Rise of the conservatives

AN approach to Syariah that lacks "a just balance" and "compassion" has triumphed yet again. By withdrawing a clause that would have put an end to the unilateral conversion of children by the parent who has converted to Islam, the government has failed to prioritise the well-being of the child which is an important principle of Islamic jurisprudence. Since unilateral child conversions have generated so much friction and caused so much pain for so many years, the new bill presented to Parliament on Aug 8 which legitimises such acts is a huge disappointment.

To be fair to the government, as soon as Datuk Seri Mohd Najib assumed the prime ministership in April 2009, he made an earnest attempt to resolve the issue of unilateral child conversion and other related matters. He was aware that while mainstream Muslim opinion in Malaysia and elsewhere viewed the conversion of a child to Islam by a father who had embraced the faith as his right, there were other alternative positions in Islamic law that took into consideration the non-converting mother's relationship with her child and the situation of the child itself. Besides, the larger objectives of the Syariah (Maqasid Syariah) would demand that due weight be given to the impact of unilateral child conversions upon the delicate fabric of a multi-religious society like ours. Professor Hashim Kamali, the chief executive officer of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies and one of the world's leading Islamic jurists, and some of us advanced these arguments in our writings. For us compassion and justice were fundamental Quranic, and therefore Syariah, values and it was possible to formulate a solution that was fair to all parties.

Unfortunately, Najib's 2009 attempt was stymied by some religious bureaucrats using a powerful conduit to pursue their agenda. The prime minister tried again in 2012 but there was strong opposition from some of the same elements. The recent bid which began in November 2016 was deferred in April 2017 partly because some of the same conservative voices were against any endeavour to bring a modicum of justice and balance into the issue of child conversion. And now that bid is over and it is the conservative approach that has won.

Why has this happened? Is it because of the impending general election and the desire to ensure that the Muslim vote remains with the Umno-led Barisan Nasional?

Whatever the reason, we should be clear in our minds that the child conversion issue is not an isolated phenomenon. Just last week we witnessed a government department defying a Court of Appeal decision on whether an illegitimate child can carry the name of his father. The National Registration Department felt that it had to follow the Fatwa Council's view on the matter. Given the structure of authority in our system of governance it goes without saying that a judicial decision supersedes any fatwa by any council. In any case, even in Islamic law, a fatwa is nothing more than an advisory opinion.

The rise of conservative religious power is also manifested in the Ministry of Home Affairs' prohibition of a number of publications many of them "found to be confusing and contradictory to the teachings of Islam according to the Sunnah wal Jamaah sect practised in the country." The ministry has not bothered to tell us how they are "confusing and contradictory" and why they are "deemed a threat to public interest, public peace and morals …."

Among the banned books are one of Farish Noor's writings and a Malay translation of one of Abdullahi Naim's works. From what I know of the two publications they promote reflections on the evolution of Malay society in one instance and on the Syariah in the other instance. A little earlier, the ministry had banned a collection of essays from G25. Books by Faisal Musa have also been banned. All these bans seem to suggest that state religious authorities are determined to perpetuate their monopoly over Islam and how Malaysian Muslims understand and practise their faith.

This is one of the major weaknesses of the conservative forces that dominate Islam in Malaysia: they are authoritarian in word and deed. They have no compunctions about using their power and the power vested in the state to marginalise and eliminate those who do not subscribe to their worldview. Their other equally serious weakness is in their attitude towards women. The dignity that the Quran bestows upon women means little to conservative religious leaders and their followers who seldom accord women their rightful place in the public realm.

It is not just their authoritarianism or their misogyny which is troubling. Almost every Muslim state that has chosen to enhance and expand Syariah as interpreted by conservative religious elites from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Somalia and Sudan has failed to resolve the real challenges facing the people – challenges such as abysmal poverty and widening economic disparities on the one hand and corruption and abuse of authority on the other. Of course, the causes of their failure are complex and distinct to each situation. Nonetheless, rigid interpretations of the religion that are obsessed with prohibitions and punishments (the 2P approach to Islam) are undeniably part of the problem.

It would be a calamity if Malaysia took the route of these states to "piety". It is time that we put a stop to this trend. Let us begin by restoring the clause that ends unilateral child conversion in the proposed amendment bill. For it is a clause that embodies compassion and justice which lie at the heart of Islam.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar is the chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com