The (Religious) Minorities’ Retort

By Allen V. Estabillo

SHAH ALAM, Selangor, Malaysia – Except for the silver-plated sign at the left corner of its main gate, no one would expect that the walled building along Jalan Pemaju in Section U1/15 of the city of Shah Alam in Selangor State is actually a church.

Not a few visitors of the Glenmarie Industrial Estate during weekdays mistake the two-and-a-half-storey Roman Catholic Church of the Divine Mercy as another assembly or production plant of big-name companies such as Sony Ericsson, Yamaha, Nokia – or maybe even the central kitchen of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But every Sunday morning for the past several months, the Catholic faithful have been travelling at least 15 to 20 minutes from various parts of Shah Alam to the secluded industrial area, where the church has finally found a home — 28 years after the Kuala Lumpur Archdiocese first applied with the Selangor state government to acquire a piece of land on which to build a church for the growing Catholic faithful from the area.

No one, however, is complaining. In fact, the congregation has been in a celebratory mood since the church opened its doors in September 2005.

Yet in another part of the rapidly expanding state capital, grief has yet to leave the devotees of the Hindu Sri Mariaman Temple in Seksyen 11 as they try to take in the loss of their 107-year-old “spiritual home.”  In early June 2006, a rampaging wrecking crew dispatched by the Shah Alam local authorities tore through the temple and reduced it into rubble. The historic temple was ordered destroyed because it was supposedly standing illegally within school grounds, thus violating a government provision on lands allocated for educational purposes.

These contrasting sagas of the non-Muslims in the mainstream Muslim-dominated city of Shah Alam are no longer new for most Malaysians. But they fly in the face of assertions by no less than the prime minister himself that Malaysia remains a “moderate Muslim nation that is sensitive and fair to the aspirations of its multi-racial and multi-religious society.” The emergence of high-profile cases on conversions and apostasy in recent years has also highlighted the renewed challenges facing non-Muslim Malaysians at a greater level, and has placed the national leadership on the defensive regarding policies that many see as eroding the freedom of minority religions in the country.

Of Malaysia’s estimated 25.6 million population, close to 60 percent are Muslims while other religions practiced include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism, Sikhism and Taoism.

Freedom of faith

The 1957 Merdeka (Freedom) Constitution established Islam as the country’s official religion. But it also assured the right of every citizen of Malaysia “to profess and practice his religion and to propagate it” as provided for in Article 11 of the Constitution.

Yet in recent years, countries such as the United States have been prompted to include Malaysia in a list of nine nations in the world with “restricted freedom of religion.”

This has apparently upset the prime minister, who has since taken extra steps to emphasise that Malaysia, despite being a “Muslim nation”, has institutionalised various policies that promote the welfare of all its citizens regardless of religion and race.

In a speech he made in Wellington, New Zealand in March 2005, Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi asserted, “The teachings of Islam are undoubtedly the foundation and inspiration for our actions. But the benefits are intended for equitable sharing by all Malaysians, Muslims as well as non-Muslims alike.”

His views, however, are not shared by several human-rights and civil-society organisations such as the Bar Council, as well as non-Muslim religious groups. In fact, these groups feel that the Muslim-dominated government has failed to ensure that these Constitutional rights are preserved and properly implemented.

“The right to practice our own religion was established in the Constitution but that has not been the case for us Christians and other non-Muslims (here),” says La Salle Bro. Augustine Julian.  “The supposed freedom that we enjoy here is superficial — that’s the real score here (in Malaysia).”

Human-rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, president of the Malaysian Civil Liberties Society or Hakam, also says that cases of intolerance and discrimination against non-Muslims have worsened in the last three years.

“We are in a situation where civil liberties are being undermined repeatedly,” he says. “There is oppression and there is discrimination (in our society). The Constitution is being ignored (by the government) in many ways and some of these actions undermined the rights of the minority religions.”

The Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), for instance, has complained over what it says has been the rather systematic demolition of Hindu temples and shrines across the country in the last 15 years.

