SOMETHING must be very wrong if we cannot sit down and talk frankly about issues that affect us, even after 51 years of living together.
Aug 31 is just two weeks away but it would be meaningless to celebrate yet another Merdeka Day, pretending not to see the alarming cracks, fissured along racial and religious lines.
The fragility of our much touted national unity has been exposed, again, as shown by the ruckus at Saturday’s Bar Council forum, Conversion to Islam: Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution, Subashini & Shamala Revisited.
The talks, aimed at highlighting the plight of families embroiled in legal disputes arising from conflicts in the civil and syariah legal systems, came to an abrupt end after a mob threatened to storm the Bar Council building.
Among the Muslim legal experts inside were former Suhakam Commissioner Prof Mehrun Siraj, Zarizana Abdul Aziz of the Women’s Centre for Change, former Syariah Judge Dr Mohd Naim Mokhtar and Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (Ikim) Syariah Law Centre director Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad.
Five families facing legal problems arising from one spouse converting to Islam were also at the forum to share their experiences, along with their lawyers, participants and the media.
The agitated horde outside comprised members of several Muslim non-governmental organisations – Muslim Organisations in Defence of Islam (Pembela), Malaysian Islamic Propagation and Welfare Organisation (Pekida), Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM), Peninsular Malay Students Federation (GPMS), – besides Umno, PAS and PKR members.
The more prominent among them were PKR Kulim-Bandar Baharu MP Zulkifli Noordin, PAS Youth chief Salahuddin Ayub, who is also Kubang Kerian MP, and GPMS vice-president Jais Abdul Karim.
Unlike in other incidents of public order, the police accompanied the mob’s leaders as they trooped up to the first floor where the forum was held and confronted the organisers.
Bar Council head Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan had little choice but bring the talks to a close, but only after stressing that the organisation of lawyers had “no enmity with anyone”.
Tempers, however, remained frayed with harsh words hurled at the participants.
Elsewhere in Bukit Damansara, two petrol bombs were tossed into Wanita Umno vice-chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil’s house.
The Molotov cocktails, which fortunately did not do much damage, were clearly meant for Ambiga, who had lived there three years ago.
What provoked such seething anger? And, honestly, was it justified? Perhaps, as Ambiga herself has admitted, the council should have been more careful with the name of the forum.
The words “Conversion to Islam” could have given the wrong impression to the mob that conversion of non-Muslims to Islam was being challenged; although the council had clearly stated that it was to discuss the plight of families embroiled in legal wrangles arising from conflicts in the civil and Islamic laws and for views from both sides of the religious divide to be aired.
From Saturday’s episode, it is obvious that we are still a long way from holding mature discourses. It’s tragic, but when it comes to religion, emotion rather than rationality rules.
Even political lines are easily blurred. As DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang noted in his blog, “elements of Umno, PKR and PAS united on a fictitious issue – the non-existent challenge (to) the position of Islam in Malaysia as provided (for) in the Constitution”.
Responses from both leaders at the pinnacle of power as well as from the much-hyped head of the government-in-waiting were strangely similar.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak who had called for the open forum to be scrapped and be replaced with a closed meeting, blamed the council for the fracas, chiding it for not listening to advice.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar warned that certain things were “out of bounds for public discussion, even if held in a private place”.
PKR’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who will contest the Permatang Pauh by-election on Aug 26, echoed equivalent views, saying it would be better if such events were held behind closed doors.
With sentiments easily aroused for the much-needed political points for both sides, the guarded stances are fathomable. But do they reflect leadership in the true sense of the word?
What this country needs are leaders, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who can help forge meaningful national unity, based on sound and fair democratic principles.
They must be able to face the issues squarely and promote sensible and responsible dialogues, not give the impression that they condone the actions of rabble-rousers who threaten the use of violence to get their way.
As Malcolm X said: “Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”
The only means that Malaysians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, can truly come together is through open and honest dialogues. As such, those who claim leadership must have both the courage and ability to persuade their supporters to embrace civil discussions over issues, however sensitive they are.
The voices may seem to be louder when it comes to expressing dissent these days, but Malaysians are, by large, reasonable people who abhor violence and all forms of disharmony. We prefer to talk things out, listen to the other side and accept fair decisions.
In this case, the pivotal point is this: If a non-Muslim converts to Islam, solutions have to be found for his or her family members affected by the conversion because of differences in jurisdiction between the syariah and civil courts.
We cannot ignore the anguish and discord caused when one spouse converts without the knowledge of the other. Or when one spouse converts children without the knowledge or consent of the other.
Then there are other agonising matters, such as the division of properties, custody battles for the children and, at the end, heart-rending conflicts over burial rites for the deceased.
Instead of just continuing to treat this as a taboo subject, leaders should face up to reality and devise workable solutions.
For a start, re-jig or tweak the existing laws covering marriages and divorces, taking conversions into consideration.
As Islam and its laws are very sensitive for Muslims, the Government must, of course, tread carefully. But it must not hesitate to take those steps.
There is much more at stake here than just politics and its predictable players.
- Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote from Dwight Eisenhower: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”
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