Thursday, March 04, 2010

Who speaks for Islam?

By Deborah Loh

CAN non-Muslims speak about Islam? For that matter, can faithful, practising but non-scholarly Muslims, or Muslim women, or Muslim human rights activists, speak about Islam? As long as the fundamentals of Islam are given due respect, can't there be room for comment or to express concern about aspects in the implementation of Islamic law, which, directly or indirectly, has affected or can affect all citizens, even non-Muslims?

Apparently, the answer is "no". There seems to be growing hypersensitivity over different views on issues involving Islam, whether about using the word "Allah", or the caning of women. Any contrarian view is deemed as an insult to the religion.

It takes far less than these examples. Recent muscle-flexing took place over a column in The Star expressing concern about the first time women were ever caned in Malaysia. Following police reports and pressure from the Home Ministry, the paper apologised and retracted the article.

Just yesterday, the paper capitulated again to these voices that cannot distinguish fair comment from actual insult, by spiking social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir's regular column on weaknesses in the formulation of syariah laws. And so, it is clear that it is not just non-Muslims who are intimidated and silenced — practising but dissenting Muslims are also targeted by the religious status quo.

There is a clear distinction between running down a religion by disputing its theological tenets, and discussing human weaknesses in interpreting and implementing a religion's teachings. With regards to the canings, nobody is disputing Islam the religion. Rather, what people have questioned is the proportionality of punishment to the crime, the secrecy with which it was carried out, and its effectiveness in policing personal sins.

Grounds for speaking up

Shahrizat (Courtesy of theSun)
So here are some grounds for why dissenters — both Muslim and non-Muslim — have a right to question the administration and implementation of Islam in Malaysia.

There's already diversity of views and interpretations in Islam. What constitutes appropriate punishment? If scholars themselves have differing opinions on implementing Islamic law, how do we know what is definitive? Even a Muslim cabinet minister, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, notes that implementation of syariah caning of women here is lacking in input from Muslim women as stakeholders.

Taxpaying citizens, including non-Muslims, are funding Islamic activity and implementation of syariah laws in Malaysia. Taxpayers not only fund national development but also public institutions, which include the syariah courts, the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim), and the state religious councils. Part of Jakim's functions is to formulate and coordinate syariah law enforcement.

Taxpayers also fund dakwah activities and Islamic education, as provided for under Article 12(2) of the Federal Constitution regarding education rights. It is "lawful for the Federation or a State to establish or maintain or assist in establishing or maintaining Islamic institutions" that provide instruction in the religion of Islam. The government may "incur such expenditure as may be necessary for the purpose".

Non-Muslims have by and large not complained about this publicly, and have instead accepted it as constitutional and part of the reality of living in Malaysia. But as taxpayers, they should not now be accused of challenging Islam by commenting on the laws and enforcement they help to fund. If public debate on other laws is the norm in any society, why should civilised comment on syariah laws and their enforcement be an issue?

Non-Muslims are already affected by syariah law. Non-Muslims are often told that syariah law doesn't affect them. The reality is quite different, especially when conversions by family members are involved. And so, non-Muslim family members must deal with the body-snatching of a deceased loved one. With no locus standi in the syariah court, they are affected when they are denied a hearing, then denied the right to bury their deceased, and also to the person's inheritance.

Indira Gandhi
A non-Muslim mother like M Indira Gandhi must deal with being separated from her baby who was unilaterally converted by her estranged spouse. Sometimes the conversion claim, including the certificate, is said to be dubious, such as in Mohan Singh's case. Or the conversion was made without the convert's full awareness of the implications, like in S Banggarma's case when she was a child.

Non-Muslims may be prosecuted in the future for committing a crime with a Muslim. A Malay-Muslim Malaysian writer notes that syariah law "is about policing behaviour, not belief". And in a multiracial and multireligious society, the behaviour of one group is bound to interface with others.

In April 2008, a syariah law review seminar heard a proposal for non-Muslims to be held liable for khalwat or close proximity with a Muslim. The suggestion was for the non-Muslim party to be charged in the civil court. If such an idea has already been thought of, can non-Muslims be blamed for fearing that one day, their personal deeds will be subject to Islamic law? If that were to happen, should they not speak about what concerns them?

Whatever assurances cabinet ministers may utter, public trust is gradually being eroded, not least by actions like the government's own covert move to secretly cane the three women and only announce the matter later.

Negative publicity affects the country's economy. Should bad press over the canings translate into further drops in foreign investment and economic activity, everyone will be affected. Is it still justifiable to say that non-Muslims shouldn't speak about actions that concern them as citizens and stakeholders?

Fair comment

I've yet to hear those who say that non-Muslims and "lesser Muslims" should stop talking about syariah law ever explain what they understand by the Quranic verse "let there be no compulsion in religion". It's the most-quoted verse whenever Muslim politicians speak in ceramah to a multiracial and multireligious crowd. But when it comes to public debate about religious issues, non-Muslims are quickly told that they have no stake in the discourse.

Stating a view about a religious law does not necessarily amount to insulting the religion. Let others express their concerns as long as it's done in a civilised and respectful manner. It's how Malaysians of all races and religions can share this country. Engage and educate if views expressed are contrary, but don't censor, and don't say we have no right to speak.

Deborah Loh believes in God and knows that He listens when we question. Why can't those who claim to speak in His name listen, too?. Courtesy of Nut Graph

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