The highest court in Malaysia ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the Muslim Shariah courts, even though the Malaysian Constitution, which the civil courts are supposed to uphold, guarantees freedom of religion. The Shariah courts have been adamant that “apostasy” cannot be allowed; Muslims cannot become non-Muslims.
The ruling will be seen in most of the rest of the world as an example of Muslim arrogance, intolerance and obscurantism, which are particularly out of place in a country where more than 40 percent of the population is not Muslim (and non-Muslims are a majority in some states).
But the ruling is as much about the politics of race as it is about religion. The Malay elite is less noted for piety than for its determination to cling on to the economic and political privileges it has awarded itself through the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party that has dominated the political process since independence 50 years ago.
All Malays are deemed to be Muslims; thus religion has become a means of reinforcing the racial basis of politics. The elite will not disavow it, partly to protect the privileges and partly to avoid being outflanked among Malay voters at election time by the more fundamentalist Parti Islam.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the chief justice argued that one could not leave a religion “at whim,” suggesting that it was a function of birth more than belief. By implication, he raised this question: Are Malays in Malaysia (unlike Indonesia) incapable of making their own decisions on religion?
The court (with the one non-Muslim judge dissenting) appeared to forget that non-Muslims who wish to marry Malays must convert to Islam. In short, the court has in effect undermined Malaysian pluralism for the sake of UMNO’s political expediency.
Source: International Herald Tribune