LINA Joy. Indira Gandhi. S Banggarma. M Moorthy. R Subashini. M Revathi. S Shamala. The list of individuals whose rights the Barisan Nasional (BN) government and the courts have failed to protect grows long. In its efforts to out-Islamise PAS and protect its “champion of Malay-Muslim Malaysians” tag, the Umno-led BN has been unable to convincingly resolve legal loopholes arising from civil-syariah overlaps and gaps.
The BN has also been lukewarm in supporting human rights when it conflicts with issues involving Islam such as in the recent High Court ruling on the use of “Allah” and the whipping of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno.
But would the situation be any different if the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) were in power?
In the second of a two-part interview with Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, conducted on 22 Dec 2009 in Petaling Jaya, The Nut Graph seeks his views on political Islam, moral policing, and how the PR plans to remain in power in Selangor.
TNG: Islamic issues such as Kartika’s whipping, the “Allah” ban, and the conversion controversies have provoked much discussion. With PAS as part of the PR, and the growing Islamisation in the country, how would you address the fears of the people who say that Malaysia could become an Islamic state like Iran?
Nik Nazmi: There’s always been a tradition of moderation among Malays in the Nusantara region. That’s been the dominating discourse. It’s very different from Saudi Arabia and in other countries. It’s very organic and has enabled us to live together peacefully for a long time.
Our constitution states that Islam is the religion of the federation. At the same time, we have to be wary of the extremities. People who don’t talk about co-existence and [who talk] about imposing their will, that’s dangerous as well. Similarly, those who want to ignore the Islamic tradition altogether.
I think the ulama should be very careful with politics. I’m not saying they shouldn’t join politics at all; [Datuk] Nik [Abdul] Aziz [Nik Mat], for example, is playing a big influence in PAS’s presence in the PR. But they have to be wary of compromises.
Nik Aziz In the history of Islam, many ulama stayed away from power to be credible consciences of society. If they had become part of government, they would lose their independence.
There also needs to be dialogue. Dialogue does not mean completely agreeing with the other party.
There are a lot of common challenges. For example, alcoholism is an issue, whether people are Muslim or non-Muslim. Why can’t Muslims work with churches and temples to combat this?
Religion being used to help society is great, but what are your views on moral policing?
The constitution is very clear about the syariah system and the space for it.
But first, we have to resolve issues together. The non-Muslim non-governmental organisations advocated a dialogue on civil-syariah overlaps such as those arising in Moorthy’s case. PAS also agreed to this.
There has to be due process when people enter and leave Islam. But families affected by [conversions to Islam] should also have locus standi. There’s no mechanism now to solve this issue. We’re just ignoring it. Every time a case comes up, there’s a debate, an argument, then it dies down.
Do you agree with the Syariah Court having criminal jurisdiction over moral issues and having power to issue fines or [to order] whipping such as in Kartika’s case?
I think there is room for that under the constitution. At the same time, if you look at the history of Islam, implementation of the law was always seen as a last resort during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
There is a traditional account of a woman, Ghamidyah, who came to the Prophet to be punished for adultery. [The Prophet kept delaying her punishment, asking her to go home and think about whether she really committed the sin. Even when she was pregnant, the Prophet said she should give birth first, then later, that she should care for the child first.]
So you see, the Prophet wasn’t eager to punish her immediately, that’s the context he operated in, which people today misconstrue. Every single thing, they want to punish … Muslims need to think about this. The ultimate objective of the syariah is justice. Enforcing justice to protect life, liberty and intellect.
Kartika For Kartika’s case, she also wanted to be punished. Caning under syariah is very different from caning under [non-syariah] law. I’m not saying it’s painless, but it’s very different from the criminal courts.
Some say she shouldn’t be punished at all, that it’s her right, but I think there must be respect for the syariah courts.
You mentioned in your book that it’s logical that cases such as Lina Joy, who wanted to leave Islam, are handled by the Syariah Court. Do you think that the courts should have the power to disallow somebody from changing religion?
I think that there have been people who have left under the Syariah Court; they were given space to do that.
