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A Matter of Personal Faith?
Concern grows over an 'Islamizing' trend

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) takes its religion seriously. For years, Malaysia's key opposition party has tried to pass various Islamic laws, including one prescribing the death penalty for Muslims who leave the faith. Now it appears the government is taking a leaf out of Pas's books. Earlier this year, one of the states passed a law providing for apostates to be detained for "rehabilitation" for up to a year. Then on Sept. 17, the parliamentary secretary in the prime minister's department said a federal Restoration of Faith Bill, dealing with similar matters, had been drafted and sent to the attorney-general prior to being tabled in Parliament.

A sign of things to come? Maybe not. On Sept. 29, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, never a zealot in religious matters, called the parliamentary secretary "a little mixed up" and noted that debate over apostasy had been going on for more than 1,400 years. "There is still a difference of opinion about what it is and what to do to people who have committed murtad [apostasy]," he said. He added that the proposed bill had many weaknesses and it would take some time before it was finalized.

Confused by the mixed signals? So are many Malaysians. The various pieces of legislation are part of a race between Pas and Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to claim the mantle of defender of the Muslim faith. They also reflect a process, begun in the 1970s, of Islam entering the public domain; as religious consciousness has grown, so has concern over Muslims renouncing their faith. Now both Muslims and non-Muslims worry about the implications of such legislation in a multireligious society.

A quick primer: Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, but the country is not an Islamic state. Article 11(1) of the Federal Constitution guarantees every Malaysian "the right to profess and practice his religion." But ethnic Malays, who with other indigenous bumiputras make up about 55% of the total population, are considered Muslims by birth: The Constitution defines a Malay as "a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language and conforms to Malay customs."

UMNO, the dominant party in the ruling coalition, has traditionally had a lock on this Malay-Muslim bloc, but in the Nov. 29 general elections last year, at least half of the ethnic Malay voters opted for the opposition — a result of the fallout from the controversial sacking and jailing of former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim. Pas, whose conservative agenda includes setting up an Islamic state, retained control of northeastern Kelantan state and gained neighboring Trengganu state. It almost quadrupled its seats in Parliament and its president took over as opposition leader.

• What is apostasy?
According to the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, it is "any acts or words" that are "detrimental to or have contradicted the Islamic faith" and have been committed "in good faith, voluntarily and with knowledge and without coercion by anyone or situation." The Islamic Faith Protection Bill passed by Perlis state does not directly mention apostasy, but makes references to "any act by a Muslim who is a mukallaf [adult subject to Islamic laws] on his own free will either by word, deed or by any means that may be interpreted as an attempt to change his aqidah [faith] and belief towards the religion of Islam."

• How should one deal with apostates?
Conservative Muslims believe in punishments, ranging from jail terms to the death sentence. Progressives, however, cite the Koranic verse, "Let there be no compulsion in religion," and say it should be left to God to deliver the final judgment on those who fall away from the faith.
The government has been trying to fight back on Pas's own terms. In personal and family matters (such as succession, betrothal, marriage, divorce and adoption), Muslims are bound by the Islamic shariah law. Shariah law is under state jurisdiction and each state has exclusive legislative and executive authority. In March, northwestern Perlis state passed the Islamic Faith Protection Bill 2000, which empowers shariah enforcement officers to investigate suspected apostates. An unrepentant offender would be detained for up to a year in a faith rehabilitation center. If, after detention, he still refuses to repent, the shariah judge may declare that he is no longer a Muslim, dissolve his marriage and determine his liabilities or obligations. Former Supreme Court judge Harun Hashim says the Perlis provisions, which have not yet been implemented, were modeled after the federal Restoration of Faith bill, which he helped draft. "Our objective is to standardize Islamic law throughout the country and codify it," he says.

Pas dismisses the government moves as little more than a ploy. The Perlis and federal bills, says Pas secretary-general Nasharudin Mat Isa, are a "response to our pressure, a political move rather than a real effort to come up with an Islamic solution." Abdul Rahman Embong, a senior research fellow at the National University of Malaysia's Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, agrees that UMNO is responding to developments which may include the "erosion of the Malay heartland" in the general elections. But, he adds, "there is no consensus within the UMNO leadership." Some groups within the party may be trying to "out-Islamize" Pas, but Deputy PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has stressed that UMNO would continue its moderate stand.

Still, Chinese and Indian Malaysians, who number around 7 million, are worried. If the federal apostasy bill is tabled in Parliament, says Kerk Kim Hock, secretary-general of the predominantly Chinese opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), "it would certainly confirm the non-Muslims' fears that UMNO is ready to compete with Pas." The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism has urged the government not to enact laws that will inhibit "the development of a progressive, cooperative and cohesive Malaysian society."

Researcher Abdul Rahman believes that since the 1970s Muslims in Malaysia have felt "a growing consciousness" of their religion. "It has become more meaningful and entered the public domain," he says. In response, the government over the years adopted Islamic policies and introduced such institutions as Islamic banking, insurance and tertiary education. UMNO Supreme Council member Shahrir Abdul Samad adds that the new legislation could be a response to the issue of apostasy that was raised in the run-up to last year's polls: "The general public was asking why the government was not strict with people who renounced Islam."

But even among Muslims, opinion is divided over the issue. Former judge Harun Hashim says that all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence are unanimous in decreeing punishment for apostates. He quotes ninth-century jurist Al-Bukhari: "It is reported by Abbas [cousin of the Prophet Muhammad] . . . that the messenger of Allah said: Whosoever changes his religion [from Islam to anything else], bring an end to his life."

But others claim that apostasy is a matter of individual faith that should be left to God to judge. Sisters in Islam, a group advocating women's rights within the Islamic framework, cites the Koran: "Let there be no compulsion in religion." Its members note that in some 20 Koranic verses on belief and disbelief, no temporal punishment is prescribed for apostasy. Abdul Rahman asks: "Why the need for legislation? Any problem should be handled via education and counseling, not by punitive measures. You shouldn't create the impression that Muslims are so fragile in their faith that you have to legislate to keep them in faith."

Given the diverse opinions over the matter, Abdul Rahman thinks that UMNO could divide the Muslim community further with its apostasy push — which would be ironic, given that the main aim of the initiative is seen as wooing back the Malay voters it lost in November. The government, it seems, has yet to get a full grasp of differentiating between the personal and the political.

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