Malaysia at a Crossroads

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - How well do you know your husband? For Kaliammal Sinnasamy, a Hindu married to a member of the first Malaysian team to scale Mt. Everest, the answer, she thought, was obvious. "I married a Hindu man, lived with him as a Hindu, bore him a Hindu child and watched him die as a Hindu," says the now 32-year-old office cleaner. But when Kaliammal went to the hospital in December 2005 to claim her spouse's body after he died of a protracted illness, she received another shock. Her husband, Maniam Moorthy, had secretly converted to Islam before his death, said Islamic authorities. According to Islamic law, he would be buried in a Muslim cemetery. No, insisted Kaliammal, he would undergo Hindu rites. Both sides headed to court. But Malaysia—a multiethnic nation composed largely of Muslim Malays, Hindu Indians and Buddhist and Christian Chinese—employs a dual legal system. Muslims are subject to Shari'a law for issues such as marriage, property and death, while non-Muslims use civil courts. First, the Shari'a court ruled that Kaliammal's husband was a Muslim. Then, the civil court refused to intervene. "This court cannot undo, vary or overrule any decisions made by the Islamic Shari'a court," said Judge Raus Shariff to a packed courtroom. "We have absolutely no jurisdiction over Islam."

Kaliammal's case, along with several other high-profile legal challenges, are roiling a nation that has struggled to strike a balance between the aspirations of its Muslim majority and significant minority populations. As Malaysia celebrates a half-century of independence this year, faith-based politics is further dividing the nation's ethnicities. The new mood was on display at the November party conference of Malaysia's ruling political party, the United Malays National Organization, during which one delegate spoke of his willingness to bathe in blood to defend the Malay race and religion. By December, the atmosphere was so tense that Malaysia's usually understated Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi called race relations "brittle"—even though a few weeks before he had defended his nation's reputation, telling TIME: "At the end of the day, Malaysia is still well regarded internationally as an advanced Muslim country." Indeed, earlier in the year, Abdullah appeared so confident about his homeland's spiritual diversity that he rejected a plea by the non-Muslim members of his Cabinet to more strenuously protect religious freedoms. "We are at a crossroads as a nation," says Tian Chua, spokesman for the opposition National Justice Party. "The extreme religious rhetoric is threatening what we worked so hard for 50 years to accomplish."

Like Indonesia, Malaysia is struggling to determine how Muslim to be. Unlike Indonesia, which is governed by a secular constitution, Malaysia already counts Islam as its official faith—although the constitution also guarantees freedom of religion. Each state has a fatwa committee that makes religious decrees applicable to Malaysian Muslims, most of whom are Sunni. In Kelantan state, Muslim women must wear headscarves in public, while several states have made forsaking Islam a crime that can result in prison time. "We should not limit Islam to a few rituals," says Sulaiman Abdullah, former president of the Malaysian Bar Council. "Malaysia would be better served if it were under Shari'a law."

But what happens when the state's definition of Islam differs from its citizens'? The Islamic Development Department, which governs Muslim practices on a federal level, deems Shia and Baha'i interpretations of Islam deviant faiths worthy of forced "rehabilitation." Controversy also surrounds Malays who wish to convert to another religion, thus defying the constitutional clause specifying that all Malays must be Muslims. That issue is being tested by the case of Lina Joy, a Malay who has been barred from converting to Christianity by Shari'a courts. Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a lawyer who has received death threats for representing Joy, hopes the case will be heard by the Supreme Court in the next few months. "How can we say there is freedom of religion in Malaysia," says Malik, "if a person who has practiced Christianity for years is not allowed by the state to make that personal choice?"

As for Kaliammal, her husband's ultimate choice will never be known for certain. He was buried as a Muslim, but she wants to move the remains to a Hindu grave. Kaliammal's appeal, one of several involving alleged conversions to Islam, is pending before a higher court, though no date has been fixed for judgment. "My husband never once told me he had secretly converted to Islam," says Kaliammal, showing off a wall in her apartment dedicated to her husband's mountaineering achievements for the glory of the Malaysian nation. "He was always a Hindu and drank alcohol and ate pork right up to the time he died." His final resting place, though, will depend upon what the court decides—yet one more challenge for a country caught between mosque and state.