Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Syariahization of Intra-Muslim Religious Freedom and Human Rights Practice in Malaysia: The Case of Darul Arqam

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Syariahization of Intra-Muslim Religious Freedom and Human Rights Practice in Malaysia: The Case of Darul Arqam

Article excerpt

Whenever the question of religious freedom or related concepts such as religious pluralism and religious tolerance appear in Malaysian public discourse, one's attention is invariably focused on inter-faith rather than intra-faith social engagements. Pluralist conceptions of Malaysian society inherited from colonial forms of knowledge had, to a large extent, ignored religious variations within local Muslim communities, especially the Malays, whose leaders shouldered the post-independence burden of maintaining political hegemony in the face of an apparent threat of being overwhelmed by migrant ethnic groups. On independence in 1957, and later as a federation in 1963, Malaysia's socio-political structures were inaugurated on the assumption that Malay-Muslims were religiously uniform. However, while socio-political categories of the nation-state ossified under the inaugural constitutional set-up, the religious-intellectual make-up of Malay-Muslims continued to undergo discursive developments, being liable to myriad influences from not only the ummah at large, but also from organic internal changes. Amidst the rapid political-economic developments of the post-colonial era, internal tension within the Malay-Muslim community was inevitable, but temporarily concealed under the facade of an ethnically driven Muslim unity legitimized by legal strictures.

The scenario above is reflective of the dilemma befalling Malaysian Muslims pertaining to the public role of Islam. On the one hand, Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution--which reads "Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation" (1)--provides legal safeguards for Islam's position in Malaysia's body politic. On the other hand, while apparently privileging Islam over other religions, the Constitution via Article 11 confers on every individual the right to profess, practise and propagate his or her own religion, although the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among Muslims may be legally controlled or restricted. Moreover, Article 11 authorizes all religious groups to manage their own religious affairs, to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes, and to acquire, possess, hold and administer property in accordance with the law. (2) The provision on Islam as the federal religion cannot preferentially trump other constitutional clauses, as spelt out in Article 3(4): "Nothing in this Article derogates from any other provision of this Constitution." (3)

However, jurisdictional vagueness regarding its express role has laid constitutional provisions pertaining to Islam vulnerable to multiple interpretations. Hence, for example, despite Islam being under the guardianship of different individual states making up the Malaysian federation rather than the federal government, as signified by the different Majlis Agama Islam (Councils of Islamic Religion) and Jabatan Hal Ehwal Agama Islam (Departments of Islamic Affairs) operating separately in each of the states, (4) what we see in practice, especially since the enunciation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the National Cultural Policy (NCP) in 1971, is a gradual dilution of states' control over Islam in favour of the federal administration. In the name of administrative coordination, power over Islam was effectively transferred from the states to the federal Islamic bureaucracy helmed by the Department of Islamic Advancement of Malaysia (JAKIM: Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia) situated in the Prime Minister's Department. The successor to the Islamic Affairs Division of the Prime Minister's Department, or otherwise known as the Islamic Centre (Pusat Islam), JAKIM began operations in 1997 with expanded functions. As for the judicial branch, a Department of Syariah Judiciary (JKSM: Jabatan Kehakiman Syariah Malaysia) was established in 1998 as a coordinating body for syariah courts in all Malaysian states, with most syariah judges and court officials being gradually absorbed by a parallel scheme called the Common-Use Syariah Administrative Service Scheme (Perkhidmatan Guna Sama Pegawai Syariah Persekutuan). …

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