There would also be people who want to leave, but have not been allowed to do so…
In Islam, we take matters of faith very seriously. I think to emulate the West, where the state doesn’t regulate anything about faith — that’s not part of the Muslim tradition. But at the end of the day, the focus should be on due process.
What if an adult Malay wants to leave Islam within Malaysia?
I think that is very difficult. That is very controversial, you have to ask a scholar to answer that.
My personal opinion is that the state should be able to regulate that. I know that from a perfectly Western liberal democratic perspective, it doesn’t make sense. But I think that within Islam — if it creates discord, fitnah, unease, these should be considered.
The complicated thing about apostasy in Malaysia is that it’s not just religion, it’s also racial. Because Malays are automatically Muslims, so if you have less Muslims, you have less Malays. That’s a fear that people sometimes overlook.
Do you think it could be possible for an adult Malay-Muslim Malaysian to leave Islam under the syariah courts?
To me, I think we’re just asking for due process. What Lina Joy did — she wanted to make a statement. People can say it was her right. But she wanted to just go to the National Registration Department and change her status from “Islam” to “Bukan Islam”.
That is the floodgates that Muslims in Malaysia are very scared of. They want them to go through the syariah court system. That is what the constitution prescribes. Go to the syariah and go through due process.
Moving on to the PR and Selangor — what does the PR have to do to keep governing the state in the near future, as well as going into the next election?
We need to go down and explain to the people what it means to have a government that takes care of everyone.
Malay [Malaysians] are being told that they’re losing out, that non-Malay [Malaysians] are controlling the government; that’s the narrative that Utusan Malaysia creates. We need to explain to them that in fact, everyone benefits.
We need to show that we’re not here just to make things better but to change things. It will take time, it’s not easy. We’ve managed to implement our Merakyatkan Ekonomi programmes, push for the freedom of information act at the next sitting … these are all concrete things.
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Reading this, he seems to be going all over the place instead of just answering the question. I’m wary of such people, but I do agree that the due process needs to be respected.
The question is, what happens when the due process is twisted to suit a political party?
Farish A Noor says
I am somewhat surprised by the tone of Mr Nazmi’s replies, and the fact that he has not really answered some of the questions that were put to him, re. on issues such as freedom of religion, moral policing, etc. To simply state glibly that ‘all Malays are automatically Muslim’ is not only to demonstrate a lack of knowledge of the rich and complex history of the Malays and the complex realities of the present; but also suggests that he is turning into yet another Malaysian politician who will not give a clear answer for fear of the political costs that may be incurred. A disappointing start for a young politician, I have to say. Sad.
He worries me. PR worries me. It’s getting to the stage of choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Andrew I says
A politician who talks sense and isn’t trying to conduct a masterclass in evasion during an interview.
All the best in your political journey.
Again the secular press like Nut Graph has not probed deeper into the Allah and Islamisation/theocracy issues.
This interview is limited as it is remains another discussion about organised religion per se a la the Malaysian context and not about the spiritual experience of man.
What if an adult Malay wants to leave Islam within Malaysia?
“I think that is very difficult. That is very controversial, you have to ask a scholar to answer that.
If you rephrase the question as follows:
“What if an adult human being who believed in a God under a religion called XYZ and then decided that he wants to believe in other things contrary to his previous beliefs?”
(i.e. what if he decided to change his mind and heart?)
Answer from Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad: “I think that is very difficult. That is very controversial, you have to ask a scholar to answer that.
The reporter Ding Jo An should have asked a follow-up question:
Why should I ask a scholar on this and which scholar do you recommend for a clear cut answer?
If changing one’s religion is a matter that can be decided by religious scholars, I think it is a travesty of the sacred to think that scholars sitting in their ivory towers know what to say about my personal belief in God.
It is apt that the interviewee talks about processes because what he really means is forms, rituals and procedures created by man with little relevance to God, who alone sees and judges the heart of man.
Kate Green, Zombie Shooter says
Agreed with Jeremiah. If a politician answers by responding ‘refer to scholars’, ask for recommendation of scholars. From what I understand, a person’s understanding of Islam depends very much on which scholars they pay attention to. It’d give us a better idea of what a politician stands for.
“The complicated thing about apostasy in Malaysia is that it’s not just religion, it’s also racial.”
