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By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR : Islam tops Malaysia ’s long list of “sensitive subjects” that are forbidden from being raised in public but, over the last two weeks, it is as if nothing else can be discussed. Two dissimilar events coming one after another, late December, has put religion on notice. One is the passage of an Islamic family law, opposed by feminists and moderate Muslims. The other is the forced burial, according to Muslim rites, of a Hindu soldier by Islamic authorities who insist he had converted to Islam. Both issues have questioned the role of an increasingly puritanical Islam in a multi-ethnic society that prides itself on tolerance and an easygoing, modern way of life.

Under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s more liberal and less authoritarian administration, long suppressed frustrations are rising to the surface and there are growing calls for fairness and justice. On one side, the debate is between Muslim fundamentalists who dominate the burgeoning Islamic Affairs Department that administers Shariah law and mostly western-educated Muslim feminists who say the department, in its overzealous interpretation of the holy Quran, has gone overboard in making new laws that discriminate against women and children.

Since the 1980s, they say, women’s position vis-à-vis Muslim men have gradually eroded. The latest is a new Islamic family law that makes divorce and polygamy easy and allows husbands to lay claim to the wife’s properties, even to the extent of freezing the bank accounts of former spouses and their children.

“Nowhere is there, in the Islamic world, a law that discriminates so thoroughly against women,” said Zainah Anwar, executive director of Sisters in Islam, a feminist movement that is spearheading a national campaign to repeal the new law. The campaign has won widespread support, within the government, in academia and among the general public. Likewise the forced burial of M. Moorthy, a Hindu soldier claimed by the Islamic authorities to have converted to Islam, has sparked a storm among non-Muslims and moderate Muslims alike. They are demanding that the government amend the constitution to make civil law supreme over Islamic Shariah law especially in matters where non-Muslims are involved. Debate over such Islamic issues, once a taboo subject, is now openly held by mainstream media, television stations and over the Internet.

Newspapers that are linked to government that normally would not have touched the subject, now freely publish strongly-worded letters and commentaries by their own writers and outside experts, many of whom are Muslims. Letters from the public are bravely aired. Internet chatrooms are racier and less inhibited in their comments.

A coalition of human rights NGOs, including Muslim feminist groups, have also launched a month-long candle light vigil outside the High Court to protest a Muslim judge’s ruling, earlier this month, that the civil court has no jurisdiction over Islamic matters.

Relying on an ex-parte Shariah Court order, Islamic religious authorities gave M. Moorthy a Muslim burial over the protests by his Hindu family, last week. Anger boiled over when Judge Raus Sharif washed his hands off, saying the civil court had no jurisdiction.

“They have been telling lies. Nothing but lies,” said Kaliammal Sinnasamy, Moorthy’s wife. “I was shocked when they told me that they would take the body when he died.” The court refused to intervene or hear evidence from the family that Moorthy could not have converted, saying it had no jurisdiction over matters under the purview of the Shariah court. Three days later, the same court gave similar arguments while rejecting an application by two formerly Muslim women for a declaration that they have left Islam.

“We cannot allow a small group (of Muslim administrators) who are extreme in their views to dominate the nation’s social and religious life,” said Wong Kim Kong, a spokesman for the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS). “If no action is taken by the government then it might sow disharmony.” The council launched a campaign to amend the constitution to allow civil law supremacy over Shariah in cases involving non-Muslims i.e conversion, child custody, disposal of property and other family or personal matters.

The main opposition Democratic Action Party has called for a major review of Article 121(1A), which states that the civil courts shall have no jurisdiction in respect of “any matter” within the jurisdiction of the Shariah courts. The clause was inserted into the constitution by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1988 after he had jailed over 100 parliamentarians and democracy activists and closed down three newspapers including the influential, mass-circulated The Star daily. Mahathir’s government had given a truncated parliament a day’s notice of the constitutional change which was carried with overwhelming support by government backbenchers. In the case of the Islamic family law a little more time was given but arms were twisted to ensure its passage in parliament, earlier this month, only to face an avalanche of protest from civil society groups and Muslim feminists. The law affects only Muslims who make up about 60 per cent of the population of 26 million people.—Dawn/IPS News Service