A response to criticism of the Interfaith Commission Initiative
by Malik Imtiaz Sarwar
Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 6
The Steering Committee believes that the Initiative is a necessary, precious and invaluable step forward in our society’s evolution.
It is unfortunate that certain quarters have chosen to misrepresent the efforts of the Steering Committee and the Initiative itself. These misrepresentations are reckless and published with disregard for the truth. They have had, and still have, the unfortunate effect of undermining a necessary and valuable civil society effort. These accusations and misrepresentations have further had the regrettable effect of creating tensions where none existed before.
The purpose of this statement is to explain the Initiative and the draft Bill, which was the final product of the Conference held in Bangi in February.
What is the Interfaith Commission?
According to a statement issued by PAS Youth (Perlis), the Interfaith Commission is:
“…sebuah suruhanjaya yang dicadangkan penubuhannya seperti sebuah badan berkanun yang mempunyai kuasa undang-undang yang boleh mengubah ajaran sesetengah agama (baca: Islam) akibat desakan penganut agama lain.
“Badan ini berfungsi mirip sebuah Mahkamah dan segala keputusannya adalah muktamad ke atas agama yang bersabit.”
This is a flight of fancy. The proposed Commission is in no way an adjudicatory body. It is an advisory, consultative and conciliatory body, and this was stated repeatedly in media reports as well as at the Conference on the Initiative towards the Interfaith Commission of Malaysia. The fact that the proposed Commission is in no way an adjudicatory body is explicitly stated in the draft Bill in section 4(2), which reads:
“The Commission shall at all times independently perform its functions as an advisory, consultative and conciliatory body.”
This is reinforced by the powers of the proposed Commission as set out under the draft bill. Amongst its principal powers as drafted are the powers:
“to promote awareness of the tenets and beliefs of the diverse religions and faiths of the world….” (section 5(1)(a))
“to advise the Government and/or the relevant authorities of complaints against such authorities and recommend to the Government and/or such authorities appropriate measures to be taken” (section 5(1)(b))
“to resolve any dispute or rectify any act or omission, emanating from or constituting an infringement of religious harmony by means of mediation, negotiation or conciliation” (section 5(1)(i))
This is crystallized by the actuating provisions i.e. those sections which translate the broader power or competency into action. In this regard, Part III sets out the actuating provisions. These are limited to conducting inquiries or holding conciliations, mediation or negotiation sessions and making recommendations as the case may be, similar to the ambit of SUHAKAM, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. There is no wider power. In particular, there is no power to change the tenets of religion. There is no power to stay the hand of the Sharia courts.
Why the need for an Interfaith Commission?
Simply put, there is no formal process for interfaith dialogue in existence at the moment. Neither is there a mechanism for the shaping of coherent interfaith policy in the country. In addition, the only method of dispute resolution is by legal action in the courts, which, in the interests of peaceful co-existence, should be the last resort in disputes.
The fact remains that being multi-racial and multi-religious, there is bound to be friction as beliefs and cultures come into conflict. Such friction does not revolve around the issue of apostasy but involves other issues such as the building and maintenance of places of worship and issues of propagation amongst faiths other than Islam.
Participants at the National Conference recognised this and, further, the fact that a constructive and concrete method had to be put in place to deal with friction in a non-confrontational and apolitical way. The Conference therefore endorsed the proposed Commission as being one such recourse for problems to be accepted and then channeled to appropriate authorities for resolution, in a dynamic similar to SUHAKAM, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. The creation of the proposed Commission would validate the concerns of all stakeholders. Further, its independent status would engender confidence. This in turn could encourage true national unity.
While interfaith dialogue has been proposed as an alternative to the proposed Commission, and is indeed one of the objectives of the proposed Commission, dialogue has limitations. Interfaith dialogue is a vital first step with continuing relevance in fostering understanding and interaction despite differences between religions.
The proposed Commission, however, is envisaged as complementing such efforts in areas in which just ‘dialogue’ will not resolve real problems as these arise. In this sense, as noted above, the proposed Commission would be a conduit for channelling problems to the appropriate authorities for attention and resolution
Is there a hidden agenda?
The Allied Coordinating Committee of Islamic NGOs (ACCIN) suggests that there is a hidden agenda on the part of the organisers of the Initiative. ACCIN states:
“THE HIDDEN AGENDA
• The IFC attempts to bypass and usurp the powers of State Islamic Religious Bodies
• The IFC will bypass the Shariah Courts
• The IFC wants to use Civil Courts to decide on Islamic Religious Matters
• The formation of IFC is an interference in Intra-Muslims Affairs (NOT the Inter-Religious Affairs)(sic)
• The IFC will eventually infringe the Muslims’ rights to practise Islam in accordance with the Teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith”
Significantly, ACCIN and others who have parroted the same concerns have not explained why they believe this. The truth is that there is no basis at all to any of the accusations. This can be seen from the following.
