:: [AFP] Malaysian woman's lonely campaign for religious freedom :: [AFP] Malaysian woman’s lonely campaign for religious freedom

In some countries leaving Islam can cause great problems. When there are two systems of law (civil and shari’a) you are caught in between because no one dares to interfere, like in this case in Malaysia. That makes this an interesting case to follow, also because the religious convictions of the woman concerned are worthwile noting. The gender issue is probably also important, but the author of the article does not elaborate on that.

Agence France-Presse news agency
28 December 2005

ASIAN LIVES: Malaysian woman’s lonely campaign for religious freedom

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 28 (AFP) – No one will give Kamariah Ali a job, relatives and one-time friends shun her, and much of her time is spent in the law courts — all because she no longer wants to be a Muslim.
“People look down on me because I renounced Islam. But people don’t understand. Actually, religion belongs to God and you can access God in any way, not necessarily through Islam,” says the soft-spoken 54- year-old.

Seven years ago, Kamariah publicly renounced Islam after being continually prosecuted and jailed by religious authorities in Malaysia’s northern Kelantan state who accused her of deviating from the faith. She had become a member of a religious sect famous for quirky structures on its compound, including a giant teapot. Its leader, Ayah Pin, caused shockwaves by proclaiming that he was God and that his followers were free to practise whatever religion they pleased.

“He is a good man and he helps people a lot,” says Kamariah, a one- time Islamic religious teacher. “He can cure drug addicts, people with psychological problems, he is more a healer.”

Kamariah’s unshakeable trust in Ayah Pin has sustained her and other followers through increasing isolation, with some family members and friends unable to accept her decision.

“Previously during festive seasons, for example Hari Raya (the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan), everybody would come, all family and friends would come over and I would go over to their house,” says Kamariah. “But ever since I followed Ayah Pin, everybody avoids my house.”

Kamariah’s life has now shrunk to the confines of a compound which houses remaining sect members in northeastern Terengganu state, where she spends her days helping one of her children, who is a seamstress.

She rarely ventures out into the wider community, and state police and religious authorities have restricted the numbers of people who can see her.

But there’s hardly a whiff of despair, or any sense that Kamariah considers herself a victim.

“I dont feel anything,” she says of how she has been treated by the local community. “I dont feel sad, I feel pity for them because they dont understand.”

Kamariah’s renunciation was a rare challenge on an issue which remains completely taboo in Malaysia, where the constitution dictates that the ethnic Malays who dominate the multi-ethnic population are Muslim by definition.

Under Islam, renouncing the religion — the crime of apostasy — is one of the gravest offences possible. But Malaysia’s constitution also guarantees its citizens the right to freedom of religion, and Kamariah is now trying to convince the nation’s highest court to rule that this right extends to Muslims in what could be a landmark case.

“Even if I stay in my own home, they come and prosecute me. That’s why I have to go to court,” she says.

Used to being scrutinised, Kamariah is more bemused than worried over the attention to her every move, including her decision to take off the Muslim headscarf or tudung — which recently earned her a reprimand from a court judge.

“I have worn the tudung since I was a child because I went to religious schools. But … Allah says I dont want to look at your clothing, I look at your heart, so I want to try that. So I thats why I have taken it off. And lots of people are angry with me because of that.”

Kamariah and others like her are in a bizarre legal bind, because no member of Malaysia’s judiciary wants to become involved in helping a person to commit the grave sin of renouncing Islam. Such are the explosive implications of allowing a person to do so that, so far, both civil and religious or sharia courts have refused to rule on the issue.

Civil courts have ruled that only sharia courts can declare a person to be a non-Muslim, while sharia courts that uphold Islamic law are reluctant to declare people as apostates.

A small woman standing under five feet, Kamariah’s gaze can be stern, and theres a certain wariness about her. But she is quick to laugh when something amuses her, like the apparently circular logic of authorities who refuse to recognise her decision to quit the faith.

“If they say I am not following Islam, then why are they not allowing me to renounce?” she asks.

Lawyers say there are large numbers of people like Kamariah, including those who converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim but want to leave the religion after the relationship has broken down. Living in legal limbo between civil and sharia court systems, they are unable to resolve issues such as land ownership, inheritance rights and child custody.

