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Do Not Legislate on Faith

Should Malaysia have a law to punish Muslims who leave the religion? The Hudud Enactment in Kelantan already prescribes the death penalty for apostasy. For years PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) has tried to introduce a private members bill in Parliament to impose the death penalty for apostasy as a federal law. The Government has been under pressure to enact a specific law for apostasy, not just from the opposition, but also from within UMNO (United Malays National Organisation). In this holier than thou battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim voters, the Government has now responded by drafting a model statute called the Islamic Aqidah (Faith) Protection Bill 2000. This bill was adopted by the Perlis state assembly last April and a Bernama report last week quoted the Parliamentary Secretary in the Prime Minister's Department saying that the bill is being finalised and will be sent to the Attorney-General's chambers before adoption by Parliament to be enforced in the Federal Territories. It can be expected that other states will follow suit.


Sisters in Islam is opposed to any effort to legislate on faith. The Qur'an is explicit and consistent in its recognition of freedom of religion. In Surah al-Baqarah, 2:256, Allah explicitly states: "Let there be no compulsion in religion." This Medinan verse was revealed when some Companions asked the Prophet for permission to compel their relatives to profess Islam. It has been widely interpreted to mean that no one can be compelled to embrace Islam. Religion depends upon faith and will, and this would be meaningless if induced by force. Islam itself means submission to the will of God; and the willing submission of the self to faith and belief must be attained through conviction and reason, not through coercion and duress.

According to those who support punishment for apostasy, verse 2:256 is meant only to apply to non-Muslims, i.e. one cannot use force to convert a non-Muslim to Islam. They say, however, that once you are a Muslim, you lose the freedom to leave Islam.

Freedom of religion must necessarily recognise the freedom to change religion. How can Muslims demand this notion of religious freedom for those wishing to convert to Islam and at the same time argue the denial of this freedom to those wishing to repudiate their faith in Islam?

Such an argument limits the scope of the broad humanistic meaning of this verse and imposes a double standard on faith and freedom that undermines an outstanding principle of Islamic justice which recognises freedom of religion, differences and diversity among humankind. Moreover, the Qur'an in some 20 verses on belief and disbelief does not prescribe any temporal punishment for apostasy. While many eminent Muslim jurists viewed renunciation of faith as an offence, they regarded the matter as one between man and his Creator, and its punishment is postponed to the Day of Judgement.

In Surah Yunus, 10:99, Allah addressed the Prophet: "Had your Lord willed, everyone on earth would have believed. Do you then force people to become believers?" In another verse, Surah an-Nahl, 16:125, Allah said: "Invite all to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious."

How could such messages in the Qur'an translate into punishment for those who disbelieve? The fundamental principle of freedom of religion in Islam is clear from numerous verses in the Qur'an and the resultant norm of Shari'ah that proscribe all oppression and violation of the integrity of this freedom. No one can be compelled to embrace Islam because of fear that they would otherwise be subject to one-year detention in an Aqidah Rehabilitation Centre as provided for in the bill.

Constitutionally, too, this bill violates Article 11 which guarantees freedom of religion. There has been a long tradition in the Malaysian legal system to recognise freedom of religion. In the case of the Minister of Home Affairs v Jamaluddin bin Othman, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional guarantee on freedom of religion. It dismissed the Minister's contention that Jamaluddin's conversion to Christianity constituted an act prejudicial to national security under the Internal Security Act.

The earlier trial judge in the High Court of Kuala Lumpur took the view that "the Minister had no power to deprive a person of his right to profess and practise his religion which is guaranteed under Art. 11 of the Federal Constitution, and, therefore, if the Minister acts to restrict the freedom of a person from professing and practising his religion, his act will be inconsistent with the provision of Art. 11 and therefore an order of detention would not be valid." Consequently, the judge ordered the release of Jamaluddin who had been detained under the Internal Security Act.

So why is the Government introducing a law to regulate our faith? Is this a political decision to respond to the challenge of PAS? Or is there a threat to public order posed by droves of Muslims leaving the religion? According to JAKIM statistics between 1994 and May 1997, 519 Muslims applied to change their religion. Only 55 were Malaysian citizens, most of them converts to Islam. In the same period, about 11,000 people converted to Islam in Malaysia. Is the Islamic Aqidah Protection Bill then just a law in search of a problem to serve political ends?

What are the implications of such a law in a multi-racial society where mixed marriages is a common practice? Will a Chinese woman who converted to Islam because of marriage to a Muslim man be sent to a rehabilitation centre for compulsory detention for one year in order to restore her faith which has been broken by the breakdown of her marriage? Will she automatically lose custody of her children? Should she be denied the right to return to the bosom of her family and her support system for fear of prosecution under an Islamic Aqidah Protection law?

