CAIRO - A new administrative bill allowing a parent to convert a minor child to Islam without the consent of the other is raising debates and criticism from Malaysia's Muslims and religious minorities as well.
We will be reading the Bills very closely in the coming days but as it stands, we are deeply concerned at the precedent they might set, namely in how it implicates the religious identity of non-Muslim minors who can be easily converted by only one of their parents, Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, researcher at the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), told Malaysia Star on Sunday, June 30.
This risks leading to more inter-ethnic and inter-religious complications in the future.
Additionally, we remain firm that the Constitution should remain Malaysia's primary legal framework that cannot be overridden by religious laws, Rahmat added.
The IRF researcher was speaking about the new Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013, which relates to the conversion of minors.
If approved, section 107(b) of the new bill would allow a parent to convert a minor child to Islam without the consent of the other.
This provision became controversial in 1993 - although the English version states a non-Muslim below 18 years of age may convert to Islam if his parent or guardian consents to his conversion, the Malay version of Section 95 amended ibubapa (parents) to ibu atau bapa (mother or father).
Activist group Sisters in Islam (SIS) also voiced concerns surrounding the new bill.
Given the many experiences of gross injustice faced by Malaysians - both Muslim and non-Muslim - in such cases, Section 107(b) should have been amended, said SIS program manager Suri Kempe.
It is a loophole which allows for the perpetration of injustice and leads to a situation that tears families apart.
In a vibrant democracy, the practice of railroading bills without sufficient discussion, especially one that has repercussions on the lives of millions of Malaysians, cannot be accepted.
Rejected by the majority of Malaysia's non-Muslims, the new bill was criticized for creating social injustice against the spirit of the Federal constitution.
The Malaysian Gurdwaras Council (MGC) wishes to reiterate that any such unilateral conversion of a child by a single parent is not only unconstitutional but is morally wrong and is against good conscience and justice...," said MGC president Jagir Singh in a statement cited by Malaysia Chronicle.
Along with section 107(b), the Sikhs have also criticized section 51(3)(b)(xi) of the same bill which allegedly allows a shari`ah court to determine whether a person who died was a Muslim or non-Muslim.
"This power to decide on the religion of a person has always been with the civil High Court and matters of interpreting provisions in the federal constitution are with the civil High Courts, Singh said.
"Thus whenever there is a dispute as to the facts of conversion it must be decided by the civil High Court. The amendment thus proposed is unconstitutional," he said.
A day earlier, Malaysian Consultative Council Of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), objected to the same provisions, said to affect the rights of non-Muslims.
"The Bill under disguise of Islamic Laws is unilaterally trying to alter the Federal Constitution by translating the word 'parent' in the Federal Constitution to mean lbu atau Bapa (mother or father) as opposed to lbubapa (both parents),' their statement reads.
"Any conversion of a minor by a single parent will cause serious injustice to the non-converting parent and the children.
"Such conversions are not only unconstitutional but are morally and ethically wrong," it said, adding that the Bill should be withdrawn until the provisions were thoroughly debated by all stakeholders.
Usually dubbed the "melting pot" of Asia for its potpourri of cultures, Malaysia has long been held up as a model of peaceful co-existence among its races and religions.
Malaysia has a population of nearly 26 millions, with Malays, mostly Muslims, making up nearly 60 percent.
Under Malaysia's two-tier judicial system, Shari`ah courts handle family law cases involving Muslims, while secular courts handle those involving non-Muslims.
Malaysia's Constitution says that the religion of a child under 18 should be decided by the parent or guardian.
Some lawyers have argued that this should be interpreted to mean both parents, but the courts have not agreed, ruling that the consent of one parent is sufficient to convert a child to Islam.