Unfortunately Nik Nazmi strikes me as another evasive dude.
Shane Leavy says
“My personal opinion is that the state should be able to regulate that. I know that from a perfectly Western liberal democratic perspective, it doesn’t make sense. But I think that within Islam â€” if it creates discord, fitnah, unease, these should be considered.”
The result, then, will be people who are officially Muslim but who do not really believe in the religion, and practise it out of fear, not faith.
Ida Bakar says
.”…In Islam, we take matters of faith very seriously. I think to emulate the West, where the state doesn’t regulate anything about faith â€” that’s not part of the Muslim tradition…”
It also not part of Muslim tradition to regulate other people’s faith.
“…The complicated thing about apostasy in Malaysia is that it’s not just religion, it’s also racial. Because Malays are automatically Muslims, so if you have less Muslims, you have less Malays…”
What a spurious argument! One is a religion the other ethinicity. If an English Muslim person speaks Malay and abides by the Malay tradition (whatever that is these days) he can wait till cats grow antlers before he will be considered a Malay. If a Malaysian Malay person stops living by the tenets of Islam but speaks Malay and lives according to the Malay tradition he/she is still a Malay according to the law of the land. Therefore, how can there be less Malays around?
Pathetic attempt at explaining himself! Shame really.
Editor’s note: Actually, Article 160 of the Federal Constitution says “Malay” means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, and conforms to Malay custom. So, if interpreted literally, your hypothetical English Muslim person would be considered Malay, but the non-Muslim Malay person would not be.
Columns and Comments Editor
Ding, can’t you find more intelligent people to ask questions, or is it that difficult to find intelligent people? I have just wasted two minutes of my life reading crap.
I would have liked to know the answer to this question: “Did Malays exist before Islam? If not, where did they come from? Who was here before the Malays?”
Because this notion of race and religion, social constructs, being at the very core of politics is problematic. Identity is mutable, not fixed. Why continue to drain public resources, time and energy into preserving a political ideology that has something muddy as its foundation? Why keep beating a dying horse?
Equating race with religion is possibly the dumbest thing ever. I am Chinese and am a Christian. My uncle is a Chinese and a Muslim. So when he converted, he automatically became a Malay? There are more Chinese Muslims in the world than there are Malay Muslims. So, the Chinese Muslims are Malay by default? Same old racist stuff.
wan zaharizan says
This is the trouble with many Malays I know. When to stop to be afraid, to question and to embrace the idea and aspiration to be a Muslim and Malay and yet embrace humanistic ideas! To be a Muslim means to surrender to God. This means we have not the right to judge others on morality or beliefs to “save them from hell”.
We are ask to lead a chaste life, to celebrate life and never to forget your maker. We try to do good, and each one of us in the end will answer to God, not the ulama, not the priests. Muslims believe that all humans will gather on the day of judgement to be judged.
The difference between us is our belief, our capacity to surrender to God. Sadly, many Malay [Malaysians] were brought up to think that the day of judgement is only for them, which is wrong. There is a famous hadith told by Aishah r.a. that attests to the universality of [humankind]. Sadly, Malay [Malaysians] can’t understand that the knowledge they seek is within themselves.
He should not be evasive in his answers. People are smart and can see through the mask…
Andrew I says
Oh dear, it seems that I’m the odd man out here. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and although we’ve all heard that excuse ad nauseam, we really ought to give people, whose hearts are in the right places, a break.
His answers are an improvement over those from other politicians lately — [those who say] “that question was asked with malicious intent” or [cut] short a debate on national TV.
A democracy isn’t just plain sailing. Look at how the Brits are dealing, or not dealing, with the rise of the British National Front. And they’ve had it for decades.
Azizi Khan says
It really makes me wonder about some Muslim politicians. They love to go about trying to portray Malaysia as if it is a lawless country where everyone can do anything they want.
Malaysia has a legal system. Its legal system originates from England because our [founding leaders] chose it to use it as a base. If our [founding leaders], who were really good Muslims, wanted a syariah-based legal system, they would have implemented it yonks ago. Instead to be fair to all races and religions – they chose a common law to ensure everyone is equal under law.
