Religious tensions in Malaysia: One faith more equal than the rest?

Updated On: May 11, 2007

The past two years have seen a rise in tension related to inter-faith and inter-religious issues in Malaysia

Back in media attention recently again has been cases involving inter-religious marriages.  A Hindu man is reportedly suing the Islamic religious officials for “illegal seizure” of his Muslim wife and children.  According to the lawsuit, Islamic authorities seize the man’s Muslim wife in Selangor for “religious rehabilitation” as their marriage conducted according to Hindu rites last year is apparently invalid, the Straits Times noted.

Karpal Singh, Magendran Sababathy’s lawyer, says his client does not know where his wife, Najeera Farvinli Mohamed Jalali, is held ever since she was seized on 28 April. Singh added, “Najeera's detention is illegal because no detention order was served on her. Islamic officials can't just go to somebody's house and split up the family. We want to know where she has been taken. We are asking for her to be set free.” According to the Straits Times, the Islamic Department officials cannot be reached for comment.

The Associated Press has observed that minority group’s religious rights have been at issue and this is “straining ties in multiethnic Malaysia, where Islam is the dominant religion”. Just last month, “Selangor Islamic officials forcibly separated a Hindu from his Muslim wife of 21 years, and their six children. He won custody of his children, but the couple could not live together legally and decided to separate”. This was considered a “landmark decision” for minority religious rights in that a Hindu could gain custody of the children and raise them according to his religion. However, this has also wrecked what has been described as a “happy, united family”.

In contrast, Islamic officials sent a Muslim woman living as a Hindu for rehabilitation, separating her from her Hindu husband in January 2007. The couple’s “baby daughter was also seized, and handed to her Muslim mother”, the AP reported.

Lim Kit Siang, chair of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said, “This is a disturbing reflection of greater Islamization in the country, regardless of the price to national unity and interracial harmony. The secular basis of the Constitution is being eroded relentlessly.” Human rights lawyer Latheefa Koya said that “forcibly separating families [was] an affront to Islamic principles as… under Islam, there is no force, no compulsion… A person has the freedom to choose whatever he believes”.

Even the Thai newspaper, the Nation, called Malaysia’s religious policies as “backpedaling into the future”.

In response to a rise of these inter-religious spats, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Datuk Seri Nazri, announced that the government is looking into setting up an authority to resolve religious disputes which will not be part of the judicial system and thus be kept out of the public glare.

However, before such a mechanism can be set up, Malaysia seemed to be up for more bad press. The Malaysian Government has now banned a high-profile interfaith conference that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was scheduled to chair this week to foster Muslim-Christian dialogue in the “Building Bridges” conference.

This conference was initiated “in the wake of September 11 and meant to be an annual get-together of Christian and Muslim academics in an attempt to find theological understandings that might help prevent future terrorist attacks” and have even hosted UK PM Tony Blair. This year’s meeting in Malaysia was meant to show the “breakthrough in Muslim-Christian relations in a region where they are particularly delicate”.  

A more open attitude towards other religions is perhaps unlikely to happen soon. Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Othman, the religious adviser to PM Abdullah Badawi, said [religious] “issues must never be politicised as this could disrupt peace and stability”, the New Straits Times reported. He said, “There must be alternatives and solutions to every problem. As political party leaders, they must refrain from making statements that can lead to provocation or anger. They must be tolerant of each other and seek solutions that will ensure the continued religious and ethnic coexistence among all the races.”

These comments were made in relation to “the controversy over the Ma Tzu Goddess of the Sea statue in Kudat, which had resulted in the resignation of Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat as the Sabah deputy chief minister”. Hamid felt that Chong had unfairly politicized the issue as according to Hamid, “constructing places of worship for all races had never been a problem…but the location matters.” Apparently the Ma Tzu statue was sited too close to a mosque and was therefore not given building permission. Hamid added, “It becomes the responsibility of all quarters and the leaders to find a suitable site that will not create problems for someone else… Sensitivity of the location must never be overlooked.” (11 May 2007).


KL keen to resolve religious spat (Straits Times, 11 May 2007)

Muslim-Christian conference called off after KL seeks postponement (Straits Times, 11 May 2007)

Summit on religious harmony is thrown into discord by Malaysia (The Times, 10 May 2007)

Another lawsuit over seizure of a Muslim wife by Islamic officials (Straits Times, 9 May 2007)

New religious dispute sparks fears of rising Islamization in Malaysia (AP, 9 May 2007)

Malaysia back-pedals into the future (Nation, 9 May 2007)

MALAYSIA: Landmark child custody ruling (ABC Radio Australia, 8 May 2007)

In landmark case, Hindu man in Malaysia gets custody of children born to Muslim wife (AP, 3 May 2007)

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