04/03/2007, 00.00
MALAYSIA
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Great risk that Sharia law might trump secular law (Overview)

A heated debate is underway in the predominantly Muslim country as to which legal system, Islamic or secular, should prevail in cases involving Muslims and non Muslims in matters regarding the family and freedom of conscience. Here are some examples where Islamic law and Malaysia’s Constitution are at odds with one another. The government is paralysed over the matter.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – Subashini Rajasingham vs Saravan Thangathoray is the latest case to put Malaysia under the scrutiny of foreign media for its ambiguities regarding religious freedom. Subashini Rajasingham is a young woman of Indian origin, a Hindu by religion, who is in a custody battle with her husband over their children. The husband, Saravan Thangathoray, was born a Hindu but converted to Islam last year and became Muhammad Shafi Saravanan Abdullah. Now he wants to divorce his wife and has filed his case before an Islamic court.

The man already has custody of their first child, a three-year-old boy whom he has already converted to Islam. Now he wants the second, a one-year-old boy.

Ms Rajasingham wants instead custody of both children and has turned to the Court of Appeal in order to get the case moved to a secular court, but her request was rejected. But on March 30 she was allowed to appeal to the Federal Court, the highest court in the land, where other similar cases are still pending. Should there be another negative ruling, it would mean that for the first time in the country’s history a non Muslim would have to appear before an Islamic court.

Although the majority of Malaysia’s population is Muslim, there are important Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities. In theory, Islamic courts have jurisdiction only over Muslim. Members of other groups fall under secular courts. Very often though, the two legal systems are at odds with one another. Here are a few cases:

Lina Joy is a woman who was born a Muslim but who converted to Christianity in 1998. She applied for a change to her religious status so that ‘Islam’ could be removed from her identity card (which requires people to show their religion), first at the Vital Statistics Office, then to the Court of Appeal, but was turned down in both instances. Without this change she cannot marry her boyfriend who is a Christian of Indian origin. Now she has gone to the Federal Court, which has not yet ruled on her application. In the meantime, Ms Joy is living in hiding and under protection. Under Sharia law, ‘apostates’ are punished by forced ‘rehabilitation’ or jail time. The Qur’an itself promises “death and damnation” to any Muslim who renounces Islam.

Another case involves Moorthy Maniam, a Malaysian Hindu who was buried with Islamic rites in December 2005. In Malaysia he was a national hero as the first Malaysian to climb Mount Everest, but an Islamic court ruled that before his death he had converted to Islam. His wife challenged the claim but lost before the High Court of Justice.

Something similar happened to Rayappan Anthony, who died in November 2006. A convert to Islam in 1990, he changed his name to Muhamad Rayappan Abdullah, married a second time, to a Muslim woman. His family said that he returned to Christianity in 1999 and was baptised again. His mistake, they say, was that he failed to inform the Religious Affairs Department. Now they must go before an Islamic court to prove his religion if they want to bury him according to Christian rites.

In the last few years, cases like these have led to a heated debate, leading some Muslim lawyers and students to create groups for the “defence of Islam.” But

The government for its part remains weary about possible social unrest and actions by Islamic extremists.

More than a year ago, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi announced that he would find a way to solve the jurisdictional problem between the two legal systems but so far nothing has happened.

The government is examining whether to bring some changes to the legislation regulating marriage and divorce to protect the rights of children of non Muslim spouses, but it has made it clear that it is not willing to change its position on Muslims who leave Islam.

Under Malaysia’s current constitution, Malaysian citizens who are ethnic Malays are ipso facto Muslim, speak the national language and practice its culture. Hence, anyone who renounces Islam is no longer considered Malay.

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Catholic bishop wants constitution respected, Christians protected from Islamic Law
02/04/2007
Lina Joy affair sparks apostasy debate among Muslims
12/06/2007
Islamic court “authorises” conversion from Islam to Buddhism
08/05/2008
A Hindu Lina Joy, subjected to Islamic “re-education”
15/06/2007
A Muslim can renounce his faith, but only as set out by Sharia
01/06/2007