First and foremost this must be understood by Muslims and non-Muslims alike – we already have a legal system and a good one at that. Why segregate people using syariah law.
Second, Syariah law maybe God’s law, but its implementation is still by human beings and everyone knows when it comes to religion – it’s full of ulterior motives. Syariah is biased when it comes to non-Muslims. With the current Malaysian constitutional law, there could be a chance that one day that a non-Muslim might become the prime minister. Syariah removes all abilities of that. It hands Muslims a silver platter and removes the rights of individuals – Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Third, forcing syariah into a country with existing laws is a form of extremism. Think about it. The National Registration Department registers births, deaths etc. So if someone walks into NRD and wants to change their religion – what business does NRD or anyone for that matter (except God) have on the choice of the person? Why should a person who doesn’t want to practice a religion be forced to stay in it?
Muslims talk about progressive and intellectual thinking but when it comes to God, they act as if they are cave [people]. Why regulate something that doesn’t need regulating? Why is it that when it comes to Islam, the states are so insecure in thinking that everyone is just waiting to leave Islam? Is there something they are hiding that is a ticking time bomb which is going to make Malaysian Muslims leave Islam in groups? What do they mean by regulation – flogging people until they submit? Is this what syariah and Islam is all about?
Fourth, while Islam does not have moral policing, syariah and its implementers actively encouraged it. More often than not this brings more harm than good. So giving syariah law criminal jurisdiction encourages abuse. Leave policing to the police. That’s what they are paid to do.
Fifth, its a fallacy and outright lie that Malays are automatically Muslims. East Malaysian Malays are Christians. They have been Christians for generations.
Islamic politics in Malaysia are causing Malaysian Muslims to deviate away from the true Islamic religion to deviant fundamentalism by the day. The current issue with “Allah” is the perfect example… Malaysian Muslims seem to want to *own* Allah in a misguided attempt to achieve superiority over other races. This is not Islamic in any way.
Finally, Muslim politicians must understand that we are in a country with laws. And that law is absolute and for everyone. Over the decades this law has been raped by Umno politicians to suit their own agendas – the last thing we need is politicians from other parties doing the same thing – in the name of Islam. Religion and politics should not be mixed in anyway because it will always be biased towards the religion – no matter how good the intention may be. The more biased it becomes the higher chance of it being deviant from the true teachings of the religion. Islam is in very big danger of this.
I’ll leave you with this thought: God blesses all humans with money, health, wealth, rain and food. Why should Muslims discriminate non-Muslims over the same things? Are Muslims more important than God?
You’re not the odd man out Andrew. If you agree with Nik Nazmi, there are at least two of you. The BNP isn’t ‘rising’ in the UK, it is resurfacing. It had been pushed under by very sensible Race Relations legislation. Under New Labour, that sensible legislation was amended to include religion, because – as every sensible Malaysian knows – race and religion are the same thing.
The UK has no White Party, nor do we speak Bahasa Puteh, nor do we force non-white spouses to bleach themselves before they marry a White. But we do have any number of legacy pro-Christian laws.
In combination with the Race Relations Act (or is it now the Religious Relations Act?) and a heavy commitment to equality, there’s an opportunity for people to use non-Christian religion as a political crowbar. (Pagans are doing it at the moment – even Jedis have attempted it, but I’m fairly sure nobody feels threatened by Pagans or Jedis, even if the cloaks are a bit dark. The light-sabres could be another matter, I suppose…) The UK government has made some abysmally stupid decisions in the last couple of decades. The BNP and increasing restrictions on personal liberty are the British voters’ rewards. In a few months, the British electorate will make the same mistake they made in 1997, when everybody told their friends “vote the Tories out!”. This time, they’re going to “vote Labour out!” by voting the Conservatives back in.
It is too much to hope for that in the near future a UK government will repair the damage done to the Race Relations Act, and do what it should have done decades ago: end all legislation and practises that discriminate between religions, disabling the obvious crowbar in the process. The majority of people in the UK are accustomed to religion being “something nice to do at the weekend” – even if only for someone else. The prospect of that changing is tempting ‘Patriots’ to become religious fundamentalists themselves – with the depressingly obvious downward spiral as a consequence.
