Pro-Muslim tilt in Malaysia's courts

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jan 29 17:06:01 UTC 2008

from the January 29, 2008 edition -

Pro-Muslim tilt in Malaysia's courts

Observers say civil courts often defer to Islamic courts on key issues.
By Simon Montlake | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

An Islamic court ruled last week that a Malaysian man receive a Muslim
burial, despite insistence by most of his family that he hadn't converted
to Islam. His son, a Muslim, maintained that he had. Such cases have
become more common in Malaysia, whose leaders tout their multiracial
democracy as a model of Islamic moderation and economic success. It's a
claim echoed by American diplomats and Muslim intellectuals seeking a
credible counterpoint to extremist voices in the Islamic world.

But the promises of religious and ethnic pluralism that nurtured a
generation of Malaysians have begun to unravel. A pro-Muslim shift among
lawyers and judges is alarming Christians, Hindus, and other non-Muslims
who make up about 40 percent of the population. The remainder are
predominantly ethnic Malay-Muslims, who benefit from affirmative-action
programs to redress historic economic disparities.

Diplomats, lawyers, and religious leaders say that Malaysia's race-based
coalition government  a power-sharing formula unchanged since independence
in 1957  is failing to address growing ethnic tensions fed by pro-Malay
discrimination and a growing stress on Islamic governance. Minorities are
largely invisible in the ranks of police, military, and civil service,
while schools are increasingly segregated by race and language.

Although religious worship is freely practiced in Malaysia, Christians
complain they can't get permits to build churches. Last month, a Roman
Catholic newspaper was barred by the government from using "Allah"  "god"
in the Malay language  to refer to a Christian God. The previous month,
tens of thousands of Indian Hindus clashed with ethnic-Malay riot police
during a heated rally over alleged social and religious discrimination.

The tensions haven't led to mass unrest, though, allowing Malaysia to
continue advertising its stability to foreign investors. Its capital,
Kuala Lumpur, displays new suburbs linked by smooth highways and a modern

Critics argue that pro-Malay policies introduced in 1971 have served their
purpose, while antagonizing minorities. But government officials defend
the race-based allocation of resources. "Without political stability and
socioeconomic stability and consensus-based principles, there's not enough
to distribute," says Nor Mohamed Yakcop, second finance minister.

The sharp end of the religious wedge is Malaysia's legal system. Assertive
Islamic shariah courts, backed by Muslim bureaucrats, have forced civil
courts to retreat on sensitive issues such as interfaith conversions.
Lawyers say several recent judgments have eroded the civil rights of
non-Muslims and highlighted a creeping Islamization in a secular

A prominent case in 2006 pitted a Hindu widow against Islamic authorities
who claimed the body of her husband, an Army corporal, for a Muslim
burial. A civil court declined to rule on whether he had converted to
Islam, deferring to the shariah court. Last year, a court refused to
uphold a Malay woman's conversion to Christianity.

"We can't depend on the judiciary. Every case where a Muslim is involved
in a dispute, the outcome isn't favorable for us," says A. Vaithilingam, a
Hindu community leader.

Also troubling, say lawyers and analysts, is conservatives' reaction to
public debate on such issues. A proposed interfaith commission was shelved
in 2005 after Islamists objected to the inclusion of liberal Muslim

Far from confronting these extremists, Malaysian leaders have resorted to
media blackouts on sensitive topics. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak
tried to end the debate last July by saying that Malaysia was an Islamic
state, not a secular state, raising eyebrows among constitutional lawyers.

The judiciary has also been tainted by graft allegations and political
tampering. A royal commission began hearings on Jan. 14 into corruption in
the appointment of judges.

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a human rights lawyer, traces the shift in the
judiciary to the 1980s when the government tried to outdo political
opponents by promoting Islam among civil servants and judges. At the same
time, a purge of judges and a constitutional amendment to reinforce the
jurisdiction of shariah courts removed a secular brake on Malay-Muslim
policymakers. "We've let the tiger out of the cage, and we're trying to
catch it by the tail," says Mr. Imtiaz.

Aides to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi say he's aware of the sensitivity
of recent legal judgments but won't intervene in shariah courts. A better
way, they say, is to gradually appoint senior federal judges who will
defend civil safeguards on religious freedom.

Mr. Badawi, an Islamic scholar who took office in 2003, said at a UN
conference this month that Islam respected cultural and religious
diversity, and that Muslim governments should put social justice before
popularity. "A true Muslim will also not abdicate the principle of
fairness in managing ethnic relations even if it makes him somewhat
unpopular within his own ethnic community," he said.

But his actions in office haven't spoken as loudly, says Bridget Welsh, a
professor at John Hopkins University. "What you're seeing is a serious
deterioration of race relations."


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