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ICC Note: Here is a recap of the big issues in Malaysia and some information about how the people in Malaysia think.

Death of religious tolerance in Malaysia

Greg Sheridan,

12/27/06 Malaysia (The Australian) Lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sawar seems a most unlikely person to attract death threats. A small, softly spoken, friendly man, the impression he gives is above all one of consideration.

What has earned him the death threats is his appearance in court on behalf of Lina Joy, a case that has become a battleground of Malaysian political and cultural identity, and of freedom of religion.

The case highlights what some analysts believe is the Arabisation of Malaysian Islam, a dynamic that can also be seen in Indonesia .

Lina Joy was once a Muslim but has converted to Christianity. She didn’t do so to make any broad point or to lead any social movement. It was entirely a private decision. But in Malaysia the state takes official notice of your race and religion.

Lina Joy tried to get herself deregistered as a Muslim and reregistered as a Christian. As a Muslim she is not allowed to marry a Christian man and any children she has must be brought up as Muslims.

When the state authorities refused to accept her conversion she appealed to the courts on the basis of Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

The case, in which judgment could be given at any time, has polarised Malaysia . Many Muslims believe apostasy – changing your religion – is not only a sin but should be punishable by death.

Imtiaz told The Australian that traditionally Malaysia was pragmatic and liberal about such matters. Apostasy would always cause a social reaction but if a Malaysian converted they could make this official by changing their name and publicising the change.

In recent years, however, a body of case law has grown up that requires a Malaysian to go before a sharia – Muslim religious – court to get a kind of exit permit from the religion.

Sharia courts, Imtiaz argues, were only ever meant to consider a fairly narrow range of family matters exclusively for Muslims, not to impinge fundamentally on a citizen’s relationship to the state.

But the Lina Joy case, and a raft of others involving similar issues, have touched off a wave of Islamist activism in Malaysia . There has been a rash of anti-apostasy campaigns. Islamic defenders’ groups, mirroring those in Indonesia but without the violence, have been set up.

A crazy text message spread to the effect that there was to be a mass baptism of Islamic converts in northern Malaysia . It led to much hysteria but was baseless.

Then came the death threats to Imtiaz, a Muslim, with posters branding him an enemy of Islam and urging his murder.

It is important not to exaggerate Malaysia ‘s problems. Malaysia remains a mostly peaceful, prosperous and law-abiding society in which the different races and religions mostly rub along OK. But there is a good deal of evidence that popular Malay Muslim attitudes are hardening, are being at least somewhat Arabised.

A well conducted survey of Malay attitudes recently found that a majority of Malays think of themselves first as Muslims, rather than as Malays or Malaysians, the one civic identity that embraces all of Malaysia ‘s races and religions.

The same survey also shows that Malays tend to conceive of Malaysia as an Islamic state, and want it in the future to be more Islamic. Similarly, while supporting freedom of religion, there is little community support for the idea that a Muslim has the right to change their religion.

Says Noordin, a young Malaysian working in the non-government sector: “When I was growing up here there weren’t as many people cloaked in religious piety. In Malaysia it (the process of Arabisation) denotes a sense of insecurity about our comprehension of Islam, and of our place in Islam. We have more Muslims in Southeast Asia than anywhere else but we still look to the Middle East to set the standard.

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