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Once taboo, Islam turns hot topic in Malaysia

January 5, 2006

 

Islam tops Malaysia‘s long list of “sensitive subjects” forbidden from being raised in public – but things have changed in the past two weeks  
 
 
 
Monday, January 02, 2006
by Baradan Kuppusamy

Islam tops Malaysia’s long list of “sensitive subjects” that are forbidden from being raised in public but, over the last two weeks, it is as if nothing else can be discussed. Two dissimilar events coming one after another, late December, has put religion on notice. One is the passage of an Islamic family law, opposed by feminists and moderate Muslims. The other is the forced burial, according to Muslim rites, of a Hindu soldier by Islamic authorities who insist he had converted to Islam.

Two dissimilar events coming one after another, late December, has put religion on notice. One is the passage of an Islamic family law, opposed by feminists and moderate Muslims. The other is the forced burial, according to Muslim rites, of a Hindu soldier by Islamic authorities who insist he had converted to Islam.Both issues have questioned the role of an increasingly puritanical Islam in a multi-ethnic society that prides itself on tolerance and an easygoing, modern way of life.

Under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s more liberal and less authoritarian administration, long suppressed frustrations are rising to the surface and there are growing calls for fairness and justice.

On one side, the debate is between Islamic fundamentalists who dominate the burgeoning Islamic Affairs Department that administers Shariah law and mostly western educated Muslim feminists who say the department, in it’s overzealous interpretation of the Quran, has gone overboard in making new laws that discriminate against women and children.

Since the 1980s, they say, women’s position vis-à-vis Muslim men have gradually eroded. The latest is a new Islamic family law that makes divorce and polygamy easy and allows husbands to lay claim to the wife’s properties, even to the extent of freezing the bank accounts of former spouses and their children.

“Nowhere is there, in the Islamic world, a law that discriminates so thoroughly against women,” said Zainah Anwar, executive director of Sisters in Islam, a feminist movement that is spearheading a national campaign to repeal the new law.

The campaign has won widespread support, within the government, in academia and among the general public winning. .

Likewise the forced burial of M. Moorthy, a Hindu soldier claimed by the Islamic authorities to have converted to Islam, has sparked a storm among non-Muslims and moderate Muslims alike. They are demanding that the government amend the constitution to make civil law supreme over Islamic Shariah law especially in matters where non-Muslims are involved.

Debate over these issues, Islam, once a taboo subject, is now openly debated by mainstream media, television stations and over the Internet.

Newspapers that are linked to government that normally would not have touched the subject, now freely publish strongly-worded letters and commentaries by their own writers and outside experts, many of whom are Muslims. Letters from the public are bravely aired.

Internet chatrooms are racier and less inhibited in their comments. A coalition of human rights NGOs, including Muslim feminist groups, have also launched a month-long candle light vigil outside the High Court to protest a Muslim judge’s ruling, earlier this month, that the civil court has no jurisdiction over Islamic matters.

Relying on an ex-parte Shariah Court order, Islamic religious authorities gave M. Moorthy a Muslim burial over the protests by his Hindu family, last week. Anger boiled over when Judge Raus Sharif washed his hands off, saying the civil court had no jurisdiction.

“They have been telling lies. Nothing but lies,” said Kaliammal Sinnasamy, Moorthy’s wife. “I was shocked when they told me that they would take the body when he died.”

The court refused to intervene or hear evidence from the family that Moorthy could not have converted, saying it had no jurisdiction over matters under the purview of the Shariah court. Three days later, the same court gave similar arguments while rejecting an application by two formerly Muslim women for a declaration that they have left Islam.

“We cannot allow a small group (of Muslim administrators) who are extreme in their views to dominate the nation’s social and religious life,” said Wong Kim Kong, a spokesman for the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS). “If no action is taken by the government then it might sow disharmony.”

The council launched a campaign to amend the constitution to allow civil law supremacy over Shariah in cases involving non-Muslims i.e conversion, child custody, disposal of property and other family or personal matters.

The main opposition Democratic Action Party has called for a major review of Article 121(1A), which states that the civil courts shall have no jurisdiction in respect of “any matter” within the jurisdiction of the Shariah courts.

The clause was inserted into the constitution by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1988 after he had jailed over 100 parliamentarians and democracy activists and closed down three newspapers including the influential, mass-circulated ‘The Star’ daily.

Mahathir’s government had given a truncated parliament a day’s notice of the constitutional change which was carried with overwhelming support by government backbenchers.

In the case of the Islamic family law a little more time was given but arms were twisted to ensure its passage in parliament, earlier this month, only to face an avalanche of protest from civil society groups and Muslim feminists.

The law affects only Muslims who make up about 60 percent of the population of 26 million people. Restrictions against Malaysian Muslim men taking four wives under Islamic law have been eased and they no longer have to prove financial capacity or the ability to treat all wives fairly.

Women’s groups are planning petitions, letter-writing campaigns and other strategies to put pressure on the government not to gazette the bill into law.

>From the numerous letters in mainstream newspapers and in internet chatrooms, most Malaysians are outraged and feel that injustice has been done to minorities and moderate Muslims alike.

“This entire episode has painted a negative image of Islam not just to Malaysians of other faiths but to the rest of the world,” Ezam Mohamad, a senior leader of the National Justice Party, told IPS.

“More must be done to enhance mutual trust and harmony among the different communities and the manner in which the present authorities are doing it represents a step backwards in inter-racial and inter-religious relations,” said Ezam.

Badawi’s brand of tolerant Islam or ‘Islam Hadhari’ took a beating as people question the wide gulf between his moderate leanings and the fanaticism of the Islamic authorities that, gained strength under Mahathir’s 22-year rule.

Abdullah, who is equally respected by Muslims and non-Muslims, has the difficult and unenviable task of reigning in the runaway horses or see his popularity rating plunge.

If he fails to contain excesses, his grand vision of all the races living together happily under a caring and tolerant multi-culturalism stands to be stillborn.

Experts say success for Badawi lies in tackling and resolving the racial and discriminatory policies that form the bedrock of Malaysia’s so-called “happy” society.

“Unless the deep seated issues of racism and religious freedom are openly discussed and resolved Malaysians would continue to live in fear and suspicious of one another,” said S. Arulchelvam, secretary general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia.

“Malaysian unity is a farce unless these issues are met head on and adequately resolved,” he told IPS.

“All discriminatory policies based on race and religion must be outlawed. It is impossible to build unity based merely on slogans and propaganda,” he said.
IPS News
Source: http://www.speroforum.com/site/article.asp?idCategory=33&idsub=122&id=2350

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  5. […] Once taboo, Islam turns hot topic in Malaysia […]



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