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Georg Evers {*}

Difficult Coexistence

Christians and Muslims in Malaysia

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2008, pp 208-213
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    In Malaysia the opposition emerged strengthened from the parliamentary elections on 8 March. Not least the majority of Christians in the country had voted for it. In Malaysia the religious minorities still suffer from the Muslim majority's pressure. So for example, a change of religion is for Muslims as good as impossible.

 

On 14 February 2008 the National Electoral Commission in Malaysia had fixed early parliamentary elections for 8 March and called upon the parties to submit within ten days the lists of candidates. It was preceded by the dissolution of the parliament ordered by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi the day before, 13 February 2008, shortening so the current parliamentary term by 14 months. The opposition parties and other observers spoke of a "dirty trick" of the governing coalition of the National Front (Barisan Nasional), which has been in power since the founding of the State of Malaysia in 1957 and so wanted to exclude the opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim from the elections.

Anwar Ibrahim had in highly dubious legal proceedings - at the instigation of the former Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad - in 1999 been sentenced to six years detention for corruption, and in 2000 to nine years imprisonment for homosexual acts. In September 2004 Malaysia's Supreme Court admittedly annulled the sentence for homosexual offences. After serving his prison sentence for corruption the by the Malaysian Constitution prescribed five years prohibition from politics for convicted offenders, which would have expired in April 2008, remained in force against Anwar Ibrahim.

 

The Opposition has been Strengthened

The outcome of the parliamentary elections in March, in which the government parties lost their two-thirds majority and got "only" 60 percent of the votes, was experienced as a great surprise in Malaysia. Journalists spoke of a tsunami that made totter the decades of domination of the National Front consisting of 14 parties. Despite the short election campaign the opposition alliance brought together by Anwar Ibrahim had spared no effort to prevent a new two-thirds majority of the governing coalition, in what it also succeeded to its own surprise.

 


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The coalition of the opposition parties, which is made up of the Parti Keadilan Raykyat led by Anwar Ibrahim, the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), has won in five of the altogether thirteen federal states and three federal territories and together got 82 seats of the in all 222 seats of the parliament.

The governing coalition BN comes only to 137 seats, the others fall to independent MPs. Thus the governing coalition still has a clear absolute majority, but for the alliance parties which in the last elections in 2004 achieved a result of 91 percent the outcome of the elections means a clear defeat. Four years ago the opposition parties could assert themselves only in one federal state and got together not more than 20 seats in Parliament.

In view of the established power structures in the country no major political changes had actually been expected in the run-up to the elections. But the opposition parties then apparently succeeded in taking advantage of the dissatisfaction with Abdullah Badawi's government. The economic development of the country, which in recent decades under Prime Minister Mahathir experienced a steady upswing, is at present rather declining. In opinion polls in the run-up to the parliamentary elections more than 90 percent of those questioned saw the increased living costs as a major reason for the widespread dissatisfaction with the work of the government. The high rise in crime in the country ranged just behind, as a result of which a feeling of insecurity spread among the population.

Moreover, the ethnic tensions have increased, what again means an element of uncertainty in the social living together. So already in November 2007 members of the Indian minority organized demonstrations to protest about the discrimination of their ethnic group in the state support policy. Anwar Ibrahim was the main speaker at a demonstration on 10 November 2007 in Kuala Lumpur, in which several thousand people demonstrated for fair and clean elections. Since the demonstration was without permission, the security forces used truncheons and tear gas against the demonstrators.

Attention was also given to the Christians' voting behaviour, who are a small minority of just under ten percent and in the past showed little critical political commitment. Before the election there was an election appeal of the "Association of Christians in Malaysia", which with the help of leaflets called upon the Christians to take part in the election on 8 March in a "wise" and "responsible" way. The president of the association, Bishop Paul Tan Chee-Ing declared on that occasion that the Christian minority in Malaysia had repeatedly been discriminated by the government, and that one hoped for a positive change in the minority policy from the outcome of the elections. The majority of Christians supported the opposition parties in the elections. In several parishes electoral meetings with candidates of the government and of the opposition took place, in which it became obvious that among the Christians the criticism of the government policy clearly prevailed.

