Is it truly Asia or sharia? Lessons from neighboring Malaysia

Is it truly Asia or sharia?
Lessons from neighboring Malaysia

The Jakarta Post, Opinion – Januay 17, 2008

 Anand Krishna, Jakarta

Several months back I wrote that Malaysia could no longer justify its use of the slogan "Truly Asia". This view is now confirmed by the latest events there.

Forget representing Asia, the Malaysian government today is unable even to represent its diverse society in its entirety. The uprising of the Tamil minority is but the tip of the iceberg. Underneath awaits a huge chunk of crystallized dissatisfaction and disappointment, which could result in the disintegration of Malaysian society.

Consider the story of Revathi Masoosai, an ethnic Indian, who is being forced to live as a Muslim by the Islamic religious department in southern Malacca state, after it was discovered that although she was born to Muslim parents, she had chosen to live as a Hindu.

In Malaysia, Islamic law forbids people born to Muslim families to change their religion, hence not only was Revathi detained by the Islamic religious department and sent for "religious counseling in a rehabilitation center" (which translates to being forced to reconvert to Islam by the state authorities), her 15-month-old daughter too was taken away from her husband and handed over to Revathi’s Muslim mother to be raised as a Muslim.

The constitution of Malaysia qualifies Muslims only as "Malay" (or bumiputera = son of the land). Non-Muslims have to forfeit their ethnicity. Indigenous people (the true sons of the land) who have lived in the country before Islam was introduced are declared non-indigenous. So, 40 percent of Malaysia’s non-Muslim population are regarded as second class citizens by the ruling UMNO party, who uphold a policy called Ketuanan Melayu, which claims Malays (who are automatically classed as Muslims on their identity cards) are the original inhabitants of Malaysia, and deserving of special privileges.

Another very interesting story is that of Lina Joy, who is regarded as Malaysia’s most famous apostate. I understand she is now seeking asylum abroad.

Lina Joy, who became a Christian in 1986, has for 15 years tried without success to have her status as a Muslim removed from her identity card. She took her case to the Supreme Court, but her appeal failed.

The court ruled, according to Islamic law: Once a Muslim, always a Muslim. She cannot legally marry her Christian fiance while she is classed as a Muslim. And although a practicing Christian, all her children from any marriage she enters into in Malaysia will be considered Muslim, they will be forbidden from attending a Christian education and when she dies, she will be buried a Muslim. She and her lawyer have received death threats.

The prime minister of Malaysia may very well understand that the gap between the peoples of Malaysia is ever widening. He may even voice his understanding. But he can not alter the rulings of what is understood as Islamic law. Malaysia has since its very conception, declared itself an Islamic State. So it must abide by its national commitment.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with sharia, which is often misinterpreted as Islamic "law" in the same way we normally interpret law. I may be wrong, but in my opinion what is called Islamic law is but a system supposedly based on sharia as advocated by prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Now, this supposition is totally at the mercy of the scholars who interpret sharia.

Sharia is a very dynamic way of life. It is based on the beatitudes and messages of the Koran, the holy and blessed scripture, and the equally blessed deeds of the prophet of Allah. It is the essence of all religions, the religiousness of religion. It represents all that is good in human beings, humanity and humanness.

This path is very, very broad — based on the principles of oneness of God, submission to the will of God, charity, self-control and respect for that which is holy. All these are then applied in daily life. The application is supposed to be simple as advocated by the prophet himself. Religion is supposed to facilitate human beings in achieving their goals in a manner which is humane. It is not to complicate our lives.

This kind of understanding of sharia makes Islam truly universal, and a blessing for the entire universe, not just our world.

Alas, in the name of sharia, scholars often interpret the scriptures to suit their fancies and relate it to law. Then they enforce such laws for one and all — at times with the consent of the state, at other times without such consent.

Once again, I must repeat this understanding of mine could be wrong. I am not a scholar. But I can clearly see that without such a broad understanding, sharia has been used and misused in such a way in Malaysia that the entire society is currently on the brink of disintegration.

Our people here, not only the so-called liberals and moderates such as Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, Dawam Raharjo, Djohan Effendy, Ainun Najib (Cak Nun), the late Nurcholish Madjid (Cak Nur) and others — but also the somewhat conservative, like Yusril Ihza Mahendra who is still fighting for a Jakarta Charter which makes it compulsory for Muslims in the country to adhere to sharia-based qanun or law — actually believe that the essence of Islamic sharia has already been incorporated into our Constitution and the basic principles of Pancasila. So what are we fighting for?

The enforcement of regional bylaws based on certain understandings of sharia has already triggered similar reactions from other religious groups, like the Christians in Manokwari.

We must understand and understand this well: Indonesia is not Pakistan, which was born out of religious sentiments. Indonesia is also not Malaysia, where the Hindus are of Tamil descent and most of the Buddhists are of Chinese origin, so the state could label one group as indigenous, therefore deserving special treatment; and the other groups as non-indigenous, therefore able to do without such treatment.

Here, in Indonesia, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians all are indigenous Indonesians, pribumi or bumiputera. They must be treated equally in all manners.

Not only that, since we are not a religious state, the government must firmly deal with the groups of our confused brothers and sisters who may not be sufficiently aware of our national commitment before even proclaiming the independence of the country.

We are committed to Pancasila as our binding force. Our culture is our mother. Without that, we have no identity. No wonder, some of us are searching for our roots and identities in China, Arabia, India, even in the western countries. We have forgotten our own roots.

Within 50 years of its independence, Malaysia faces the threat of disintegration. It must find its roots in the ancient Malay culture to re-unite its society or perish. It is high time we in Indonesia learned from Malaysia’s failure to be truly Asia, the Asia of Muslims and Hindus, the Asia of Christians and Buddhists, the asia of all faiths and religions. But, above all the Asia of Asian culture!