London-based rights group Amnesty International (AI), in its 2006 report on the state of the world’s human rights, also notes that non-Muslims in Malaysia have been hounded by the growing intolerance towards them by the Muslim majority, specifically on matters about freedom of religion.

In June 2005, AI says, at least 22 religious sects, including the Muslim Shi’a, were declared by the government as “deviants” as they supposedly hold heretical beliefs that deviate from Sunni Islam. AI says as well that some 58 people, mostly followers of spiritual leader Ayah Pin in Terengganu, were arrested in 2005 for alleged “religious deviancy”.

Cracks in multi-ethnic unity

The situation has come to a point that cracks within the Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society have once more come to fore, threatening the union that the country’s Malays, Chinese, and Indians have worked hard to protect and nurture for more than 35 years now. Relations between the Chinese-Malaysians and the ethnic Malays suffered a rupture in the late 1960s and even turned violent. Since then, however, the country’s ethnic communities have been in relative harmony, which has been made stronger by Malaysia’s economic success over the past 20 years.

Now, though, independent scholar Johan Abdullah, a retired political science professor of the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, warns that the volatile peace could be shattered if both parties, the Muslims and non-Muslims, would not sit down and “resolve the problem by ourselves”.

“We are all affected by this crisis so the best thing to do now is to talk about it,” he says. “We cannot depend on other people to solve this, we have to do it ourselves.”

The academic says that Malaysia’s diverse ethnic composition makes it vulnerable to become divided so easily but he pointed out that it is very much capable of avoiding such scenario by way of a serious dialogue.

For sure, though, Prime Minister Abdullah introduced the notion of Islam Hadhari or Civilisational Islam, which he described as an approach to achieve national order that is “fair and just to all, irrespective of race or religion”.

“We want to show by example that a Muslim country can be modern, democratic, tolerant and economically competitive,” said the premier.

Dr. Patricia Martinez, senior research fellow for culture and religion of the University of Malaya’s Asia-Europe Institute, says the prime minister’s Islam Hadhari reflects a philosophy begun during the Mahathir regime, and means the government wants Malaysia to be a modern and moderate Islamic country. But she also notes that since the heating up of the ruling Barisan Nasional’s political competition with the nation’s biggest opposition Islamic political group Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS), the government seems to have been pushed to become more extreme with regards to the interpretation of Islam.

“Both of these elements exist and they often create an unhealthy and discriminatory atmosphere for non-Muslims,” comments Martinez.

Muslims also affected by restrictions

At the same time, however, human-rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia or Suaram points out that religious restrictions have been levelled not only at non-Muslims, but also to Muslims as well.

“The overzealousness of certain quarters of the authorities to regulate people’s private lives in the name of religion and morality intensified in 2005,” Suaram observed in “Malaysia’s Human Rights Report 2005.”

In one incident, the Kuala Lumpur Department of Religious Affairs raided a nightclub and arrested at least 100 patrons, half of them women, for allegedly showing “indecent behaviour” such as consuming alcohol and dressing inappropriately.

Aside from this, Suaram said a “moral squad” was reportedly set up in Malacca by a youth group allegedly affiliated with the United Malays National Organisation, coalition partner of the ruling Barisan Nasional Party, to spy on wayward Muslim youths.

The group was referring to an earlier plan by the 4B Youth movement led by Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam to set up an Islamic snoop squad dubbed “Mat Skodeng.”  But the creation of these squads, which would specifically spy on couples and to report those who engage in immoral activities, was eventually stopped by Prime Minister Abdullah, who said, “(No) groups should be formed to spy on people on the basis of moral grounds.”

Hakam’s Imtiaz – who is Muslim — says there’s nothing wrong with Abdullah’s approach using Islamic values in governance and national order. But he stresses that this must be separated from mainstream politics. He adds, “The problem here is that all these approaches and concepts are still decided in the end by partisan politics. It has become quite an illusion in the sense that what’s happening on the ground is very much different.”

