Let there be no coercion in religion — Joe Samad

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Source: The Malaysian Insight

BY JOE SAMAD

THE ugly incident at the Sarawak Federal Court hearing on the apostasy case where several Muslims heckled Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuching and shouted “Allahuakbar” was a wake-up call for Sarawakians.

There could have been ugly scenes if not for peaceful Muslims brothers and police who protected the Archbishop from harm.

The Federal Court ruled on February 27 that the Sarawak Shari’ah Court has jurisdiction over the bid by four Sarawakians to leave Islam and to be officially recognised as Christians. The four had named the Sarawak Islamic Religious Department, MAIS, the National Registration Department (NRD) and the state government as respondents.

The behaviour of the group who tried to intimidate the Archbishop shows an intolerant Islam has reared its ugly head in East Malaysia. Some Sarawakians I met said it was just a matter of time.

We saw some signs cropping up in Sabah in 2017 when groups tried to Islamise Kaamatan Festival. Pictures of women fully covered in traditional Kadazandusun costume and the word “Kaamatan Islam” in their backdrop caused an uproar among the Kadazandusun community.

Sarawak has taken a strict stance to ban the entry of toxic preacher and international fugitive Zakir Naik, and Ibrahim Ali from the Malay right wing group Perkasa from entering the state – but you can’t prevent Sarawakians from being influenced by extremist groups especially if they are graduates of Middle Eastern learning institutions.

Whatever the case, East Malaysians should be weary of infiltration from an intolerant Islam led by PAS and other extremist groups that are trying to Islamise Malaysia.

Time and time again, skeptical West Malaysian friends says, “You better watch out, it’s going to come to you. You should not throw caution to the wind and let matters like this have a life of its own”.

Islam in Malaysia is full of controversies – the “Allah” issue in the Bahasa Bible, body snatching cases, conversion issues, the Muslim laundrette issues, etc.

While our leaders portray Malaysia as a model Islamic nation and an example to the world, the opposite is happening. Our leaders have preferred to remain silent for “political correctness” when most of the population needs reassurance that radical Islam is not taking hold of this country.

In religious conflicts, the voice of reason did not come from our elected leaders when it was needed, but from the Sultans of our country who have continued to safeguard our racial and religious harmony. If it is not for the intervention of the Sultan of Johor in the Malay-only laundry case, Islamisation will probably take root in the state and will affect everyone like what is happening in Kelantan.

The recent case in Sarawak is about the appeal of four persons who wish to have their conversion out of Islam legally recognised. Islamic jurists continue to regard apostasy as a crime deserving the death penalty. Some regard apostasy in Islam as a religious crime, while others do not.

Like many of the issues in Islam, it is subject to man-made interpretations of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and the understanding of Fiquh (Islamic jurisprudence) in Shari’ah. It also depends on which school of thought you belong to.

In the Old Testament and early Judaism, Apostasy is also punishable by death.

With the advent of human rights and freedom of beliefs, people no longer view leaving your religion as something punishable by death, or to endure some form of punishment. It is the individual right to choose his or her own religion.

It is ironic to say it is easier to divorce your wife by announcing the “talaq” three times than to leave Islam. Some have even sent “talaq” by SMS messages!

The Federal Court in Kuching has ruled that the four individuals who wished to nullify their status as Muslims cannot do so through the civil courts. This is despite the Sarawak Shari’ah Court saying in a March 10, 2015 letter that none of the state laws empower it to deal with declarations of leaving Islam as required by the NRD, with the letter further concluding that it therefore did not have the jurisdiction to issue the Letter of Release from Islam.

The current outcome is reminiscent of Nik Raina Abdul Aziz Borders Bookstore case, the Lina Joy case and the conversion of M. Indra Ghandi’s children. They were bounced between the Civil and Shariah Courts and had to endure great emotional and mental stress to bring justice to their world.

Due to increasing inter-marriages and dogmatic views of Islam, these types of conflicts will continue to cause angst and ill feelings among competing parties.

It is easy to say that in religion we should keep up with the times. There are school of thoughts who view the words of the holy book as God’s law and cannot be altered, and those who say we should interpret God’s words from the perspective of human rights and the freedom to choose your own religion.

In the book “Freedom of Religion in Shari’ah”, Dr Abm Mahbubul Islam (2002) tackles the issue of freedom of religion inherent in a human being. This freedom means he is free to profess, practice and propagate his own religion in its real sense. The paradox here – there is no dispute that Islam grants freedom of religion until a Muslim wants to change his religion.

When Sabah and Sarawak became partners in the formation with Malaysia in 1963, it was with the understanding that Islam is the official religion, but the people of East Malaysia have the right to practise their own religion. Over the years, the promise of freedom of religion has become a concept rather than a reality. East Malaysians are now being drawn into the West Malaysian style of “political Islam” and are now caught in the no man’s lands between the Civil and Shari’ah courts as in the Sarawak case.

From the archives of North Borneo News and Sabah Times dated June 13, 1963, the member of Health OKK G. S. Sundang explains the safeguards of Sabah joining Malaysia:

“Some people are worried of religion. They have no need to be. There will be complete freedom of religion as there is now. There will be no state religion and no special privileges for any religious groups. No one will be forced to follow any particular religion”.

Since Prime Minister Najib has promised to give back Sabah’s rights in many of his speeches, freedom of religion should be one of his priorities. East Malaysians should not have to go through the ordeal of seeking justice in their personal beliefs.

Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg announced earlier the state government will amend the Sarawak Syariah Court Ordinance 2001 to make it easier for Muslim converts to leave Islam. He said it is not fair to allow Muslim converts who wish to leave their religion to be kept in suspense by the National Registration Department (NRD). His move was backed by the Sarawak Islamic Council and supported by many people.

A few days later his office announced he was misquoted. He said the word was “review” and not “amend”, disappointing many who was elated by his earlier decision and dashing the hopes of the Sarawak four. It looks like the saga will continue. It is unlikely that there will be any solution any time soon.

Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister James Masing has said a multi-religious country like Malaysian should be governed by only one set of laws to allow freedom of religion. Masing also expressed his disagreement to institutionalised religion, arguing that faith should remain a personal choice and cannot be legislated or forced by any person or authorities.

The Malaysian authorities’ fear of people leaving the religion in droves is totally unfounded. Studies have shown that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe and elsewhere based on demographic trends. Islam is a religion of compassion and peace and this should be demonstrated in conversion cases like the Sarawak four.

Unfortunately, religion is no longer about justice but the dispensation of the word of God by imperfect people in an imperfect justice system.

But as the Holy Qur’an says, “Let there be no coercion in religion. The truth stands out clear from error. Whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand -hold that never breaks” (Holy Qur’an 2:256). – March 7, 2018.

* Joe Samad has wide experience working for international companies and government GLC. He is interested in new technology applications in a shared economy and issues affecting the nation,  sharing his worldview across various media platforms.