You rightly observe that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. The reason we have such a proverb about Rome is that we hold it as a beacon of success and rare longevity. I imagine that if Romulus had seen Remus laying the foundation badly, Romulus would have said something about it, and Remus would have done the job properly. They could have just thrown up a nice faÃ§ade in an afternoon and called it Rome, but I doubt it would have outlasted the twin’s first argument, let alone all those wars.
Andrew I says
“The majority of people in the UK are accustomed to religion being “something nice to do at the weekend” – even if only for someone else. The prospect of that changing is tempting ‘Patriots’ to become religious fundamentalists themselves – with the depressingly obvious downward spiral as a consequence.”
Nik Nazmi: “There’s always been a tradition of moderation among Malays in the Nusantara region. That’s been the dominating discourse. It’s very different from Saudi Arabia and in other countries. It’s very organic and has enabled us to live together peacefully for a long time.
“Our constitution states that Islam is the religion of the federation. At the same time, we have to be wary of the extremities. People who don’t talk about co-existence and [who talk] about imposing their will, that’s dangerous as well. Similarly, those who want to ignore the Islamic tradition altogether.”
Which of the above sounds more condescending to you?
Andrew, I’m not sure how you expected someone to avoid condescension and also respond to “how the Brits are dealing”. Aren’t they (my comment and NN’s quote) equally condescending? That was my intention, I’m sorry if it wasn’t obvious. I didn’t try to present Britons as an essentially decent folk. I suspect ‘essentially decent folk’ – when their environment is rapidly changing – is a fantasy. If Britons enjoyed a brief lull in our persecution of people who didn’t look, act or talk like us, it was because (for a while) we had decent legislation to discourage us. My conclusion is opposite to that of Nik Nazmi’s for the same reason.
Doesn’t “hearts in the right place, give them a break” remind you of “we will take care of you, nobody should question”?
If I am a Malay, the government defines me as Muslim. If I am a non-Muslim and behave like Malay, I am classified as Malay. How is the government going to define how a Malay should behave? They might as well classify any Muslim who has Malaysian citizenship as Malay (tough & sorry to non-Muslim Malaysian).
The problem is many Malays/Muslims are non-practicing Muslims yet they are still classified as Muslims for the sole purpose of benefits under the law drafted by Muslims […].
If a system of belief is reflected in one’s frame of mind, I would dare say NONE of the readers/commenters here is Muslim.
Yet, I see that you people were so worked up over syariah law. I view this attitude as an infringement into your neighbour’s affair, and not as a fight for freedom of choice, as you would like me to think.
Syariah law is there only to make it a little harder for a Muslim to abandon his/her religion. It doesn’t say anything about when you Christians want to convert a Hindu, or if a Buddhist wants to bring in a Sikh into his fold. Please feel free to convert one another among yourselves. And you would be better of if you can stop worrying for the Muslims at the same time. Unless, if you are trying to convert a Muslim, then of course in that instance, you will suddenly feel the presence of the syariah law all around you. Other than that, I think you worry for nothing.
And seriously, for Muslims who itch to convert to another faith, why don’t you be smart and do so privately, or migrate to more conversion-friendly areas within the country, like East Malaysia, or better still, move to another country where your chosen faith is mainstream. Start a new life in peace and harmony…I really am sick of your arrogant exploit in trying to declare your new belief and expect an endorsement from a hesitant government whose policy you know beforehand would not allow you to convert in the first place. Don’t let yourselves be political pawns.
Editor’s note: There are Muslims who oppose syariah laws in Malaysia as well, from an Islamic perspective. See: http://thenutgraph.com/syariah-law-galore
Columns and Comments Editor
Andrew I says
Sean, you do not have to be condescending when making a comparison. When I suggested a comparison with the Brits, you can see that my intention was to point out that they haven’t got an answer either, even with a head start. It doesn’t imply that they haven’t got the brains to make it work. Is that the message you got?
I’ll leave it to readers to form their own opinions with regard to your intention and the way you responded to to my comments, and whether your reason for being condescending, even if it was to make a point, was warranted.