Malaysia's minorities unite against
Sharia By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's minorities are
banding together to put up a united front against
what they fear is a steady encroachment of Sharia
(Islamic law) into their lives.
by the decision of a court last month that it had
no jurisdiction in Islamic matters and that a
non-Muslim had no remedy under common law, the
minorities, led by moderate leaders, are putting
up stiff resistance.
Observers say the
resistance has placed the government of Prime
Minister Abdullah Badawi in a delicate position
because it needs
balance the competing demands from the majority
Muslims. While non-Muslims want common law and the
secular constitution of Malaysia preserved and
protected, Muslims demand a society based on
Sharia ("path to the watering
hole") denotes the Islamic way of life rather than
a code of justice, although some Muslim countries
have instituted it as the law to be enforced by
the courts. But the actual application of Sharia
varies greatly from country to country and few
enforce it on non-Muslims.
In Malaysia, a
strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction has been
building up among the country's minority
communities against fundamentalists pushing the
Islamic way into many matters - from banking and
halal food to family matters, education and
personal issues such as religious conversion.
In effect, two parallel societies - Muslim
and non-Muslim - have gradually replaced what was
a pluralistic, secular Malaysian society based on
common law that was the legacy British colonials
handed over upon independence in 1957.
Indigenous Malays, nearly all of whom
follow Islam, constitute 60% of Malaysia's 24
million population, while Chinese, who are mostly
Buddhists, make up 30% and the largely Hindu
Indians another 8%. There are smaller racial
groups such as Eurasians.
Malay is the
official language and Islam the official religion
but the constitution guarantees freedom of
worship, although this provision, according to the
minorities, has been gradually and systematically
The last straw was the forced
burial last month of a 36-year-old soldier and
mountaineer, M Moorthy, as a Muslim, over the
protest of his Hindu wife. Judge Mohamed Raus
Sharif ruled that his civil court had no
jurisdiction to hear an application by S Kaliammal
that her husband was Hindu.
to alter an ex parte judgment, obtained
from a Sharia court by the Islamic Affairs
Department Sharia, that deemed that the dead man
had converted to Islam - in effect telling
non-Muslims that they have no remedy in such
The protest has, thus far, been
peaceful - a candlelight vigil at Sharif's office,
a signature campaign, and a memorandum to the
In addition, about 30
influential Hindu organizations have formed an
umbrella Hindu Rights Action Force (HRAF) to
protect the rights of minorities to religious
freedom. The HRAF mounted a protest outside the
palace this week and petitioned the king, who is
constitutionally the head of Islam, to intervene.
"The presiding judge, by refusing to dwell
in the said matter, has effectively failed to
exercise his legitimate right as an umpire
conferred upon him by the federal constitution,"
they said in their petition.
opinion this is nothing but a serious misconduct
on the part of the judge," their petition argued.
"This practice cannot be tolerated and must never
be encouraged in a multiracial society, as it
could have far-reaching effects.
decision has tarnished the image of the judiciary
and brought disrepute," the petition said. "The
public wants to have continued assurance that the
judicial system would prevail and has supremacy
over all other bodies, both Islamic and
The crux of their demand is
a repeal of Article 121 (1A) of the constitution
that was amended in 1988 to state that the civil
court had no jurisdiction on matters under the
purview of the Sharia court.
Siang, the opposition leader, led calls for
constitutional change at a forum attended by more
than 100 politicians, lawyers, activists and
representatives of all the minority groups. "We
would like to call for the repeal of the amendment
and a restoration of the pre-1988 article," he
However, Muslim organisations have
warned that any attempt to repeal Article 121 (1A)
would be strongly resisted.
National Force (TERAS), a Malay non-government
organization, said in a statement that Article 121
(1A) provided specific guarantees that the civil
court will not interfere in Islamic matters.
"The Sharia court should not be seen as an
institution that denies justice to non-Muslims. On
the contrary, if its laws are fully applied, there
is an assurance of better justice here compared to
civil laws, which are the heritage of British
colonial rule," said TERAS president Mohamad Azmi
Human-rights lawyer P
Uthayakumar asked: "How can anyone even suggest
such a remedy to non-Muslims? What becomes of the
civil law, the judicial system and the secular
"We non-Muslims have
suffered long enough. The government should
intervene immediately and put an end to non-Muslim
fears and misery," he said. "The uncertainties
have gone on for far too long."
has highlighted the long-standing uneasy
relationship between the civil and the Sharia
court systems and the potential for an explosive
encounter in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious
society showcased to the world as a tolerant
nation of peace.
Some government ministers
are arguing for a secular constitutional court to
rule on matters involving conversion. "If we let
the Muslim court decide this, justice might not be
served because it would decide in favor of Islam,"
said Nazri Aziz, minister for parliamentary
Abu Talib Othman, chairman of the
Human Rights Commission and former attorney
general, blamed the situation on judges who feared
to apply the common law. "The problem today is
created by courts who have no courage to comply
with the oath of office they took," he told a
recent public forum on the controversy,
criticizing Sharif for refusing to overrule the
Sharia court in the case of the dead soldier.
It is common knowledge, though rarely
mentioned, that Muslim judges are reluctant to
apply common-law principles in cases involving
Islamic matters. "They fear Allah's punishment
more then the wrath of their country's citizens,"
said one lawyer. "It is a growing problem."
Abdullah has offered a cautious response.
"I am looking into the matter and hope to prevent
problems like this from happening," he said this
But non-Muslims, who fear that
Sharia is becoming the supreme law of the land,
want more than soothing words to alleviate their
anxiety that common law and the civil justice
system are under threat.