Firstly, the draft Bill does not have any provisions allowing for the proposed Commission to bypass the State Islamic Religious Bodies or the Sharia Courts. There is no provision aimed at allowing the proposed Commission to use the Civil Courts to decide on Islamic Religious Matters. There is no provision singling out Islam.
Secondly, no explanation has been given as to how the proposed Commission would interfere with Intra-Islamic affairs or how the Commission will infringe on Muslims’ rights to practise Islam. These accusations are sensationalist and manipulative of public opinion against the Initiative.
Thirdly, there are many organisations and individuals who support the Initiative, including Muslims. Having said that, no consensus was arrived at on various matters. Those matters on which there has been no consensus have been omitted from the draft Bill. 173 participants attended the Conference and endorsed the draft Bill as ultimately agreed to. The draft Bill was the final product of the consensus of the participants. These included Muslims. The accusations suggest that all these participants had anti-Islamic agendas. This suggestion is ludicrous. The participants respected all religions and believed in the rights of others to profess their own faith. The participants would not have associated themselves with the draft Bill if it was as characterised by ACCIN and other critics.
Fourthly, the draft Bill is just that, a draft. It is not law until Parliament makes it law. This is something for those in Parliament and the Government. The critics have given the impression that the proposed Commission has been brought into existence and this by means of a fait accompli. This is preposterous.
Much has been said of a memorandum issued by the Malaysian Consultative Council on Buddhism, Chistianity, Hinduism and Sikhism (MCCBCHS) and the pivotal role the MCCBHCS played in the initiative. The MCCBCHS was merely one of numerous supporting organizations. Whilst representatives from the MCCBHCS had the right to voice their views, the same opportunity was given to all others who were present at meetings of the Steering Committee. It was at all times made clear to Islamic NGOs that they were free to attend such meetings and voice their views. Sadly they chose not to, condemning the Initiative even before giving themselves an opportunity to fully appreciate the Initiative for what it was.
The memorandum referred to was received by the predecessor to the Steering Committee, the Pro-Tem Committee, whose aim was to organise a workshop to gauge civil society reaction to such an initiative. Other memoranda were received including one from a group of Muslims. These merely went to raising and noting the concern of the communities represented by these groups. These memoranda did not attempt to undermine Islam nor challenge its tenets. In any event, it is not correct to describe the MCCBCHS memorandum as being representative of the Initiative at any level.
The workshop organised by the Pro-Tem Committee was a success. About 100 individuals, including Muslims, attended and unanimously agreed that a national conference was necessary to consider how best to implement the proposals. The workshop also mandated a Steering Committee to organise the national conference and take the necessary steps. The Conference and the draft Bill presented were a product of the Steering Committee and wider civil society.
Is the initiative anti-Islamic? Are the person or organisations involved?
To be anti-Islam is to be completely focused on the destruction of the religion and all it stands for. There is no foundation for an accusation of this nature to be brought against the persons and organisations involved in the initiative. Neither can the same be said of the draft Bill. Such accusations are borne out of a total ignorance of the Initiative, its underpinnings or its context, and a lack of willingness to understand or inquire, and/or the intent to manipulate public perception. There are several ways in which this can be seen:
The draft Bill makes no reference to any religion, Islam or otherwise. It is therefore not focused on Islam. If it is not focused on Islam, it cannot be said to be ‘anti’. The critics have attempted to give basis to their accusations in several ways:
“Pihak Penaja jelas menunjukkan sikap yang anti-Islam. Ini adalah kerana beberapa memorandum yang dikeluarkan oleh mereka sebelum ini seperti berikut:
Seseorang Muslim patut diberi hak untuk meninggalkan Islam walaupun agama Islam tidak membenarkannya;
Artikel 11 Perlembagaan Persekutuan (dilihat dari aspek pelbagai dokumen antarabangsa mengenai hak asasi manusia dan hujah-hujah kes mahkamah di negara-negara bukan Islam) seharusnya diguna-pakai dalam menentukan hak seseorang Muslim memilih untuk murtad, dan bukannya undang-undang syarak;
Untuk memudahkan proses murtad Mahkamah Sivil dan bukannya Mahkamah Syariah yang seharusnya diberi kuasa menentukan hak seorang Muslim itu keluar dari agamanya;
Usaha yang diambil oleh Pihak Berkuasa Syariah Negeri memulihkan orang-orang yang bakal murtad dipertikaikan;
Istilah “Muslim” di bawah Undang-undang Enakmen Negeri terlalu luas walaupun didapati konsisten dengan undang-undang Syariah;
Seseorang itu tidak harus dianggap Muslim hanya disebabkan kedua ibubapanya Muslim atau beragama Islam atau dalam keadaan lain berdasarkan Undang-undang Syariah. Individu berkenaan sepatutnya membuat pilihan atas kehendaknya sendiri;
Agama seseorang Muslim itu tidak sepatutnya tercatat pada Kad Pengenalannya.”
