Learning from Islamic Conservatism in Malaysia

Published in the Jakarta Post

A Malaysian friend, an activist with a feminist NGO, Sisters in Islam (SIS), e-mailed me recently about how difficult it is to get support for feminist interpretations of religious texts in Malaysia as compared to Indonesia.

In an increasingly conservative Malaysia, where Islam is considered monolithic, challenging clerics' interpretations could be considered a sin. She received, for her part, verbal attacks when she criticized a fatwa that isolates people living with HIV on an island.

The growing conservatism in Malaysia is also represented in its politics. There is seemingly no significant difference between the ruling Barisan Nasional -- a supposedly secular party -- and its opposition Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), in their campaign for the Islamization of Malaysia. In response to PAS' promotion of Islamic law and the relative success of the party in Kelantan, UMNO follows in its footstep in a bid to maintain its hegemonic position.

These days, there is much controversy surrounding the case of a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity. Azlina Jailani, a Malay of Javanese blood converted to Christianity in 1998 and adopted a new name, Lina Joy, as a symbol of her new identity as a Christian. She first applied for official permission to change her religion in 2001. However, the judge ruled that "As a Malay, the plaintiff exists under the tenets of Islam until her death". Lina Joy then appealed the decision on the grounds that it contravened Malaysia's constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. She lost her appeal in 2005 and is now waiting for another judgment for her appeal in the Federal Court.

In a seemingly oppressed Islamic world from Chechnya to southern Thailand, many Muslim Malaysians view such a case as an attack on Islam. "Why are Muslims being attacked politically and culturally everywhere?" said one blogger in an online debate.

But, as a Muslim, allow me to explain, this case is not an attack.

Can a faith be maintained by a coercive state power? As far as the Koran is concerned, it says la ikraha fi al-din (no coercion in religion); and it also clearly proclaims lakum dinukum wa liy al-din (it is up to you to embrace your faith and it is up to me to embrace my faith).

There are some debatable prophetic traditions about death penalties for those who convert from Islam. The clear thing, however, is that no single worldly punishment is stipulated in the Koran. It is more than enough to argue against those secondary arguments. After all, Malaysia is not an Islamic state and a reference to Islamic law would be tricky.

Moreover, how can we force someone to be a Muslim without her/his consent while Islam requires voluntary submission? In Abdullah Ahmad al-Naim's words, a prominent Sudanese scholar, "the coerced believers do not worship God, but the state who forced them so". To put it another way, it is a sin to force people to "worship the state" rather than God -- isn't worshiping someone other than God the biggest sin a Muslim could commit?

In this regard, is Indonesia any better than Malaysia? I would argue yes but only to a small degree, namely, we do not have any law stipulating an Indonesian must be a Muslim. Indonesia does force its citizen to embrace one of six "official" religions. And in a case similar to Lina Joy, Muslims, women and men alike, are not allowed to marry non-Muslims.

I don't know if any study has been done on the implications of such laws for those who converted to Islam to marry Indonesian Muslim women. I would call them "coerced Muslims" in a sense that some convert "formally" to Islam because Indonesian law prevents them from marrying Muslim women. Involuntarily converting, they alas do not practice their faith after marriage. Some marriages end in divorce instead.

In a free society, like the one I have encountered in the U.S., Islam flourishes as the fastest growing religion without relying on the coercive state power. Why should we, Muslims, worry about our "non-practicing" fellows leaving their Islamic path then?

Allah once reminded the Prophet that even though he spent all the money in the world, he would not be able to change a man's heart. Allah is the only one who changes the heart, "not you Muhammad". Did we not learn from Koranic stories about Abraham and his father, Noah and his son, David and his beloved wife? Those prophets could not bring their beloved ones to the path of God, how can we?

I think the best we can do is to practice our faith and I believe we are all taught these words, "Ya muqallib al-qulub, tsabbit qulubana ala dinika", a prayer to the only one who can change the heart, God and not the state.

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