06/12/2007, 00.00
MALAYSIA
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Lina Joy affair sparks apostasy debate among Muslims

Legal experts and Islamic scholars and leaders square off before a large audience in a public debate over the conflict that pits Sharia against civil law in conversion cases. Some believe the issue has not been settled since the Qur’an is silent as to how apostasy should be punished and that what punishment that does exist “is man-made”. Others insist that any dialogue must be preceded by “respect for religion and its experts.”

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) –  The Lina Joy affair remains front-page news in Malaysia as more and more people are interested in the increasingly conflictual relationship between Islamic law and the country’s constitution. As part of this ongoing national dialogue more than 600 people packed a hotel in Petaling Jaya on June 7 to listen to religious scholars, legal experts and Islam specialists discuss the issues of apostasy and religious freedom in Malaysia.

Titled ‘Malaysia after Lina Joy – A Dialogue’, the round-table discussion was organised by an opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP). It centred on the case of an ethnic Malay woman who converted to Christianity and the federal Court’s decision to transfer the matter to an Islamic tribunal. This has put the spotlight on the internal contradictions of the country’s legal system.

Whilst the constitution formally guarantees full religious freedom, it also gives jurisdiction to matters of faith involving ethnic Malays—including conversions—to the country’s Islamic courts, not its civil courts. Malaysia’s supreme charter does in fact recognise two bodies of law, one that is based on the Sharia or Islamic law; the other defined by the constitution. But often the two come into conflict. Lina Joy’s conversion is a case in point since the constitution recognises religious freedom, but Islamic law bans conversions to other religions.

The June 7 debate brought together Muslim leaders, legal experts and social activists. The intervention by Azmin Sharom, associate professor at Universiti Malaya, was particularly well received

“Is apostasy something that is wrong?” he asked. “Yes, it is a sin. It's stated clearly that it’s a great sin. But the Qur’an does not say what the earthly punishment should be. . . . The issue is still open for discussion. What punishment for apostasy that does exist is created by Islamic scholars. This means it’s a man made issue.”

What is more, “if the constitution does grant jurisdiction to the Sharia Court to punish offenders against the precepts of Islam, what are these precepts? This is not explained in the constitution,” Azmin noted.

Instead of focusing on punishment, Muslims should “look inwards” and ask themselves why “young Muslims want to leave their religion.”

“This country,” he explained, “is moving away from a system of secular government and towards an Islamic state.” Instead he insisted: “I believe in a secular system. I believe a secular state is the only system that can protect all religions.”

By contrast, the address by Yusri Mohamad, chairman of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, was often booed. Mr Yusri, who also heads Pembela, an organisation for the defence Islam from secular law, explained that “respect for Islam comes first, dialogue second.”

“Who gets to determine which part of Islam is already settled and definite and which part is still open to debate?” he asked.

What matters is that “there must be respect for authority, specialisation and expertise in Islam.” In his view, even if “there is some space for discussing apostasy laws, matters of faith fall under the jurisdiction of Sharia and respect for Islam is due.”

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