Where Are Malaysia’s Religious Authorities Heading?

Where Are Malaysia’s Religious Authorities Heading?

By Farish A Noor

Since 2006 Malaysia has been rocked by a number of hugely controversial
cases involving the fundamental right of belief and freedom of religion.
Between 2005 to 2006 the country was a virtual battleground with opposing
factions claiming the right for Malaysian citizens to believe according to
their will and rational agency, and a number of legal experts and NGOs have
come forth demanding that the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi
defend the secular constitution of the country.

At the root of the matter is the the problem that arises with having two
different, and some would say irreconcilable, legal systems: A secular civil
code for non-Muslims and a religious one for Muslims. Furthermore Malaysia
is unique in the sense that it is one of the few countries in the world that
defines the racial identity of some of its citizens with their religion of
birth. According to the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, all Malays are by
definition Muslims. (Which stands in stark contrast to Indonesia next door
where being a local Indonesian does not necessarily mean that one is
immediately a Muslim, as there are millions of Christian and Hindu
Indonesians as well)

What has compounded matters are a series of divorce and marriage cases
across the racial and religious divide. Since 2005 a number of prominent
court cases have come to the fore where Muslims married to non-Muslims have
been told that their cases have to be settled in Muslim courts. There have
also been cases where non-Muslim couples have decided to divorce when one
partner decides to marry marry a Muslim instead. In these cases it is again
the Muslim court that decides the fate of both partners, and their children,
by virtue of the fact that one of them is now a Muslim.

The latest case to be thrown into the fray is that of Revathi Masoosai, who
was born to a Muslim family but brought up as a Hindu by her Hindu
Grandmother. Revathi married a Hindu man and lived as a Hindu until she gave
birth to their first child. Recently the Islamic authorities in the state of
Melacca took away her child on the grounds that she was illegally practicing
Hinduism, despite her claim that she has been a practising Hindu thanks to
the religious education she received from her grandmother. Revathi’s child
is now in the custody of her Muslim relatives while she herself has been
sent to a ‘faith rehabilitation centre’ in order to recant and delcare
herself a Muslim once again. Even then she would be left with the problem of
her marriage to a Hindu man.

All these cases involve Malaysian citizens and bring into question the
fundamental right to believe in one’s religion of choice. They also raise
the question of the exact power, status and authorities of the religious
bureaucracy in the country, which seems to be standing on par with the
secular courts and the Federal constitution. So who really runs the country

Despite constant appeals by human rights NGOs and representatives of the
other non-Muslim faith communities, it is clear that the Muslim constituency
looms large in Malaysia. Even more so today as Muslims make up 60 per cent
of the population and are the biggest vote bank.

Understandably the non-Malay and non-Muslim minorities feel worried about
what they see as creeping Islamisation through the organs of state in
Malaysia today. The administration of Prime Minister Badawi is trying to
present itself as the face of modern, progressive, moderate Islam at work-
but at the same time the country’s religious authorities have grown ever
more brazen and cavalier in their outlook and practice, going to the point
of conducting moral policing raids and taking away the children of Malaysian
citizens like Revathi. Non-Muslims in Malaysia have begun to protest, albeit
passively, with collective prayers in solidarity with other minority groups.
At the same time numerous local surveys indicate that race and communal
relations are at an all time low. With Malaysia’s 50th anniversary around
the corner this coming August, one wonders where the country is heading and
when it departed from its secular-democratic moorings.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist based at the Zentrum
Moderner Orient, and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org
research site.