Islamic law in the country's 13 states clashes with the constitution and creates difficulties for non-Muslims. In an interview with the AsiaNews envoy, Leonard Teoh, a Malaysian Catholic lawyer describes the restrictions and violence which are a fruit of Islamic law, and comments on the alarm voiced by the bishops.
Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) The bishops of Malaysia have voiced concern about the increased islamisation of Malaysian society. In this south-east Asian country, islamisation dates back to the sixties. In ensuing decades, it has been used by the majority party, the UNMO (United Malays National Organization) to reinforce the economic standing and policies of the Malay ethnic group and to enhance national consensus. However it has also served the PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) to establish a real and proper Islamic state.
Despite the efforts of the current premier Badawi, which are oriented towards inter-faith dialogue, a good 13 states in the country have approved Sharia, the Islamic law, practically reducing minorities to the status of dhimmi non-Muslim religious groups protected by Islam discriminating against them in employment and freedom of worship.
A few weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of Malaysia published a document in the weekly Catholic Herald (14 August 2005), entitled: "The legal implications of conversions to Islam". The pastors sought to put believers on their guard against apostasy, against possible conversions to Islam as means to an end without fully realizing the consequences of this action. More and more, young Catholic men and women are falling in love with Muslims and in order to get married, they accept to become Muslims. Others become Muslim for the economic advantages this will bring. The bishops warn believers of the gravity of such a choice, which has radical outcomes not only on the level of faith, but also on their legal and civil status. New converts would be subject to Sharia, making it difficult for them to go back on their decision. Although the federal constitution guarantees the individual the freedom to choose his own religion, Muslims and especially Malay are prohibited from doing so.
To better understand the situation and contradictions inherent in Malaysian legislation, AsiaNews caught up with Leonard Teoh, a member of the Association of Catholic Lawyers and an expert in problems linked to freedom of worship.
Dr Teoh, the most urgent theme of the bishops' documents is that of apostasy in Islam. They fear that if neo-converts want to return to Christianity, they will face fines, flogging and imprisonment. What is your view on these Islamic laws which consider the return to one's own faith as a "criminal offence"?
In many areas of Malaysia, if a person decides he no longer wishes to be a Muslim, his declaration must be approved by the Sharia court. It is the court which will decree whether you are a Muslim or not. Once you are Muslim and your father and mother were Muslim, you will always be a Muslim, you will live and die as one. For example, in the stateof Sabah, if a Muslim declares he is no longer such, the Sharia court can detain him for months to re-educate him, after which time he may be sentenced to a year in prison if he has not repented as yet. In the state of Malakka, a six-month imprisonment term has been fixed for the same crime. Other states like Kelantan, Terengganu have promulgated similar laws which punish apostasy cases in the Islamic faith.
Are these provisions against ratifications made by the Federal Constitution regarding freedom of worship? Are any dangers faced by those who freely decide not to profess Islam any longer?
Article 11 of the Constitution states that each has the right to profess, practice and spread his own faith. So when a person declares that he is no longer a Muslim, he is no longer such, and this is a free choice. It is on this basis that we lawyers go to the Sharia court to affirm that a person is no longer Muslim and that the Islamic court no longer has any jurisdiction over him. Further, the law of the state says that Sharia must be applied only to those who profess the religion of Islam. In any case, even if punishments are not officially meted out to non-Muslims, serious problems are created in relations with Muslims. There is confusion in the law: if a Muslim decides not to profess Islam any longer, he does not know where to turn to register his decision to change religion or to leave Islam.
The federal Court, citing art.121/1A will say it does not have the competence to rule on religious matters so it will send the person to the Sharia court. This court will tell people that, according to the state law, it has no power to pass judgement on those who are not Muslims, but only partly so.
The bishops' document warns: "Your conversion to Islam will be registered in your identity card. Consequently, even if you do not practice Islam, you could be fined, whipped, held in custody or imprisoned for violating Sharia laws, for example, praying in church, eating in public during the month of fasting, khalwat and so on."
Once you convert to Islam, your conversion will be registered in your identity card and in the national register. Through digital technology, your adherence will be put online, computerized, that is, made public. This causes no end of problems. If you want to get married only by civil rite, the authorities will check the register and they will tell you: "No! You are a Muslim so you cannot marry only civilly." If former Muslim women with children want to marry a non-Muslim, they risk being accused of zina (illicit sexual relations). In the case of zina, a woman could even be condemned to a prison sentence. Islamic authorities are becoming very strict and they are handing down prison sentences even in cases of khalwat. Khalwat means closeness, nearness. The crime is committed when, according to the Sharia, a woman and a man are found in a solitary place and comporting themselves in a close and familiar manner.
The reality is that one may convert to Islam, knowing little or nothing about the Islam faith. But once converted, for the state you will always a Muslim, in so far as your civil status is registered as such.
On mixed marriages, the document says: "You cannot marry a non Muslim. If you decide to divorce and to seek to convert from Islam, you will lose the custody of your children because they are Muslims."
Our civil law says that a Muslim person cannot ask to marry a non Muslim. If you have a Muslim name, or if you converted to Islam, the department for the registration of marriages will not give you the permission to marry a non-Muslim person. In Islamic law, the custody of children is called hadana (the mother's custody of the child). The woman has the right to custody of her children only if they are under 12 years. But if she does not adhere to the Islamic faith, she loses custody of her children. If she has renounced Islam or does not practice the religion anymore, the mother will lose the right of custody of her children, and this will be granted to the husband's mother, that is, the grandmother, because the children are considered as Muslims since their mother was a Muslim at the time of their birth.
The bishops raise some very delicate topics, like the property law, the burying of the dead and cases where the wife in a Christian marriage converts to Islam: "In the event of death, your non-Muslim relatives would lose their rights to the property, money and so on which you want to leave to them. The body of a convert to Islam will be taken from his... non-Muslim family for Islamic rites and burial, even if you had not been a practicing Muslim for many years." "In the case that your wife converts to Islam, you will not have any right over your children or your property."
According to the Sharia, non-Muslims cannot inherit the property of a Muslim. A case in point happened in the state of Malakka. A Chinese converted to Islam with telling his wife anything. When he died, all his property went to the Islamic Department of the state. The event provoked such a scandal that the governor of the state of Malakka was constrained to declare that he wanted to give the family back half of the confiscated property. This is only one case, which ended well thanks to the publicity it was given and the ensuing uproar, but many people, especially youth, are not aware that once they convert to Islam, their non-Muslim family will not be able to inherit their property.
When a Muslim dies, the police claim his body so it will be buried according to Islamic rites. But if the deceased was no longer a Muslim, their relatives must take his body to the police station to ask permission to bury the deceased according to the rites of the religion he practiced. In some cases the police granted permission but when the family went back home, the police called the Department of Religious Affairs and took away the body that same evening. In the case of a wife who converts to Islam, there is a state sentence in the Federal Department of Kuala Lumpur, which actually affirms that when one of the parents converts to Islam, the offspring automatically convert to the Islamic faith.