Viewpoint: Religious Harmony

This viewpoint has been expressed by Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, President of KITA in his blog.

The Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) recently organised a roundtable dialogue on building bridges among religions.

Fr Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot (left), Rector of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Vatican, was the main guest, and he was accompanied by other distinguished figures including the Most Rev Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam, Senator Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon of the Prime Minister’s Office as well as social activists.

As expected, the Muslim side was somewhat under-represented. This was no fault of the organisers: Muslim religious leaders and intellectuals somehow do not see the value in this kind of discourse and engagement.

That, in a nutshell is the problem in this country. Muslim religious leaders generally are fond of taking a hardline approach to issues involving religious discourse. There is no talk, no discussion and certainly no discourse. These hardliners are fond of reminding Muslims that Islam is not for discussion like other religions, and that Muslims must be cautious of attempts to convert them or to subvert their faith. They remind Muslims that human rights, dignity and personal freedoms have “limits” in a country where the Islamic faith is the official creed. This attitude is very unMalay and unIslamic, but regrettably it is the prevailing situation today.

Segregation in schools, where non-Malays attend Moral classes and Muslims attend religious classes, has had its desired effect. Now there is complete distrust and separation between the Muslims and non-Muslims. It has reached a critical point when even teachers are unable to convey basic concepts like respect for, and tolerance of, others who profess different beliefs.

Even at the highest levels, our leaders and Parliamentarians have shown themselves to be too scared to discuss and debate these issues in three important bills in 2009: the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 1993, and the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act 1984. If passed, amendments would have helped resolve issues of conversion and some of the problems faced by parents of different faiths when they divorce.

The amendments would have enabled Muslim converts to file for divorce in civil courts and would have allowed civil courts to decide cases dealing with child custody, alimony, the division of harta sepencarian (jointly-acquired matrimonial property), the religious conversion of children, and the administration of the assets of a Muslim convert who dies before the annulment of his civil marriage (this would also have included rights of burial).

Furthermore, an amendment to section 14 of the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act would empower a shariah judge to allow a convert to marry, while subsection 46(2) would be deleted altogether to prevent overlapping shariah and civil jurisdictions.

Had the Government proceeded with these Bills (and assuming that they had passed into law) we would likely see far fewer cases of child-conversion and “body-snatching” than we do today. And even if these cases did occur, there would be a clear legal framework to deal with them.

Lest we forget, the people who came up with these progressive ideas were senior members of the Government: Minister in the PM’s Department Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom, Dr Koh, Datuk Dr S. Subramaniam (the Human Resources Minister), and Senator Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil (the Minister for Women, Family and Community Development) and the Attorney General himself .

As such, however, both Bills were withdrawn in 2009 itself, ostensibly so that they could be discussed by the Conference of Rulers in depth, and that was the last we heard of it.

I now urge the Prime Minister to retake the initiative in these three Bills. The amendments are definitely a step in the right direction – and taking progressive steps is especially urgent because the status quo has long become untenable. Moreover, it is an excellent opportunity for the Prime Minister to test how far the Pakatan Rakyat will go to support these Bills for the good of religious harmony in Malaysia.

I sincerely hope that these Bills will come before Parliament again in the coming sitting. Their debate and eventual passage into law would be another historic milestone for a Prime Minister who is still in his first term. These are breakthrough legislations that our Parliament need to address.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Catholic Lawyers Society Kuala Lumpur. CLS makes no representation concerning, and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented.

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