Viewpoint: The Time For Consultation Is Over - By Zaid Ibrahim

The Government's decision to withdraw the Conversion Bill is welcomed.

Although the Deputy Prime Minister was quick to add the decision to withdraw had been made "for now", implying that it could reintroduce the Bill in the near future, let's hope the Government will let the lessons from this experience guide its actions from this point forward.

The first lesson is this: the Cabinet must never again succumb to outside pressure when formulating laws and policies. When the Law Reform Act (Marriage and Divorce) 1976, Administration of Islamic Law Act (Federal Territories 1993) and Islamic Family Law Act 1984 (collectively the Bills) were introduced in 2009, they were withdrawn purportedly because the Conference of Rulers had objected to certain parts of the Bills pertaining to the religious conversion of a minor. The Government had tabled the Bills as a comprehensive solution to the issues of custody and religious conversions after conflicts arose between Muslim and non-Muslim parents.

These Bills had taken years to be formulated and the Attorney-General's Chambers had been diligent and meticulous in making sure all relevant stakeholders, including the muftis and religious councils, had been consulted. So it came as a surprise when the Bills were withdrawn at the behest of Conference of Rulers.

Had the Government stood firm, as it should have, then we wouldn't have to endure the fracas of recent days. The three Bills need to be reintroduced and the question of consulting with other stakeholders, as the DPM alluded to, is no longer necessary. These Bills have had their fair share of being the subject of consultation. How many years must we deliberate over a policy just because a segment of society is not happy with it?

The second lesson is this: even on matters of  Islam, the Conference of Rulers is not the final arbiter on laws and policies. The Government is. The Government is responsible to the people and Islam. The Government is elected by the people to make laws. The Rulers can convey their views through the respective muftis but that's all they're entitled to do.

Some Islamist bureaucrats might have access to the Rulers and influence them to hinder laws being passed by the lawful government of the day. The people, Muslims included, must resist this.

As for the final lesson: when debating this controversial issue, let's not resort to using only our own understanding of religion to resolve a conflict involving people of various beliefs. One PAS ulama said the shariah must be followed in this matter, which means the father is the lawful parent who determines the religion of the minor. He would not hear the circumstances of the case and he would not listen to other Islamic scholars.

This kind of unilateral approach is not at all useful. If we only allow for a narrow understanding of the shariah, then one day we may also entertain the idea that the monarchy is "unislamic" since there is no reference in Islam about this system of government. We must not use shariah as and when we think it suits us.

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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