Malaysia’s religious dilemma

Updated On: Aug 22, 2006

The growing orthodoxy in the beliefs of Malaysian Muslims and heightened sense of religious identity are contributing to the sensitive nature of the current debate on Islam in the majority Muslim country with significant minorities.

The Straits Times yesterday (21 August 2006) reported a University of Malaya survey that showed how most Malaysian Muslims see themselves as “Muslims first, Malaysians second”.  72.7 per cent of the 1,000 respondents chose Islam as their primary identity, making Islam the main identity marker of Malaysian Muslims. 

With 77 per cent wanting stricter syariah laws and 57.3 per cent wanting the hudud (Islamic penal code), the findings confirm the growing orthodoxy among Muslims in Malaysia.  But while these figures might fuel worry amongst observers who note the increasingly tense debate on Islam in Malaysia is frequently couched in “us versus them” language, and has taken an intolerant bent, the survey – perhaps the most objective picture of Muslims in Malaysia today – also reveals that Muslims are far more open and accepting of other cultures than they are made out to be.  In fact, 63.3 per cent want the syariah to remain under the Constitution rather than to replace it, tallying with other results that indicate that Muslims find it acceptable to live alongside non-Muslims.  Associate Professor Patricia Martinez, a scholar of Islam who conducted the survey, believes that the highly polemical discourse on Islam may not reflect how the majority of ordinary Muslims really feel.  Indeed, 97.1 per cent of respondents indicated it is acceptable for Malaysian Muslims to live alongside people of other religions.

But Malaysia’s big religious dilemma is clearly reflected in these survey results as well – while 71.1 per cent say Malaysians should be allowed to choose their religion, 97.7 per cent feel that Muslims should not be allowed to leave Islam.  It is this contradiction that lies at the crux of a controversial case on conversion from Islam – one that has placed Malaysia at a critical point in deliberating whether the Constitution or syariah law will prevail. 

When Azlina Jailani decided to convert to Christianity in 1999, she went to the National Registration Department to change her name to Lina Joy, but the entry for her religion remained as “Islam”.  After years of legal wrangle, Joy’s request for acknowledgement of her conversion to Christianity was finally heard by the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest civil judicial authority on 28 June this year.  Until the entry is deleted, she cannot legally marry or raise a family outside the Muslim faith. 

As Malaysia braces itself for the ruling, whatever the outcome, the decision could pose a headache for the government that is trying to meet the demands of the majority Muslim population and the sizeable minority of non-Muslims.  Though freedom of religion is guaranteed constitutionally, in reality, conversion out of Islam comes under the ambit of the Islamic courts.  Under syariah law, renouncing Islam is punishable by fines or jail.  As the Lina Joy case pits the Constitution directly against syariah law, the court ruling could split society down the middle.  This perhaps explains why close to one month after her hearing, the courts have yet to make their ruling, a possible reflection of the sensitivities and difficulties surrounding the case.

The ruling, essentially an answer to the question if Muslims have the right to convert to another faith, could potentially shake society to its foundations.  It's a tricky legal question in multiracial, multi-religious Malaysia where ethnic Malays – who make up just over half of Malaysia's 26 million people – are deemed Muslims from birth.

Political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda said a court victory for Joy would be a political dynamite that would create instability. "For decades, the position of Malays and Muslims have been guaranteed. It will open the floodgates … Definitely there will be a huge backlash and PAS will go to town with it," he added.  PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia), the biggest Islamic opposition party, agrees.  PAS deputy chief Nasharuddin Mat Isa called it a bad precedent that would create some uneasiness in the Malay community and could lead to demonstrations.

But a ruling against Joy could also inflame opinion among non-Muslims, who are already aggrieved over what they see as the gradual encroachment of Islamic law into civil society. "If they rule against Joy, the whole question of religious liberty — the freedom of conscience, choice, expression and thought of an individual — will be greatly affected," said Wong Kim Kong, secretary-general of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship Malaysia that represents about two-thirds ofMalaysia's roughly 4,000 churches.  But he agreed a victory for Ms Joy could spark a Muslim backlash. "This group may sow discord or even create public disorder that will result in greater polarisation of the races and religion in the country," Wong said.


Muslims first, Malaysians second (The Straits Times, 21 August 2006)

If a M'sian Muslim tries to convert... (Today/Reuters, 16 August 2006)

Malaysia braces for ruling on Islam conversion (Reuters, 12 August 2006)

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