Death of religious tolerance in Malaysia

By Greg Sheridan, Kuala Lumpur
From The Australian of December 27, 2006

LAWYER Malik Imtiaz Sawar seems a most unlikely person to attract death threats. A small, softly spoken, friendly man, the impression he gives is above all one of consideration.
What has earned him the death threats is his appearance in court on behalf of Lina Joy, a case that has become a battleground of Malaysian political and cultural identity, and of freedom of religion.
The case highlights what some analysts believe is the Arabisation of Malaysian Islam, a dynamic that can also be seen in Indonesia.
Lina Joy was once a Muslim but has converted to Christianity. She didn't do so to make any broad point or to lead any social movement. It was entirely a private decision. But in Malaysia the state takes official notice of your race and religion.
Lina Joy tried to get herself deregistered as a Muslim and reregistered as a Christian. As a Muslim she is not allowed to marry a Christian man and any children she has must be brought up as Muslims.
When the state authorities refused to accept her conversion she appealed to the courts on the basis of Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.
The case, in which judgment could be given at any time, has polarised Malaysia. Many Muslims believe apostasy - changing your religion - is not only a sin but should be punishable by death.
Imtiaz told The Australian that traditionally Malaysia was pragmatic and liberal about such matters. Apostasy would always cause a social reaction but if a Malaysian converted they could make this official by changing their name and publicising the change.
In recent years, however, a body of case law has grown up that requires a Malaysian to go before a sharia - Muslim religious - court to get a kind of exit permit from the religion.
Sharia courts, Imtiaz argues, were only ever meant to consider a fairly narrow range of family matters exclusively for Muslims, not to impinge fundamentally on a citizen's relationship to the state.
But the Lina Joy case, and a raft of others involving similar issues, have touched off a wave of Islamist activism in Malaysia. There has been a rash of anti-apostasy campaigns. Islamic defenders' groups, mirroring those in Indonesia but without the violence, have been set up.
A crazy text message spread to the effect that there was to be a mass baptism of Islamic converts in northern Malaysia. It led to much hysteria but was baseless.
Then came the death threats to Imtiaz, a Muslim, with posters branding him an enemy of Islam and urging his murder.
It is important not to exaggerate Malaysia's problems. Malaysia remains a mostly peaceful, prosperous and law-abiding society in which the different races and religions mostly rub along OK. But there is a good deal of evidence that popular Malay Muslim attitudes are hardening, are being at least somewhat Arabised.
A well conducted survey of Malay attitudes recently found that a majority of Malays think of themselves first as Muslims, rather than as Malays or Malaysians, the one civic identity that embraces all of Malaysia's races and religions.
The same survey also shows that Malays tend to conceive of Malaysia as an Islamic state, and want it in the future to be more Islamic. Similarly, while supporting freedom of religion, there is little community support for the idea that a Muslim has the right to change their religion.
Says Noordin, a young Malaysian working in the non-government sector: "When I was growing up here there weren't as many people cloaked in religious piety. In Malaysia it (the process of Arabisation) denotes a sense of insecurity about our comprehension of Islam, and of our place in Islam. We have more Muslims in Southeast Asia than anywhere else but we still look to the Middle East to set the standard.
"Unfortunately, when we think of Islam here we think of it in its Middle Eastern guise."
Haji Zaid Kamaruddin does not agree with Noordin. Kamaruddin is the president of Jamaah Islah Malaysia, a non-government organisation that aims for the full implementation of Islamic sharia law by 2020.
I meet Kamaruddin in JIM's modest offices in a Kuala Lumpur shopping centre. One of his book cases contains English-language titles. Some of these are leadership manuals. But I am struck by the familiarity of so many other titles. There is Rogue State, which denounces US foreign policy, there is a book by George Soros, who denounces George W. Bush, and inevitably there is Noam Chomsky, the chief denouncer of them all.
Kamaruddin, an amiable, balding man with a pious goatee, is no extremist. He stresses the obligation of courtesy and good treatment that all humans owe to each other regardless of religion. And he wants Malaysia to evolve to a sharia state, not have it forced on the society.
He does not use the term "Arabisation" of Malaysian Islam, but, revealingly, he talks approvingly of the standardisation of Islam, a beneficial consequence, he believes, of the information revolution.
"Traditional Malay Islam is becoming more like international Islam," he says.
I ask Kamaruddin whether it is not the case that it says in the Koran that apostasy is punishable by death.
"Let me check the precise reference," he says, rising to consult a religious book.
After a few moments he gives up the search for the particular reference and continues: "That is the general understanding among the ulamma (Muslim people) that it is punishable by capital punishment. But there is the question of how this should be handled. In Islam, punishment is the last resort - the first is to encourage the good. But this system (in Malaysia) is not an Islamic system so there is no authority that will enforce it. But even in an Islamic society as practised in the time of the Prophet, you don't seek out those who have converted and hunt them down.
"This is the difficulty where the state has not lived up to its responsibility to uphold Islam. I don't think it's relevant here."
Malaysia's Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, himself an Islamic scholar, has pioneered the concept of Islam Hadari, by which he means a tolerant and inclusive Islam. Abdullah is certainly a foe of extremism and a beacon of tolerance in his own society.
But even Islam Hadari, Imtiaz argues, suggests a special role specifically for Islam in determining the constitutional relationship between the state and the citizen.
Zaid Ibrahim, a politician from the ruling United Malays National Organisation and a successful commercial lawyer, worries more about racial than religious attitudes. "Obviously we must have done something right in the past, but race relations are fragile," he says.
This is evident in schooling. Only 6 per cent of Chinese Malaysian students attend national schools, which are meant to be for all races. The Chinese prefer Chinese schools. This may be partly because of the increasing role of Islam in national schools.
Khairy Jamaluddin is the deputy president of the UMNO, a much more powerful position than it sounds. Oxford educated, suave and polished in every way, he is also married to the Prime Minister's daughter and destined for great things.
He accepts the proposition of a greater degree of Arabisation and Islamisation in Malaysia over the past few years but offers a wider context: "There's nothing particularly new about the Arabisation of Islam around the world. You see the rise of Islamic movements of a more conservative type after the oil shocks of the 1970s and Iranian revolution produced a surge of Islamic consciousness.
"Today is the culmination of two decades of the Islamic situation. Islam has a more conservative colour today, yes. Default position is a more conservative one. It also has something to do with the post-9/11 world. There is a feeling that Muslims are under siege."
Khairy adds that this deepening religiosity is not unique to the Muslim world. "Look at non-Muslim societies like the United States. The conservative population is larger than the liberal population. It's really a worldwide trend."
Malaysia's success, and its social strength, remain formidable and it is overall a tolerant and decent society. But the trend for cultural, religious and ultimately political norms to be imported from the Middle East is unmistakable, and must be profoundly troubling.


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