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A Vigil for Malaysia
By Farish A. Noor
After years of beating about the bush and trying to sweep the issue under the carpet, Malaysia’s government is now forced to address one vital and visible constituency that it can no longer avoid: The non-Muslim minorities of the country. Observers of Malaysia’s convoluted racial and religious communitarian politics will know that things have not been so rosy for the country over the past few years. Since 2005, the Malaysian public has witnessed the spectacle of angry demonstrations, public debates and the
complex legal drama of several Malaysian citizens who have been trying – in vain – to have their religious status and identity recognised by the state.
The most visible and well-known case to date has been that of Lina Joy, a Malaysian of Malay-Muslim background who had converted to Christianity years ago and who has been trying to have her new religious identity accepted and recognised legally so that she can marry her Christian boyfriend. Lina’s stand has always been consistent: That as a Christian she sees no reason why she should submit herself to the rule of Muslim law to be recognised as an apostate in the first place, for doing so would mean criminalising herself.
Furthermore it is also unclear what the outcome of a Shariah trial would be as the double legal system that operates in Malaysia means that each state has a religious court of its own, and it is known that in some Malaysian
states the act of leaving the religion is seen as a crime and is thus punishable.
Lina has, however, been the focus of anger and frustration of many Malay-Muslims who see her act of leaving Islam as a betrayal of her racial and religious community, and over the past two years she has been forced to live in hiding thanks to the death threats she has received. Recently the
country’s highest court ruled that she would have to seek recourse to the Shariah courts after all if she wants to be recognised as a Christian, a move she is unwilling to make, and which now leaves her in a permanent state of limbo in her own country.
Now the Malaysian public is witness to another controversial case, that of Revathi (b. Siti Fatimah), a Malaysian of Indian background who has been taken to an ‘Islamic rehabilitation camp’ in the state of Selangor on the grounds that she cannot be officially recognised as a Hindu. Revathi’s case involves her struggle to be recognised as a Hindu after being brought up by her parents who are Muslims. For much of her life, however, Revathi who had lived with her grandmother had lived as a Hindu and had married a Hindu man. Now she has been separated from her husband and sent to a ‘rehabilitation camp’ so that she can be persuaded to return to Islam.
All these cases involved the tricky interfaces where racial, ethnic and religious identities meet and overlap. In many of the cases legal tensions arise as a result of couples who wish to marry or live together, but are prevented from doing so due to the dual secular and religious legal systems that operate in the country. Furthermore Malaysia has witnessed a steady expansion of the Islamic legal system and the parallel Islamic bureaucracy since the 1980s, when Malaysia’s Islamisation programme was spearheaded by the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and his Deputy Anwar Ibrahim. Almost three decades on, it would appear as if the Shariah legal system and the parallel Islamic bureaucracy is as strong as the federal government, and the country is policed by state-appointed ‘morality police’ who patrol the clubs, restaurants, cinemas and other public spaces for signs of ‘un-Islamic behaviour’.
Needless to say, Malaysians of all creeds and races have begun to ask: What is the government of Abdullah Badawi doing to curb these tendencies, and where is Malaysia heading?
Fed up with what they see as the singular failure of the current Badawi administration to defend the secular constitution of the country, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism
and Taoism (MCBCHST) have issued a protest letter entitled Unity Threatened by Continuing Infringements of Religious Freedom. The protest letter contains a memorandum originally submitted to the Malaysian government in
2005, asking the government to take steps to ensure that religious freedom would be respected and protected in Malaysia. But now with the failure of Lina Joy at the courts and with the detention of Revathi by the state’s
religious authorities, non-Muslims in Malaysia feel that they can no longer protest in silence.
In a significant gesture pregnant with symbolic meaning, the MCBCHST has organised a candlelight vigil at the Merdeka (Independence) square in downtown Kuala Lumpur, where Malaysian independence was first proclaimed half a century ago this year. The vigil is meant in support of Revathi, the Malaysian citizen who now faces an unknown fate detained in one of the country’s ‘Islamic rehabilitation centres’ and separated from her husband
and child. No doubt, the country’s non-Muslims are worried about where the trend of religious-based politics is taking Malaysia, and there as many Muslims who likewise have questioned the wisdom behind the government’s overtly political attempts to turn Islam into part of the state’s ruling ideology.
In the end, however, cases like Revathi’s and Lina Joy’s revolve around the fundamental freedom to believe in what one believes, and to be recognised as such. The Muslim majority in Malaysia are not Muslims because their identity
cards and passports tell them they are, but because they simply are, and exist, as Muslims. The time has come for the laws of the land to recognise that being Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist in Malaysia has little to do
with paperwork and legal technicalities, but in the more fundamental nature of existential being itself. Until then however, those trapped in the legal chasm where Revathi and Lina Joy are in at the present are the unfortunate victims of a legal system at odds with itself and which oddly defend freedom of belief for some and yet not for others…