“You’ve got individuals who are trapped in an identity they don’t subscribe to and they want to get on with their lives but can’t,” says Kamariah’s lawyer, Haris Ibrahim.

Kamariah’s bid to argue her case before Malaysia’s Federal Court, a campaign she is fighting alongside fellow Ayah Pin follower Daud Mamat, comes after years of frustration over not being able to worship freely.

Since 1992, when she and other Ayah Pin members were convicted of deviating from Islam, Kamariah has been jailed for two years, ordered to attend repentance classes — she refused — and trailed in and out of sharia and federal courts.

Kamariah, who earned a degree in Islamic law in Egypt, also lost her right to teach during that time. She also endured the death of her husband, fellow sect member and teacher Mohamed Ya, who was also thrown in prison over the campaign.

While the legal wrangle plays out, many Muslims say the issue comes down to differing opinions over how Islam should be practiced — divisions which are reflected in Muslim communities all over the world.

Orthodox followers of Islam argue that apostasy is an extremely serious offence and point to certain hadiths — records of the sayings of the prophet Mohammad — which dictate the death penalty for renouncing the religion.

The deputy director of the government’s Institute of Islamic Understanding, Nik Mustapha Nik Hassan, argues that Islam demands adherence to its tenets.

“We are committed. We are convinced about Islam. Islam is a serious religion. It’s the only path to us, to Muslims. So we cannot allow people to come and interfere in our religion, in our religious affairs. So apostasy definitely is a serious offence, it amounts to a mandatory death sentence,” he says.

“Islam is a serious religion. It may not be similar to other religions, it’s a way of life.”

Conservative scholars also argue that apostasy provides an easy way for Muslims to avoid prosecution in sharia courts for crimes such as drinking alcohol or gambling.

“We have seen cases of renunciation and these were done to avoid punishment,” says Professor Abdul Aziz Bari from Malaysia’s International Islamic University. “From this perspective, the ruling on apostasy is a kind of deterrent.”

Liberal Muslims in Malaysia agree that apostasy is a serious sin, but say punishment should be meted out in the afterlife, not in earthly courts.

“We should leave them alone and try to win them over with love and persuasion. But to use the blunt instrument of criminal law leaves me with a sense of shame and embarrassment,” says Shad Saleem Faruqi, a constitutional expert at the Mara University of Technology.

Islamic scholars have disagreed for centuries over interpretations of Islam and its practices, as well as issues such as the correct punishment for apostasy. Discussions over the issue have become more impassioned because, like many other Muslim countries, Malaysia is undergoing an increasing “Islamisation” of its population, as well as a perception that Islam needs to be defended since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

This resurgence of Islam has been largely fuelled by an ongoing battle between Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organisation and its opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic party to prove their Islamic credentials.

The revival has seen Muslims more fastidious about practices such as fasting during Ramadan, and abstaining from alcohol, gambling and unmarried contact with the opposite sex.

Growing numbers of Muslim women are wearing headscarves, and it is rare to see a female Malay public servant without one.

In spite of the changes, observers say no one knows how much of the behaviour is due to increased piety and how much is due to a kind of political correctness — a social expectation that Muslims should conform.

This growing awareness of the religion makes any move to question its tenets or to abandon the faith all the more sensitive.

In Malaysia, people like Kamariah face another stumbling block in the constitution — drafted by British colonial rulers with advice from Malay politicians — which defines a Malay as a person who “professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay customs.”

The definition is crucial because the constitution spells out the privileges, including scholarships and land rights, that the country’s ethnic Malays, who make up some 60 percent of the population, are entitled to.

Malays have historically lagged behind the minority Chinese in economic terms, and modern Malaysia has seen the rise of numerous positive discrimination schemes for Malays to even out the discrepancy.

Lawyers say if Kamariah’s case ever gets to the Federal Court, and it found in her favour, it could unravel the policies fundamental to Malaysia’s economic machinery and undo its delicate balance of race relations.

“I actually shiver at the implications,” says constitutional expert Shad. “The issue of conversion out of Islam is not simply a religious issue but is an issue of abandoning the Malay community with all the political implications of the balance of powers between the Malays and non-Malays.”

For Kamariah the battle is personal, though the significance of her case is not lost on her.

“If we go back through history, even those who brought Islam, pioneers of religion all go through difficulties first. So I have to be patient,” she says.


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