Malaysia's minorities unite against Sharia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Malaysia's minorities are banding together to put up a united front against what they fear is a steady encroachment of Sharia (Islamic law) into their lives.

Unsettled by the decision of a court last month that it had no jurisdiction in Islamic matters and that a non-Muslim had no remedy under common law, the minorities, led by moderate leaders, are putting up stiff resistance.

Observers say the resistance has placed the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in a delicate position because it needs to balance the competing demands from the majority Muslims. While non-Muslims want common law and the secular constitution of Malaysia preserved and protected, Muslims demand a society based on Sharia.

Sharia ("path to the watering hole") denotes the Islamic way of life rather than a code of justice, although some Muslim countries have instituted it as the law to be enforced by the courts. But the actual application of Sharia varies greatly from country to country and few enforce it on non-Muslims.

In Malaysia, a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction has been building up among the country's minority communities against fundamentalists pushing the Islamic way into many matters - from banking and halal food to family matters, education and personal issues such as religious conversion.

In effect, two parallel societies - Muslim and non-Muslim - have gradually replaced what was a pluralistic, secular Malaysian society based on common law that was the legacy British colonials handed over upon independence in 1957.

Indigenous Malays, nearly all of whom follow Islam, constitute 60% of Malaysia's 24 million population, while Chinese, who are mostly Buddhists, make up 30% and the largely Hindu Indians another 8%. There are smaller racial groups such as Eurasians.

Malay is the official language and Islam the official religion but the constitution guarantees freedom of worship, although this provision, according to the minorities, has been gradually and systematically eroded.

The last straw was the forced burial last month of a 36-year-old soldier and mountaineer, M Moorthy, as a Muslim, over the protest of his Hindu wife. Judge Mohamed Raus Sharif ruled that his civil court had no jurisdiction to hear an application by S Kaliammal that her husband was Hindu.

Sharif refused to alter an ex parte judgment, obtained from a Sharia court by the Islamic Affairs Department Sharia, that deemed that the dead man had converted to Islam - in effect telling non-Muslims that they have no remedy in such cases.

The protest has, thus far, been peaceful - a candlelight vigil at Sharif's office, a signature campaign, and a memorandum to the prime minister.

In addition, about 30 influential Hindu organizations have formed an umbrella Hindu Rights Action Force (HRAF) to protect the rights of minorities to religious freedom. The HRAF mounted a protest outside the palace this week and petitioned the king, who is constitutionally the head of Islam, to intervene.

"The presiding judge, by refusing to dwell in the said matter, has effectively failed to exercise his legitimate right as an umpire conferred upon him by the federal constitution," they said in their petition.

"In our opinion this is nothing but a serious misconduct on the part of the judge," their petition argued. "This practice cannot be tolerated and must never be encouraged in a multiracial society, as it could have far-reaching effects.

"The decision has tarnished the image of the judiciary and brought disrepute," the petition said. "The public wants to have continued assurance that the judicial system would prevail and has supremacy over all other bodies, both Islamic and non-Islamic."

The crux of their demand is a repeal of Article 121 (1A) of the constitution that was amended in 1988 to state that the civil court had no jurisdiction on matters under the purview of the Sharia court.

Lim Kit Siang, the opposition leader, led calls for constitutional change at a forum attended by more than 100 politicians, lawyers, activists and representatives of all the minority groups. "We would like to call for the repeal of the amendment and a restoration of the pre-1988 article," he said.

However, Muslim organisations have warned that any attempt to repeal Article 121 (1A) would be strongly resisted.

The Malay National Force (TERAS), a Malay non-government organization, said in a statement that Article 121 (1A) provided specific guarantees that the civil court will not interfere in Islamic matters.

"The Sharia court should not be seen as an institution that denies justice to non-Muslims. On the contrary, if its laws are fully applied, there is an assurance of better justice here compared to civil laws, which are the heritage of British colonial rule," said TERAS president Mohamad Azmi Abdul Hamid.

Human-rights lawyer P Uthayakumar asked: "How can anyone even suggest such a remedy to non-Muslims? What becomes of the civil law, the judicial system and the secular constitution?

"We non-Muslims have suffered long enough. The government should intervene immediately and put an end to non-Muslim fears and misery," he said. "The uncertainties have gone on for far too long."

The row has highlighted the long-standing uneasy relationship between the civil and the Sharia court systems and the potential for an explosive encounter in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society showcased to the world as a tolerant nation of peace.

Some government ministers are arguing for a secular constitutional court to rule on matters involving conversion. "If we let the Muslim court decide this, justice might not be served because it would decide in favor of Islam," said Nazri Aziz, minister for parliamentary affairs.

Abu Talib Othman, chairman of the Human Rights Commission and former attorney general, blamed the situation on judges who feared to apply the common law. "The problem today is created by courts who have no courage to comply with the oath of office they took," he told a recent public forum on the controversy, criticizing Sharif for refusing to overrule the Sharia court in the case of the dead soldier.

It is common knowledge, though rarely mentioned, that Muslim judges are reluctant to apply common-law principles in cases involving Islamic matters. "They fear Allah's punishment more then the wrath of their country's citizens," said one lawyer. "It is a growing problem."

Abdullah has offered a cautious response. "I am looking into the matter and hope to prevent problems like this from happening," he said this week.

But non-Muslims, who fear that Sharia is becoming the supreme law of the land, want more than soothing words to alleviate their anxiety that common law and the civil justice system are under threat.