The bill, as passed by the Perlis Legislative Assembly, does not stand to scrutiny. The bill is meant to provide for the protection, rehabilitation and determination of the aqidah of a Muslim. But it provides nothing for the protection of aqidah. It takes a punitive approach to rehabilitation by providing for one-year compulsory detention in an Aqidah Rehabilitation Centre. It was reported that two have been built, in Bangi and in Jelebu. The substance of the law is about rehabilitation and yet it is silent on the framework and content of rehabilitation, thus again leaving it to the discretion of religious functionaries to decide what constitutes rehabilitation.

At the end of the one-year compulsory detention, if the person still refuses to repent, then the judge will declare that the person is no longer a Muslim and order his release. This is no consolation to freedom of religion. The person's rights and fundamental liberties have been violated. If he is married, his marriage will be dissolved and the judge will determine his obligations or liabilities under Islamic Family Law.

The bill provides no definition for apostasy. It provides that a Syariah Enforcement Officer can investigate if, from information received or otherwise, he has reason to suspect the commission of "an attempt to change aqidah" by a Muslim "either by word, deed or by any means". What words, deeds or means that may constitute "an attempt to change aqidah" are not defined.

Will women activists who advocate equality between men and women, who believe that polygamy is not an unconditional right in Islam, that men don't have a right to beat their wives, be charged for "attempting to change aqidah" because the conservatives who will sit in judgement decide that such positions are against the teachings of Islam? A popular kitab used in the pondok schools in the north pronounce that women who oppose their husband's right to take a second wife are murtad and kafirs. It is not too far-fetched to fear that there will be Syariah enforcement officers and judges who believe so.

The bill provides that if at the end of his investigation, the Syariah Enforcement Officer is of the opinion that "there is sufficient evidence or reasonable ground of suspicion to justify the commencement of proceedings…", then the person will be served with a summons to appear before the Court. What constitutes "sufficient evidence or reasonable ground for suspicion" is not defined. Perhaps the drafters of this law will argue that it is not meant to punish those Muslims who believe in equal rights for men and women or those Muslims who attend a funeral service of a Christian friend conducted in a Church. However, the fear is that as with provisions in the Syariah Criminal Offences law, these loosely drafted provisions leave the law open to abuse. They give wide personal discretion for interpretation to enforcement officers.

The implications are grave in a multi-racial society. As reflected in the cases and complaints received by women's groups, parents have been known to lodge reports with the Religious Departments accusing their daughters of attempting to leave Islam when they fail to break up their children's relationship with non-Muslim boyfriends. In one particular case, a state religious department acting on a report from the parents of the young woman, broke into her flat, arrested her and sent her to a privately-run "Islamic" drug rehabilitation centre where the woman found herself in the company of three other young women in similar straits - all locked up in a room in the home of the ustaz who ran the centre, against their will and without any due process of the law, and "rehabilitated" in ways that were far from Islamic.

Or ex-husbands have accused their convert ex-wives of murtad because they now date men of other faiths or because the fathers want to get custody of the children, not for the love of the children, but out of vindictiveness against the mothers who now lead an independent new life.

Women's groups can envision this law being abused because of personal malice. Must Muslims, converts and born-Muslims, live in fear of this law should they lead a life that in any way could be construed as a transgression of the faith by those embarked on a personal vendetta against them? Will this law give licence to ex-spouses, business rivals, office enemies to lodge a complaint with the religious department that a person was seen frequenting restaurants that serve alcohol, or that the ex-wife was now living with her non-Muslim pork-eating parents, thus launching an investigation into one's private life by the religious authorities to pronounce whether one is a murtad or not?

And who is to judge what exactly distinguishes belief from disbelief and attempt to disbelief? Even the learned jurists of the early years of Islam could not agree on this. Throughout the history of Islam, there have been accusations and counter-accusations amongst groups and sects denouncing one another as kafirs which has led to bloodshed and oppression. This is already happening in Malaysia.

Is the Government giving sanction to this dangerous path by legislating on apostasy? If it hopes to win over PAS supporters by taking this punitive action, be assured that PAS through its three assemblymen in Perlis have already denounced this enactment as they claim it does not conform with true Islamic teachings, i.e. death penalty for apostates. Wouldn't it be wiser for this Government to take a brave and principled stand that it respects freedom of religion as clearly envisaged by the Qur'an and as reflected in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

If truly, the religious authorities are concerned about the conversion of Muslims to other faiths, then the path to be taken is not through punishment and mandatory detention, but through education. The Qur'an has given us explicit guidance on this: "use wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious", not lock them up in a rehabilitation centre for one year and expect them to love their oppressors and the religion they represent after that.

The duty of the Faithful is to advocate, not to admonish or coerce. In Surah al-Hajj, 22:68-69, Allah said: "If they wrangle with you, say: 'God knows best what it is you are doing'. God will judge between you on the Day of Judgement concerning matters in which you differ."

Sisters In Islam

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