 

Competition for the "right" Islam

Even though the opposition parties in view of the Malaysian situation did very well in the March elections, a permanent cooperation against the governing coalition is rather unlikely. The differences between the goals of the Islamist PAS and the other two parties are too large to allow a joint programme to be passed. The PAS's chief objective is the introduction of the Sharia as the basis of legislation in an Islamic state Malaysia.

It has split off from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which is the leading party within the governing coalition, because according to its view the UMNO does not sufficiently pursue the Islamic interests. Since then the PAS competes with the UMNO which of the two parties with their programs stands up best for the concerns of the Muslims in Malaysia. For the PAS the program of UMNO, according to which Malaysia's Muslims are to open to the modern world and to use technology for building a modern Islamic state, is not compatible with the strict and traditional view of Islam held by it.

Both Muslim parties in principle agree that Malaysia, which according to the Constitution is a secular state, should become an Islamic state. About the way there and what an "Islamic state" in practice then is to be, the two parties are far from being agreed and accuse each other of betraying principles of the Koran. The UMNO, which up to now has supplied all prime ministers of Malaysia, sees itself as main power of the State and as the Muslims' legitimate representative which guarantees especially in the cooperation with the other two parties representing ethnic interests, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the national cohesion of the various ethnic groups in a centralized state.

 


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The Catholics don't come from the Majority Population

As in other Southeast Asian countries the Catholic Church in Malaysia is characterized by the fact that its members do not come from the majority population, but is a church of the immigrant minorities of Chinese and Indians, or consist of the descendants of the tribal population. Together with the historical fact that it were Western missionaries who during the period of the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule brought Christianity into the country, this leads to the character of a foreign imported religion being attached to Christianity in general, and so also to the Catholic Church in Malaysia.

On the other hand the Christian churches in Malaysia present the only religious and social grouping which by its conception of itself is not limited to only one of Malaysia's ethnic groups, but its members come from all groups. The number of Christians, who in the country's average come to 6.5 percent of the population, is highest in North Borneo, in the provinces Sarawak with 30 per cent and in Sabah with 20 percent.

At the latest since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church in Malaysia endeavours to inculturate the Christian message. But the difficulty with this undertaking is that it is not so obvious in which of Malaysia's existing cultural or religious traditions the Gospel is to be inculturated. The majority culture is undoubtedly the Malay, but it is completely saturated with Islam. Besides the Malay there are the Chinese, the Indian and the diversity of tribal cultures.

After the Council Bahasa Malaysia, which happens to be the national language, was introduced as the liturgy language. But apart from it also Chinese and Tamil are used in the liturgy. In the liturgy itself some elements from the Chinese and also from the Indian tradition, such as the use of oil lamps, incense sticks, fruit and flower sacrifices were adopted.

Already in 1982 the government passed a bill which the use of 25 Arab loan-words adopted by the national language Bahasa Malaysia, exclusively reserved to Muslims and prohibited their use for the members of non-Muslim religions in their proclamation or service. Admittedly, the use of those terms in the Christian service was later allowed again, but not the use in public and in publicly distributed printed materials, including the Bible. With those words it is about such central concepts as the use of "Allah" for the name of God, "Salat" as word for prayer and liturgy, "Injil" for Gospel, "Nabi" for Prophet, "Hadith" for doctrine, "Imam "for priest and others.

This prohibition has, among other things, also led to the prohibition of the import of Bibles and other religious writings from Indonesia, because those expressions of Bahasa Indonesia, a language that is more or less identical with Bahasia Malaysia spoken in Malaysia, are as a matter of course used by Christians. In this context time and again partly bizarre incidents happen, in which over-eager customs officers and other government agencies confiscate religious literature coming from Indonesia.

