Withdrawing conversion bill is not enough
AFTER much outcry by civil society groups, the government retracted the Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill which allowed only one parent to decide the religion of their children under Section 107(b).
Kudos to the Cabinet for this brave move. But withdrawing the bill is not enough. It doesn't solve the problem of unilateral conversions, which are still allowed under the Administration of Islamic Laws (FT) Act 1993 that the new bill was supposed to replace.
In Section 95 of the current Act, the words 'ibu atau bapa' (mother or father), instead of 'ibubapa' (parents), are used. Similarly, in several other State Enactments on the administration of Islam, the word 'parent' in the singular is used. Besides the FT Act, 'ibu atau bapa' is also in the laws of Kedah, Perak, Melaka, Sarawak and Negeri Sembilan. But in Selangor, Terengganu, Penang, Sabah and Johor, a minor needs the consent of both parents to embrace Islam.
Laws on Islam across the states are not streamlined and there have been calls for greater uniformity. In 2007, the Attorney-General, Abdul Gani Patail called for civil and Syariah laws to be harmonized1. Recently, following the government's withdrawal of the bill, the Mufti of Pahang, Abdul Rahman Osman said "perhaps the Constitution should be amended if it doesn't follow syaria' or Islam"2.
There are clear intentions for Malaysia's laws to be more Islamic in nature. The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) has highlighted the stealthy manner in which Section 95 of the 1993 FT Act was changed in the final version that was gazetted as law. The version of the bill passed by Parliament in 1993 read 'ibubapa atau penjaga' (parents or guardian). But the gazetted Act read 'ibu atau bapa atau penjaga'. This minor change has far-reaching consequences3.
Given these undercurrents, it is insufficient for the government to merely withdraw the recent bill and say that it will only be re-tabled upon further study and consensus. To truly resolve the problem of unilateral conversions, the government must:
- Amend Section 95 of the existing Administration of Islamic Laws (FT) Act 1993.
- Amend the State Enactments of Kedah, Perak, Melaka, Sarawak and Negeri Sembilan so that consent by both parents is obtained before a child's conversion.
- Uphold and make as policy the Cabinet decision of April 2009 that the children of an estranged couple should remain in the religion of both parents at the time of their marriage.
- Most crucially, amend Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution to clearly state both parents in the plural. The current wording uses 'ibu atau bapa atau penjaga' in the Bahasa Malaysia version and the singular 'parent or guardian' in the English translation.
The Christian community along with other minority religions in Malaysia would do well to stand together to oppose one-parent conversion of children. This is an issue of common ground that erodes religious liberty and dangerously promotes inequality, to the detriment of children and the anguish of non-Muslim parents.
As noted by activists and as evidenced in the custody cases that have come before the court, this law has been used as a weapon of spite by one spouse against the other in estranged marriages. This law also denies the converted minors the freedom of conscience and of religion when they eventually come of age and want to choose a religion for themselves. Legally, they can never convert out of Islam.
Controversy over unilateral conversions appears to be at rest for now, but only on the surface. For Christians, it means at least three things: Firstly, continued prayer for this nation. Then, greater vigilance by way of engagement and conversation with Members of Parliament and civil society. And thirdly, stronger discipleship of our young people to choose wisely in marriage and family matters.
1 Harmonisation of Civil Laws and Shariah: Effective Strategies for Implementation, Abdul Gani Patail, Keynote Address at the 3rd International Conference on Harmonisation of Civil Laws and Shariah, 4 Dec 2007.
2 Tweak Federal Constitution to be in line with Islamic law, mufti suggests, The Malay Mail Online, 7 July 2013.
3 Media Statement: Gazetted Provision of Bahasa Malaysia Version of Section 95(b) of the Administration of Islamic Laws (FT) Bill 1993 not passed by Parliament, 5 July 2013.