In the same vein, TERAS states on its website:
“4. Apakah matlamat penubuhan IFC?
Matlamat IFC ialah untuk meminda beberapa ajaran asas Islam yang bakal merugikan orang Islam dan berpihak kepada kepentingan orang-orang bukan Islam.
5. Apakah tuntutan orang-orang bukan Islam yang dibuat melalui IFC?
I. Seseorang anak yang dilahirkan oleh ibubapa Islam tidak seharusnya secara terus menjadi orang Islam.
II. Orang-orang bukan Islam yang telah memeluk agama Islam hendaklah diberikan kebebasan untuk kembali kepada agama asal mereka (murtad) dan tidak boleh dikenakan tindakan undang-undang.
III. Sebarang kes pertukaran agama orang Islam kepada bukan Islam tidak sepatutnya dikendalikan oleh mahkamah syariah tetapi dikendalikan oleh mahkamah sivil.
IV. Tidak perlu dicatatkan di dalam kad pengenalan seseorang Muslim bahawa ia beragama Islam.
V. Orang bukan Islam tidak perlu dikehendaki menganut Islam sekiranya ingin berkahwin dengan orang Islam.
VI. Orang Islam hendaklah dibenarkan keluar daripada Islam (murtad) sekiranya ingin berkahwin dengan orang bukan Islam tanpa boleh dikenakan apa-apa tindakan undang-undang.
VII. Seseorang atau pasangan suami isteri yang menukar agamanya dengan memeluk Islam tidak patut diberikan hak jagaan anak.
VIII. Orang-orang yang bukan Islam yang mempunyai hubungan kekeluargaan dengan seorang yang memeluk Islam hendaklah diberikan hak menuntut harta pesakanya selepas kematiannya.
IX. Kerajaan hendaklah menyediakan dana yang mencukupi untuk membina dan menyelenggara rumah-rumah ibadat orang bukan Islam sebagaimana kerajaan menyediakan dana yang serupa untuk masjid. Kerajaan juga perlu membenarkan pembinaan rumah-rumah ibadat orang bukan Islam tanpa perlu adanya peraturan-peraturan tertentu.
X. Orang-orang bukan Islam hendaklah dibenarkan dan tidak boleh dihalang daripada menggunakan perkataan-perkataan suci Islam dalam percakapan dan sebagainya.
XI. Bibel dalam Bahasa Malaysia dan Bahasa Indonesia sepatutnya dibenarkan untuk diedarkan kepada umum secara terbuka.
XII. Pelajaran agama bukan Islam untuk penganut agama itu hendaklah diajar di semua sekolah.
XIII. Program-program berunsur Islam dalam bahasa ibunda sesuatu kaum hendaklah ditiadakan. Program dakwah agama lain selain Islam pula hendaklah dibenarkan untuk disiarkan dalam bahasa ibunda masing-masing.
XIV. Orang-orang Islam yang membayar zakat tidak sepatutnya dikecualikan daripada membayar cukai pendapatan dan wang hasil zakat sepatutnya digunakan juga untuk keperluan orang-orang bukan Islam.
XV. Sepatutnya Islam tidak disebut sebagai pilihan pertama masyarakat Malaysia seperti dalam soal pakaian menutup aurat kepada pelajar sekolah.”
These points clearly show a lack of understanding of the rationale and intention of the initiative. These points have not been raised by the Steering Committee nor the draft Bill itself. The accusations are baseless. In fact the matters raised by TERAS seem to be more of a complaint in respect of any and every issue which it believes to be a part of its mandate to speak out on. How these relate to the Initiative remains a mystery.
Neither can the proposed Commission do any of the things stated by ACCIN, TERAS and others as it is only an advisory and consultative body. In any event, it would ultimately be for the duly appointed Commissioners to consider how best to move forward within the parameters of the law. The points made by ACCIN, TERAS and others are as such a distortion of the truth.
A belief in dialogue
The Steering Committee (and before it the Protem Committee) firmly believe in dialogue. There was much dialogue between all persons attending the meeting on behalf of their organisations or as individuals. The Committees had in their time made it clear to all concerned that the Committees were open to dialogue on any matters which were of concern. The Steering Committee is still committed to dialogue, especially with organisations such as ACCIN, TERAS and PAS and welcomes the possibility of these organisations taking the opportunity to do so. The Steering Committee believes that the Initiative is a necessary, precious and invaluable step forward in our society’s evolution. It is a means to bringing us closer to the Bangsa Malaysia that we all aspire to. The confrontational air that has been adopted thus far can only serve to divide us further.
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