In December 2007 officials of the Internal Security had confiscated in several bookstores children's books, because in them prophets were depicted who are also revered in Islam. They gave as reason for this measure that those pictures were contrary to Islam's ban on icons and could lead to unrest in the population. According to the understanding of those officials, the ban on icons is not only directed at Muslims but must be extended to all non-Muslims. The consequence of this radical view would be that not only images of the Prophet Mohammad, but also of all other holy people, e.g. of Moses, even of Jesus himself, who is regarded as a prophet in Islam, would be prohibited not only for Muslims but also for Christians. As reaction to the protests of Christian groups the Interior Ministry instructed the officials to end those restrictive measures.

 

Human Rights are still Threatened

Those incidents make it clear that the interreligious relations in Malaysia have got worse in recent years by the growing influence of Islamist groups. The efforts to promote the interrelgious dialogue have suffered from it. Thus the efforts started after the Council in the Catholic Church to engage in dialogue with Muslims and other religions in Malaysia have severely been impaired. Increasingly often people are asking whether it makes sense to continue to strive for the dialogue with Muslims when on their part so few positive signals are given. The other religious communities in Malaysia too see themselves threatened by the rise of Islamist movements.

A sign of the situation of the interreligious living together is the already some years ago founded umbrella association of non-Islamic religions in Malaysia, the "Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism" (MCCBHS),

 


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the goal of which it is to defend the interests of non-Islamic religions from the state, but especially from the Islamic groups in Malaysia.

 

Difficulties with the Change of Religion

In Malaysia's relatively short history there are many cases of human rights violations. The Interior Security Act, which comes from the period of British colonial rule and was taken over by the state Malaysia when it later became independent still serves as flimsy justification to take - without legal proceedings - action against members of the opposition and people described as criminals. Those exceptional regulations contained in the Interior Security Act (ISA), which allow arrests without charge for an indefinite time to secure the inner national order, in the past were repeatedly used in order to silence individuals and groups which criticized the government.

That happened under Mahathir for instance with the action against critics coming from the Christian social doctrine of the unbridled economic policy, which led to the arrest of eleven church activists in 1987. The leader of that group, Brother Anthony Rogers was detained for a year without legal proceedings having been opened against him. The action against Anwar Ibrahim too was outwardly presented as prosecution of a politician who had become a criminal, but was closely connected with the maintenance of the internal order. The regulations of the ISA had also to serve when in 2001 action was taken against the opposition party Keadilan founded by Anwar Ibrahim's wife, and seven of its politicians were arrested because of their threat to the internal security.

Another important human right is also threatened in Malaysia: freedom of the press. Since the founding of the State in Malaysia laws have been introduced by which the freedom to form and express one's own opinion is restricted. The modern media, press, radio, televisions as well as the Internet are being controlled. Critical voices are quickly silenced, newspapers are being controlled and practise preventive self-criticism, critical journalists are threatened with dismissal. Least successful are the repressive measures of the government with regard to the Internet, which proves to be an unwieldy instrument for the control.

 


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According to the Constitution in Malaysia freedom of religion exists for all citizens. Islam is regarded as state religion or "religion of the country," to which all Malays belong from birth. According to the Constitution of Malaysia (art. 160, No. 2) those are regarded as Malays "who are committed to Islam, habitually speak the Malay language, and keep to Malay customs." This has the consequence that being Malay is equated with being Muslim, although of course other ethnic groups are Muslims too. A Malay woman is therefore denied to marry a non-Muslim.

Freedom of religion understood as the freedom to join a religion and to leave it, e.g. by conversion to another religion, is restricted in Malaysia. Muslims are allowed to do missionary work among non-Muslims in order to invite them to join Islam. As regards the members of tribal religions in North Borneo in the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak or in provinces of Malaysia situated in the north of the Malaysian peninsula the missionary activity of Muslims is financially state-supported in order to win over these ethnic groups to Islam.

