THE Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) is concerned about the comments by senior federal counsel Mohamad Naser Disa, as reported in theSun newspaper on 25 Nov 2009. The comments were in relation to proposed amendments to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act (LRA) 1976 for situations where one spouse in a non-Muslim marriage converts to Islam.
If the comments accurately reflect the proposed amendments, it shows that the gross injustices being committed against non-Muslim spouses (mostly wives) by their husbands who convert to Islam, by the syariah courts and authorities, and by the civil courts will continue.
The comments also show clearly the federal government and the attorney general’s skewed method of approaching these amendments. The people who are suffering are the non-Muslim family members of the convert, especially mothers who are unable to see their children or to expose their children to their own faith. Yet, from the reported comments of the senior federal counsel, the federal government seems to mainly be concerned that a person who converts to Islam is being “cruelly treated” because he or she cannot break his or her previous marriage contract and get a divorce.
While a person’s right to profess a religion of his or her choice is inviolate, no one should be permitted to use the fact of conversion to evade one’s obligations to one’s family. The state, however, cannot use this excuse to restrict the fundamental liberty of a person to profess and practise any religion. Importantly, Islam and Islamic law cannot be imposed on a non-Muslim, who is guaranteed the right to profess and practise his or her own faith under our federal constitution.
The MCCBCHST is gravely concerned that the reported proposals will indirectly result in Islamic law being forced on non-Muslim spouses, especially wives. One example is the reported proposal to limit maintenance payments to a former wife, by a Muslim-convert husband, to only three months.
This may be the position under Islamic law. But, the non-Muslim wife contracted her marriage under the LRA, which provides that a husband must pay maintenance to his ex-wife until she remarries or dies.
Why is it that the Muslim convert is allowed to avoid his obligations under his previous contract of marriage merely because of his conversion? We are very concerned that rogue husbands will abuse the system, and convert to Islam as an easy excuse to get out of their marital obligations.
There must also be a clear statement, both in the relevant syariah legislation and in other legislation, providing that:
A child under the age of 18 cannot be converted to Islam without the permission of both parents.
In any event, that child should have the right to choose his or her own religion upon reaching theage of majority.
This was promised by the cabinet in its decision on 23 April 2009 based on reports in the newspapers at that time. Sadly, the current proposals do not reflect that promise.
Syariah interference must stop
The senior federal counsel’s briefing was also lacking in any proposal to prohibit the syariah courts and authorities from making orders and decisions, and taking any action whatsoever in respect of children born to parents who were originally non-Muslim.
We strongly object to any attempts to make laws applicable to persons professing other faiths “syariah-compliant”. In our respectful view, syariah law should only apply to persons professing Islam, and should not jeapardise or affect in any way the rights, privileges and liabilities of persons who do not profess Islam.
The MCCBCHST has previously submitted comprehensive proposals for law reforms to the Attorney-General’s Chambers. The general principles underlying those proposals was published in our note of protest dated June 2007 titled Unity Threatened by Continuing Infringements of Religious Freedom.
With respect, the MCCBCHST proposals will be fair to both the spouse converting to Islam and the spouse who does not. We have not made outlandish proposals, nor have we asked for more than what non-Muslim spouses should be entitled to under a law that is fair and just. We therefore urge the federal government, and all state governments, to immediately implement the MCCBCHST proposals in the respective laws.
As always, the MCCBHST is ready and willing to assist the relevant authorities in reaching a just solution to this problem.
Rev Dr Thomas Philips
30 Nov 2009