Imtiaz insists the Malaysian government’s policies have been clearly biased towards Muslims and the government has been using all these supposed Islamic-based policies to gain political edge. For instance, he says, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s statement in 2001 that Malaysia is an Islamic state has been “wrongly” carried all these years despite the fact that it has no Constitutional basis.

“That was nothing but a political statement,” says Imtiaz. “But when you keep on using the language of Islam, you’re creating a mindset of legitimacy among the people independent of the Constitution. And that has resulted to all these problems that the non-Muslims are facing now.”

The charter undermined?

The lawyer, who is also deputy president of Malaysia’s National Human Rights Society (Hakam), says the efforts to undermine the authority of the Constitution when it comes to religious matters have peaked in the last two years. He cites a controversial 2005 decision by the Kuala Lumpur Syariah Court, which ruled that Hindu-born Army Lance Cpl. Moorthy Maniam was a Muslim convert and should therefore be buried as a Muslim, despite what some felt were unclear records of his supposed conversion.

Imtiaz says the Moorthy case highlighted the confusion over the jurisdiction of the civil and syariah court, which was given sole jurisdiction over aspects of Islamic family laws and other related matters by virtue of Article 121 (A) introduced on March 18, 1988 as a Constitutional amendment. Two other cases involving tussles over faith also “show our Constitution’s authority is being ignored in the name of whatever aspirations of some of our leaders that unfortunately use the name of Islam to promote their own biases and interests,” says Imtiaz.

He says that if the Malaysian government is really serious on its pronouncements to maintain a fair and just society, it must restore the authority of the civil courts over the syariah courts.

Francis Pereira, president of the Kuala Lumpur Catholic Lawyers Society, agrees with Imtiaz. “The Constitution is clear and has enough provisions when we speak of Malaysia as a multi-racial and multi-religious state,” he says. “Our freedom to practice our religion is provided there also. But at the end of the day, all these would still go back to the question over the conflict brought about by Article 121(A) so this must be resolved by an immediate amendment.”

Reiterating rights

In early 2006, 13 civil-society organisations formed the Article 11 Coalition to inform Malaysians  — and, it said, to remind the government — of the guarantees provided for in the Federal Constitution about every Malaysian’s right to practice and propagate his or her own religion and be protected from any form of discrimination or injustice.

It was also the core of the coalition, led by Bar Council of Malaysia, which in 2005 had lobbied for the creation of a broad interfaith commission represented by various religions in a bid to uphold freedom of religion as enshrined in the country’s charter. But these proposals were immediately shot down by mainstream Muslim groups, including several Muslim politicians from both Barisan Nasional and PAS, because they seemed to view these as direct attacks against the practice of Islam in Malaysia. As a consequence, Prime Minister Abdullah shelved the endorsement of a draft bill that outlined the establishment of an Inter Faith Commission (IFC) in Malaysia to the Rakyat or Parliament.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia’s (Suhakam) law reform and international treaties working group has been closely watching the issues on freedom of religion, says Long She Lih, the body’s principal assistant secretary. She says, however, that it “has not yet made a definite stand” over the matter.

“We’ve received numerous memorandums or complaints regarding these issues and we have acted on some of them,” she says. “But we are very careful in dealing with them because we are only limited to intervene on issues related to violation of human rights.”

She says that most cases received by Suhakam, which was established in 1999 by virtue of a Federal Act, are already in the courts. The commission, she says, is  “constrained to make any a comment about them.”

But Suhakam issued this view regarding issues on freedom religion in its annual report for 2005: “Religion is an extremely personal matter and it governs only that person’s belief and behaviour. The Federal Constitution guarantees the right of every person to profess and practice his or her religion and to propagate it. To comment on or criticise a religion – even if by someone professing the same religion or more so by someone of another religion – may cause uneasiness and lead to disruption of public order and general welfare in a plural society.”

Allen Estabillo writes for Mindanews, an online news agency run as a cooperative by journalists in the Philippines’ southern provinces.

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