 

The Tension between Secular and Religious Courts

A missionary activity of non-Muslim religions with the aim to win over Muslims for their religious community is not allowed, because Muslims have de facto only a limited freedom to change religion. In Malaysia a Muslim who wants to change his religion is regarded as apostate, for according to the Sharia apostasy from Islam is not allowed and is regarded as grave sin. A Muslim's change of religion is only possible by keeping to very strict regulations and after a lengthy procedure, which means that it is practically impossible.

The procedure schedules that first an official request (Boranag Keluar Islam) for change of religion has to be submitted to the National Religious Bureau, where the applicant must reveal his motivations leading him to change religion. Then two years of a waiting period follow in which the applicant will be examined whether he really wants to leave Islam or can still be taught better. There are special "re-education centres", in which potential apostates from Islam must often endure intense pressure in order to be able to keep to their intended change of religion. The final decision is then taken by a Sharia court, as a result ultimately Muslim legal scholars and imams tip the scales.

As in other countries coined by Islam a tension appears here between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the secular jurisdiction connected with them and religious regulations of the Sharia and the religious jurisdiction. With those parallel legal systems of civil law and Sharia law the religious jurisdiction of the Muslim legal scholars is decisive in cases of conflict in family- and matrimonial law matters. Since the civil law falls within the jurisdiction of the federal states of the Malaysian Federation, there are from state to state very different regulations within that area.

 

The Case of Lina Joy

On 30 March 2007 the Court of the Federation of Malaysia as the last instance ruled that the conversion of Ms Lina Joy from Islam to Christianity could not be recognized and that therefore a registration of the change of her religious affiliation in the identity card was not possible. Two of the three judges involved in the matter decided that a civil court was not competent in this matter and referred the case of Lina Joy to the Islamic Religious Court, which was to make a decision on the basis of the Sharia. The President of the Supreme Court, Judge Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim declared that cases of apostasy fall within the competence of the Sharia courts and that the civil courts must not deal with them. The dissenting vote came from the Catholic judge Richard Malanjum, who held the opinion that it was pointless to refer Lina Joy to a Sharia court which regarded apostasy as crime. The negative decision by the Supreme Court means that Lina Joy is not allowed legally to marry her husband, unless he previously converted to Islam.

The Secretary-General of the Council of Churches of Malaysia Hermen Shastri expressed his disappointment and stated that it became virtually impossible for Lina Joy further to live in Malaysia. The refusal of the civil court in this as in other cases to grant converts from Islam to Christianity the right to freedom of religion and legally to acknowledge a conversion would have serious consequences for the living together of members of the various religions in Malaysia.

The Catholic Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing of Melaka-Johor and the President of the Church Council of Malaysia also expressed their disappointment and grief over the decision of the Supreme Court. Both, the refusal of the registration office to record in Lina Joy's identity card her conversion to Christianity, which had taken place years ago, and the Supreme Court's decision to make the recognition of her conversion dependent on the decision of an Islamic court constituted a violation of the human right to freedom of religion

 


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and infringed on article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

The history of that controversy begins when in 1990 Lina Joy, neé Azlina Jailani, after a long acquaintance with a Catholic at the age of 42 years converted to Christianity. After a long period of probation she was baptized in 1998 in Kuala Lumpur and assumed the name Lina Joy. The following year she applied to the passport authority to have this change in her civil status also recorded in her identity card.

Admittedly, the change of name was accepted by the civilian authority, but it refused to register Lina Joy in the column "religion" as a Christian, until an Islamic court had recognized her conversion. Lina Joy refused to call upon the services of an Islamic court in this case, because she was only too well aware that according to Islamic law apostasy from Islam is punishable by death or must at least be punished by imprisonment. In Malaysia apostates are often also put into re-education camps.

After the negative decision of the Supreme Court to be not competent in this matter, it was repeatedly demanded from different sides that there must be a legal regulation for that and similar cases. In the current political constellation it is hardly imaginable that the Malaysian Parliament passes an amendment. For the 26 million Malaysians, of whom according to official figures 55 percent belong to Islam, applies that in family, marriage, and landed property affairs only the religious courts but not the civilian are competent.

 

    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In this capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.

 

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