Malaysia clamps down on public debate about religion
Tuesday August 8, 2:50 PM
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia had been slowly opening up greater space for public debate of religious and racial issues but has suddenly brought down the curtain on the experiment amid fears that Islam is coming under siege.
Wider coverage in the mainstream media of sensitive topics such as conversion, apostasy and Malay rights has stirred tension in the Muslim community by provoking fears it represented an attempt to erode the distinctive place of Islam in Malaysia.
Now the government -- ever anxious about the prospect of disharmony in one of Asia's most multi-racial communities -- appears to have put a halt to the debate, and the coverage.
"If the discussions are not kept in check or contained, they are bound to raise tension in our multi-religious society," the Star newspaper quoted Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as saying recently.
Since taking power in 2003, Abdullah had given the media greater leeway than in the past, but Muslim conservatives who fear secular authority is encroaching on the religious realm became more vocal in opposing discussion of religious issues.
"It was an attempt by a ruling elite which has always prided itself in being able to manage ethnic relations, and one of the tools they've used in managing ethnic relations is to nip things in the bud," said political analyst and activist Chandra Muzaffar.
"There's always been a fear that if one allowed things to develop beyond a certain point they'd get difficult to control."
Islam is Malaysia's official religion, and by definition the faith of ethnic Malays, who make up just over half the population of 26 million. But its ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian minorities include many Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs.
While many non-Muslims fear ambiguities in the law could eventually subject them to the jurisdiction of Islamic sharia courts, many Muslims see efforts to settle those uncertainties as an attack on the legitimacy of religious courts.
The treatment of apostates, chiefly those who have given up Islam, has ignited heated debate, as Malaysia waits for its Federal Court to decide if Islamic courts -- which have authority over Muslims -- have the sole right to judge those who renounce their faith.
Islamic law is selectively enforced by local officials in each of Malaysia's 13 federal states. Unmarried Muslim couples caught in hotel rooms can be charged, while believers seen eating in the daytime during the fasting month of Ramadan can be fined.
Abdullah's remarks on July 25 included a call for a halt to debates on inter-faith issues organised by "Article 11", a forum of 13 civic and social rights groups that takes its name from a constitutional provision enshrining religious freedom.
Members of the forum, whose recent meetings provoked vocal opposition from conservative Muslim groups, have accepted the criticism and have called for further debates. But they still plan to meet Abdullah to dispel misconceptions about their role.
"Article 11 is a common ground for those who feel constitutionality should be one of the chief pillars of our society," said Ivy Josiah of the Women's Aid Organisation group, a member of Article 11.
"This process of Islamisation in such a negative way reflects a country that is denying its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic roots," she added.
Many feared that process had gained momentum last December when Islamic authorities gave mountain-climber M. Moorthy a Muslim burial against the wishes of his Hindu widow.
Officials said he had converted to Islam before his death, despite assertions to the contrary by some of his family.
Worries that non-Muslim voices were being silenced intensified after Abdullah told nine non-Muslim cabinet ministers in January to withdraw a memorandum they had given him calling for a review of laws related to religion -- and they complied.
Abdullah's latest call could also stifle discussion.
"I think Prime Minister Abdullah's intention may be just to cool the tension," said opposition leader and former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. "But to deny groups from having discussions or expressing concerns, that is something not acceptable."
More recently, many ethnic Indians were upset by a string of demolitions of Hindu shrines by civic authorities, before their sole representative in the cabinet of Abdullah's ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), interceded.
"Over the last year, Abdullah's position on religious tolerance has grown more inconsistent as the public debate has become more polarised," said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
"The debate over Islamisation in Malaysia has moved away from party competition ... and is now centred in a contest among civil society groups and the state, with the state apparently siding with a more exclusionary, less tolerant position."
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