Malaysia's minorities fear Islamic law changes

Prayers at a Mosque
Image caption Malays could face harsher punishments for offences than those of other faiths in their country

Malaysia's Islamic party is pressing for more areas of law to be dealt with under an Islamic legal code, causing concerns among religious minorities, despite reassurances they would not be affected.

There are two Malaysias. One for the Muslim majority - the other for Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and non-Muslims.

For example, Malays do not have the freedom to choose their religion. It is written in the constitution that all ethnic Malays must, by definition, be Muslim.

At the same time, other ethnic groups are allowed to worship freely.

Political leaders would have you believe that these two Malaysias barely interact, and therefore do not conflict.

It is true in some cases - but not in others.

Islamic police

Take my gay friend for example. On a few occasions, I have invited him to my place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon cooking and watching some bad reality TV shows.

What I did not realise was that my innocent invitations could get him arrested.

He is a Malay and, as a Muslim, he is subject to Islamic law which does not allow couples who are not married to each other to be in a secluded area together.

Image caption Tan Cheow Hong is fighting to get custody of his daughter

That way nothing "immoral" can happen, and the offence of so-called close proximity is avoided.

My friend is constantly worried that the security guards at my apartment block would call the Islamic police on him.

The fact that he is gay would not absolve him since homosexuality is also a crime in Islam.

I, on the other hand, would not be arrested because I am a Christian, and Islamic law does not apply to non-Muslims. We are only subject to Malaysian civil law.

So whenever the topic of Islamic law comes up, religious officials working for local and national government are always quick to point out that non-Muslims would not be affected by it in any case.

This is the argument that the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic party - or PAS - has used to call for the expansion of Islamic law in recent weeks.

At present, if you are Muslim, all issues regarding family and faith are dealt with in Islamic courts.

But PAS officials say they want Islamic law to cover criminal offences as well.

The punishments they want would include, among other things, cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers to death.

The party insists the move would not affect non-Muslims. That promise, however, is no longer reassuring for Malaysia's religious minorities.

Some feel Islamic law is already encroaching on their rights.

Child custody

It is a problem that Tan Cheow Hong, a Buddhist, never thought he would run up against.

He and his wife had married according to civil law. They later separated and he took care of their daughter.

This arrangement carried on for a few years until his estranged wife showed up last November at their child's school with Islamic officials and police in tow.

His wife had become a Muslim and obtained an Islamic court order to take their daughter back. The next day she had the child declared a Muslim as well, and was granted full guardianship of their daughter under Islamic law.

Mr Tan says all of this was done behind his back. He has accused his wife of converting to Islam so that she would gain custody of their child.

Some say they suspect Islamic courts would automatically favour any Muslim parent. Mr Tan is now fighting the decision through the civil law system.

His wife has refused to comment, but her lawyers say that as a Muslim she had every right to go to the Islamic court.

Dual courts

Mr Tan's story is not unique.

There are dozens of similar cases where disgruntled spouses are believed to be exploiting the country's dual court systems.

Their stories have sowed a feeling of distrust among religious minorities.

"If Islamic authorities can snatch our children away, convert them, and decide on custody issues - all without the knowledge or presence of the other parent - then what rights do we as non-Muslims have?" said Mr Tan.

Image caption Tan Cheow Hong is fighting to get custody of his daughter

The federal court does not have a clear answer for him - at least not yet. Many families before him with similar cases have been told to go back to the Islamic court even though it supposedly has no jurisdiction over non-Muslims.

In the face of rising Islamisation, legal scholars say politicians and judges here are unwilling to resolve the issue for fear they will be seen as anti-Islam.

And the issue of justice might become even more complex if the proposed Islamic criminal code were introduced.

Zainah Anwar, a prominent Muslim rights activist, poses this scenario in a recent newspaper column.

Suppose a Malay and Chinese were both caught stealing.

The Malay-Muslim might get his hands chopped off, while his Chinese accomplice might only be locked up for a few months in jail.

For the same crime only one person would be permanently disabled - because of their religion.

It may seem idle to debate Islamic criminal law in Malaysia. There are still many legal hurdles to overcome before it can be enforced.

Yet this time around, non-Muslims are alarmed.

This may be a country that prides itself on its multi-religious and multi-ethnic harmony - but what happens in Muslim Malaysia is not always confined to the followers of Islam - and non-Muslims are feeling exposed.

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