islam” from her identification card.

Bishop Dr. Paul Tan, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, responded to the comments by issuing a press statement voicing his concerns and appealing to the deputy prime minister to retract his remarks.

He claimed that use of the term “Islamic state” is unacceptable to Malaysians of other faiths on three grounds: The term is not used in the Federal Constitution; the founding fathers of the country’s independence never intended for Malaysia to be an Islamic state; and non-Muslim coalition parties that make up the ruling government never consented to, nor officially endorsed, the term “Islamic state” to describe the country.

Ong Ka Chuan, general secretary of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a political party that is part of the ruling coalition government, noted documents prepared by British authorities before granting independence to Malaysia in 1957 clearly stating that “members of the Alliance delegation … had no intention of creating a Muslim theocracy” and affirming that Malaysia “would be a secular state.”

Fearing that continued discussion on the matter would cause tension between different religious communities in the country, three days after Najib’s remarks the Internal Security Ministry issued a gag order to all mainstream media prohibiting them from publishing on the matter. Interestingly, the gag order did not apply to statements coming from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi or Najib himself.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister, expressed support for Najib’s declaration via a web-based news agency, Malaysiakini, on July 24. In September 2001, Mahathir had made a similar declaration that was hotly debated, though discussion on it fizzled out over the years.

In an attempt to quell non-Muslim concerns on religious freedom in the country, Prime Minister Abdullah said on Sunday (August 5) that Malaysia is neither a secular state nor a theocratic state. He said Malaysia practices parliamentary democracy, and that the government gives due attention to all races who enjoy religious freedom as provided for in the constitution.

Religious Freedom Concerns

To many, the prime minister’s statement is insufficient to address mounting concerns many have about religious freedom in the country.

In May, the highest court in the land delivered its judgment against Joy, the Muslim convert to Christianity who sought to have the word “Islam” deleted from her identity card. In a 2-1 majority decision, the court ruled that the National Registration Department was right in requiring her to obtain an exit certificate from the sharia court before it could do so.

Joy did not regard turning to the sharia court as an option, since she is no longer a Muslim and the sharia court has no jurisdiction over non-Muslims.

Earlier in January, Revathi Masoosai – an ethnic Indian born to Muslim-convert parents but raised by her Hindu grandmother – was sent to an Islamic rehabilitation camp for six months when she applied to change her name and religion at the sharia court.

Revathi had married a Hindu, Suresh Veerapan, according to Hindu rites in 2004, and they now have an 18-month-old daughter. While she was in detention, Islamic authorities seized her daughter and handed the child to her mother to be raised as a Muslim.

Released from detention, Revathi maintains that she is a Hindu. She is not allowed to live with her husband since she is legally still a Muslim while he is not. In Malaysia, Muslims can marry only Muslims.

Over the last two years, some grieving families have had to fight legal battles with Islamic authorities over burial rites for their loved ones following claims that the deceased family members had converted to Islam. Also, some women have had to turn to the courts for custody of their children when their husbands converted to Islam. In at least one case, a non-Muslim wife was told she had to seek redress from the sharia court.

Jurisdictional conflict

Jurisdictional conflicts have arisen due to Malaysia’s dual legal system, whereby civil courts apply to all, while sharia courts are binding on Muslims in certain family and personal matters.

These conflicts are complicated further by the constitution’s Article 121(1A), which states that “the [civil] courts … shall have no jurisdiction of any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts.”

In a July 25 Federal Court judgment involving a dispute over monies between the deceased’s third wife, Latifah Mat Zin, and the daughters of his second wife, Rosmawati and Roslinawati Sharibun, Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamed said that issues of jurisdictional conflict must be resolved by Parliamentary amendments to existing laws or the making of new laws. The justice thus affirmed that the role of the courts is only to apply the law.

He clarified that if one of the parties is a non-Muslim, the sharia court has no jurisdiction over a case even if the subject matter falls within its jurisdiction. Likewise, he said just because one of the parties is a non-Muslim does not mean that the civil court will have jurisdiction over the case if the subject matter does not fall within its jurisdiction. To determine jurisdiction, he said, both courts must look to the statutes.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, chairperson of the Bar Council, commended the high court for clarifying issues that have long plagued Muslims and non-Muslims and for emphasizing the importance of conforming to the constitution.

She noted, however, that the judgment highlighted that there could be situations where there is no remedy in either court – something that must be “comprehensively addressed.”

Source: Compass Direct News, Santa Ana, California/USA and Istanbul/Turkey. A partner agency of APD