SO much has already been said about the Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013, more popularly known as the conversion bill. The bill has been described in a number of ways, from “unfair” to “controversial” to causing rifts within multi-religious Malaysia.
One thing still needs to be said about the bill which the government withdrew following objections from Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat politicians, the Bar Council and civil society groups. At the heart of their objections was Section 107(b) of the bill which implies that the conversion of a minor to Islam can occur with just one parent’s consent.
The thing that bears mentioning after all that has already been said is this: the reason the bill is so objectionable isn’t just because it’s “unfair” to non-Muslims or seen as “controversial” by some groups. The reason it has no place in Malaysia is that the Bill, like the 1993 enactment it was meant to replace, entrenches inequalities in Malaysia. Worse, it does so in the name of Islam.
More inequality, please
What proponents of unilateral conversion are actually saying is that they want to see more inequalities being further anchored among citizens. How so?
Firstly, by exhorting that a Muslim parent, even if newly-converted, has more rights than a non-Muslim parent. If equality were part of the equation, then the same right would be accorded to a non-Muslim parent who wanted to convert his or her child to any religion. After all, two parents jointly brought a child into the world and are jointly responsible for the child. Of course, giving each parent the unilateral right to convert their child would be totally untenable. One can only imagine what feuding parents would do to spite their estranged spouse — the conversion of a child could continue ad infinitum to the child’s detriment.
The untenable situation aside, how can any state which should be upholding equality for all citizens allow a Muslim parent the right to convert their child and not accord a non-Muslim parent the same right?
Some, including no less than Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, have argued that there is nothing wrong with the Muslim right to unilaterally convert a minor. They say it’s constitutional, citing the fact that the Federal Constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of the federation. At the very least, that is a flawed argument. At the worst, it’s a diabolical attempt at misrepresenting the constitution so that Malay-Muslim superiority can be further established in Malaysia.
The country’s founding leaders surely did not agree to Islam being the religion of the federation in order to create inequalities among citizens. Indeed, at the time of independence, the constitution was drawn up so as to be as inclusive as possible of the myriad interests of all citizens, no matter their racial identity and faith. The Reid Commission which drafted our constitution was very clear that the clause on Islam as the religion of the federation was not meant to “impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practising their own religion and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state”. Indeed, we should remember that the Council of Rulers was opposed to inserting any clause that made Islam the religion of the federation.
The proponents of the conversion bill also say there is judicial precedence to back their reading of the law. They cite the Federal Court decision in the R Subashini case. Much has already been said about how the Federal Court decision is not legally binding. But a further point needs to be made. If a court decision results in inequality and injustice between citizens, shouldn’t responsible policy and law makers be looking at ways to correct that inequality, rather than perpetuate it?
Additionally, there are other inequalities attached to this one-parent argument. The Maliki school of thought opines that only if the father converts to Islam, is the child then automatically converted. This argument clearly breeds inequalities between men and women, not just Muslims and non-Muslims.
Is that what Islam really says should be done? Does Islam call for inequalities to be perpetrated, and perpetuated? Or does Islam call for equality and justice so that we can attempt to create more just and fair societies?
As it is, there are already all kinds of other inequalities in Malaysian society. There are economic inequalities between the rich and the poor which are even more pronounced among the Muslim-Malay Malaysian population. There are inequalities between bumiputera and non-bumiputera. There are even inequalities between Semenanjung bumiputera and East Malaysian bumiputera, and between Malay bumiputera and the Orang Asli. Then there is the perennial inequality between men and women. And lest we forget, Muslim women suffer more inequalities under the Malaysian syariah system than non-Muslim women under civil law.
What kind of federal or state government would want even more inequalities in society? And what kind of National Fatwa Council or ulama would exhort for more inequalities in the name of Islam? Shouldn’t the nation’s considerable resources be aimed at remedying inequalities rather than creating more?
What’s clear is that it’s not just the BN, specifically Umno, which is responsible for perpetuating inequality in the name of Islam. Some in the PAS leadership believe in the same thing. Others, by remaining coy instead of immediately speaking up against more inequalities, should be reminded that silence means consent.
Indeed, what has been heartening in this particular instance has been how an Umno minister, Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, so vehemently opposed the bill. At the same time, Selangor PAS commissioner Dr Abd Rani Osman made it amply clear that he could not support the unilateral conversion of minors.
Two other things need highlighting. First, that the right to unilateral conversion by a Muslim is not universally accepted. Indeed, the different schools of thought have different views on this. And the fact that quite a few Muslims have different opinions on the matter demonstrates that human agency, not divine will, is involved in the making of these laws.
Indeed, unilateral conversion is allowed by the state enactments of the Federal Territories (1993 — the one that the withdrawn bill was meant to replace), Sarawak (2001), Malacca (2002), Negeri Sembilan (2003), Perak (2004) and Kedah (2008). However, in Terengganu (2001), Selangor (2003), Johor (2003), Penang (2004), Sabah (2004) and Perlis (2006), the consent of both parents are needed. And in Pahang (1991), a child may only be converted by the Muslim parent if a court other than a Syariah court awards custody rights to that parent.
If laws on unilateral conversion are thus products of human agency, and not God’s law or a divine right, what’s stopping the people who are in power from making decisions that uphold equality, justice and fairness? Could it be that those who have authority over our lives really don’t want equality for all citizens? And could it be that they are so hell-bent on perpetuating inequality among citizens that they are only too willing to use Islam for their questionable ends?
Jacqueline Ann Surin wonders why some Members of Parliament are so afraid to speak up against something that will perpetuate inequality in the name of Islam. Surely, if one believes in God or some version of the divine, not speaking up against inequality calls to question what one really believes in.