Hands have been wrung, outrage and sympathy expressed and Cabinet directives issued, but the controversy over the unilateral conversion of minors still persists.
IN ancient days, they engaged in bloody wars in muddy fields in the name of God, when it was usually to colonise lands and increase their power base.
These days, wars are being fought over children in our civil and Syariah courts. You may not see blood but the smallest microcosm of our society, the family unit, is being torn apart, again in the name of God.
And the victims are children.
The conversion-cum-custody battles in Chang Ah Mee, S. Shamala, R. Subashini, M. Indira Gandhi and now S. Deepa traipsing through the courts are clear examples of this.
Lest one thinks this is a trend among fathers only, in Nedunchelian V. Uthiradam v. Nurshafiqah Mah Singai Annal, the mother embraced Islam and converted their four children below the age of 18 unilaterally.
One can understand parents wanting their offspring to follow their faith.
And some faiths oblige parents to ensure their children receive instruction in the religion.
For example, during infant baptism, a practice followed by some Christian denominations, the child’s parents, godparents and other relatives and church members pledge to raise the infant in the religion and provide instruction in the Bible and the articles of their faith.
Similarly, Muslim parents are to ensure their children receive instruction in the Quran, tajwid (elocution) and hadiths (sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad) and their religious obligations.
The difference between the two Abrahamic faiths in Malaysia, however, is that a child with the former upbringing has the religious and legal freedom to change his faith at any stage in his life.
Several Islamic law experts have consistently written of the need for caution in converting a child but it keeps happening.
On May 19, 2009, Senior Fellow
Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad had
written in the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia’s (Ikim) column in The Star that while Malaysian civil laws define 18 as the age when a person is no more a child, most Muslim jurists agree the legal age of maturity in general in Islam is 15.
He argued that religious adherence was a kind of contract and required a certain amount of understanding before one could make the decision to embrace any particular religion.
He asked whether a minor could really convert to Islam or be converted and whether such conversions would be valid.
If we look at the 10 children in the Chang, Subashini, Shamala, Indira Gandhi and Deepa cases, apart from two who were above 10 years of age, one was eight, three were five or below and three were infants when their fathers converted them to Islam (see table).
Subashini’s youngest, Sharvin, who was almost one was not converted because she would not give him up.
Dr Wan Azhar wrote that the three conditions for conversion are:
> BE able to utter in reasonably intelligible Arabic the two clauses of the affirmation of faith;
> THE person must be aware they mean the words that they bear witness there is no God but Allah and Prophet Muhammad is Allah’s messenger; and
> THE utterance must be made of the person’s own free will.
“A child, let alone infants who are incapable of speech, do not have such capacities to meet the conditions,” Dr Wan Azhar had said.
According to Mohammad Hashim Kamali, chief executive officer of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies, conversion is a conscious and deliberate act requiring a comprehension of the decision.
In 2009, he told a public forum that “forced” conversions were un-Islamic, and that those who used Islam for purposes not pertinent to spirituality or aqidah (articles of faith), for example, “to legitimise marriage, divorce, or win custody battles over children” were misusing the religion.
“To go to the Syariah court and claim the child, who is two or three years old, has been converted to Islam, what does it mean?” asked Hashim.
Faith in God is a personal thing and if lawmakers are going to legislate a religion and bar apostasy, it is incumbent on them to ensure it is not forced on anyone, especially not a minor.
To make matters worse, depending on where one resides, some state’s conversion laws require both parents’ consent for a child below 18 while others say one is enough.
We need a mechanism that gives justice for the children and both the parents – one that allows for conversions that did not follow Islamic principles to be rescinded.
De facto Law Minster Nancy Shukri has said the Cabinet would be discussing the continuing conflict between the civil and Syariah courts in conversion and custody cases today.
Hands have been wrung, outrage and sympathy expressed and Cabinet directives on this issue have still been ignored because the leadership has not seen fit to put its foot down.
Please don’t suggest negotiations again between the religious bodies and non-governmental organisations; they’ve failed.
And please don’t set up another committee; the authorities have all the memoranda and expert advice they need from the different groups over the years.
The leaders need to restore the balance that was lost when Article 121(1A) was put into the Federal Constitution.