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Compass Direct (06/28/06) – Hotels in Malaysia have refused to host a series of religious rights forums after angry protestors shut down an event on May 14 and accused the organizers of being “enemies of Islam.”

Article 11, a coalition of 13 religious and human rights groups, had organized a series of forums to discuss constitutional rights and the dilemma created by a dual legal system incorporating both civil and sharia law.

The coalition is named after the same article in Malaysia ’s constitution, which guarantees the right of every citizen to “profess and practice his religion.”

Cases such as Lina Joy’s failed application to drop the word Islam from her identity card after becoming a Christian, and the sharia court’s insistence that national hero M. Moorthy had converted from Hinduism to Islam prior to his death, have stirred heated debate in Malaysian society in recent months. (See Compass Direct, “Religious Laws Oppress Christian Converts,” April 26.)

Third Forum Undermined

Two initial forums were held in Petaling Jaya and Malacca without incident. On May 14, however, police cordons and a crowd of roughly 500 demonstrators waving banners and shouting slogans greeted participants arriving for a third forum in Penang.

Some banners protested against a planned inter-faith commission, although Article 11 would have no connection with such a commission. Other banners carried slogans stating, “Allah’s laws prevail over human rights.”

Police allowed about 50 protestors into the venue to attend the forum. When the protestors stood up and interrupted the speakers, police insisted that the forum be shut down, despite having issued an official permit for the event.

“This incident shows how serious the breakdown in constitutional values is,” National Human Rights Society deputy president and lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a speaker at the forum, told local reporters. “We have lost the ability to dialogue. If we cannot speak on the constitution, where are we as a nation?”

In an open letter to Prime Minister Dato Abdullah Haji Ahmad Badawi, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders – a task force of the United Nations – reprimanded the police for failing to control the protestors.

“The Observatory is very preoccupied by the fact that the police decided to cut short the forum, instead of guaranteeing the security of the organizers and ensuring that it would take place without being disrupted,” the letter read in part.

The Observatory urged Malaysian authorities to honor the U. N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which awards every citizen the right to “promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights,” and “to draw public attention to these matters.”

In conclusion, the Observatory called on authorities to comply with international human rights agreements signed or ratified by Malaysia , “all the more since Malaysia was elected on May 9 as a member of the new United Nations Human Rights Council.”

‘Enemies of Allah’

Two days after the forum was shut down, a group calling itself the Anti-Interfaith Commission (BADAI) issued a press release, which was e-mailed to the Malaysian Bar Council. BADAI’s president described Article 11 as an “enemy of Allah” and threatened the coalition members, saying, “I guarantee that the Article 11 coalition and the like will face greater risk than what happened on May 14.”

Article 11 immediately reported the incident to police, accusing BADAI of criminal intimidation.

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS) and the human rights group Aliran also expressed their concerns. Both groups assisted Article 11 in organizing the forums.

Amidst the furor surrounding these events, Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia, remarked that, “In our political history, the position of Islam has never before faced such a challenge. It is the responsibility of every Muslim … to protect the position of Islam in this country.”

Equal Rights

Article 11 members insist that the forum was called simply to reaffirm the supremacy of the constitution and to reiterate the fundamental rights of all Malaysian citizens.

Some protestors had claimed that the forum was held to undermine the special position of Islam, described in Article 3(1) of the constitution as the “religion of the Federation.”

Non-Muslims, at 40 percent of Malaysia ’s 26 million-strong population, form a significant part of the federation.

Article 8 of the constitution guarantees equal status before the law for all citizens, according to Siew Foong of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia.

“But in recent years, we’ve seen a worrying trend,” Siew explained. “The civil courts are refusing to exercise their jurisdiction on freedom of religion cases. People accept that Malaysia is an Islamic country because it is constantly proclaimed. Some have argued that the constitution recognizes Islam as the official religion, and therefore sharia should be the underlying principle of all civil laws.”

In a landmark court case in 1988, then Lord President Tun Salleh Abas ruled that the mention of Islam in Article 3(1) referred only to the practice of Islamic rituals and ceremonies and was never intended to raise Islamic law above civil law.

“Islam is the religion of the federation as stated in Article 3, but it is not the basic law of the land, and only Islamic laws governing personal and family matters are allowed by the constitution,” Siew said. These laws, he added, should not be applied to non-Muslims – hence the need for a clarification of the dual legal system.

State-Funded Islamic Missionaries

In a curious aside, officials in Kelantan state, northeast Malaysia , reportedly hope to convert 10,000 people to Islam through state-funded missionaries.

The state will provide missionary candidates with training, free housing, a monthly allowance of 1,000 ringgit (US$271) and a four-wheel-drive vehicle, Hassan Mohamood, head of Kelantan’s Islamic development and missionary panel, reportedly said.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, in power in Kelantan since 1990, has closed betting outlets, restricted alcohol sales and banned rock concerts in the state. The party also wants to impose sharia law, including extreme punishments such as amputations and public lashings for criminals, but is prevented from doing so by federal law.

SIDEBAR

Member Organizations of Article 11

– All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)

– Malaysian Bar Council

– Catholic Lawyers Society

– Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship

– Malaysian Civil Liberties Society (MCLS)

– Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS)

– National Human Rights Society (HAKAM)

– Pure Life Society

– Sisters in Islam (SIS)

– Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)

– Vivekananda Youth Movement, Seremban

– Women’s Aid Organization (WAO)

– Women’s Development Collective (WDC)