(IPS) - Moderate Muslims and non-Muslims, fearful of
incursions by Islamic 'Shariah' law into their private space, have launched a
movement to rediscover
's secular constitution and restore it as the country's supreme law.
In a nationwide campaign they will persuade Malaysians to
endorse a memorandum worded in guarded English that ''reaffirms the supremacy of
The campaign is being organised by the Bar Council and
'Article 11' -- a coalition of 14 non-governmental organisations, named after
the constitutional provision that upholds fundamental rights for all Malaysians
''regardless of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender''.
Significant is the participation of 'Sisters in Islam', a
leading Muslim feminist group.
Together, the campaigners demand that the Malaysian
government and the judiciary uphold the supremacy of the constitution; ensure
governance in accordance with the constitution; demand that the government
is not a theocratic state and urge the government to recognise the independence
of the judiciary.
''It's time to take it (the constitution) down from the
shelf, dust it and use it on a daily basis. The federal constitution must be
treated as the most important document in our life because it is the supreme
law,'' said prominent lawyer Cyrus Das at a well-attended forum on Sunday that
discussed erosion of fundamental secular rights.
They fear that the country is inexorably moving towards an
Islamic theocratic state as officers of the government, judiciary and parliament
(which are more than 65 percent Muslim) are abdicating their duty to defend the
''They took an oath to defend the constitution but they are
not doing it,'' said lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarvar, an outspoken defender of
secularism, civil law and democratic rights. ''We want to reaffirm the supremacy
of the secular constitution because there is a danger Malaysia is being turned
into an Islamic state in a silent and insidious manner.''
''The minds of politicians, judges and civil servants have
become cloudedąthey see themselves as Muslims first and citizens second,'' said
Malik. ''The moderate Muslim majority is silent and we want to awaken them with
''Malaysia is not an Islamic state, Malaysia is a secular
state and the constitution is the supreme law of the land,'' said Imtiaz, a key
campaigner for secular rights.
He said fundamental rights have significantly eroded over
the years and, left unchecked, Malaysia would end up as a theocratic state.
''The situation is something for all citizens to be very worried about.''
Already, over a 1,000 people, including prominent
politicians, lawyers and retired judges --Muslims and non-Muslims alike --have
signed the memorandum, addressed to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, urging that
his government gives preeminence to the constitution.
''Liberty and justice for all Malaysians may only be
through an independent judiciary. Sadly, Malaysians have witnesses the
subordination of our judges to the legislature and executive,'' the memorandum
''In recent cases in the high courts, our judges have
declined to adjudicate on pressing issues. Simply because of an element of
Islamic law, litigants are left without any remedy,'' it said. ''This is a most
unsatisfactory state of affairs and one which no civil society must endure.''
However the campaign clashes with Muslim groups that reject
the constitution as un-Islamic because it is a man-made document and inherited
from the British colonials.
Two debates are currently raging among Muslim
intellectuals, political analysts say. At one level Muslim intellectuals say the
Quran comes first for Muslims, not the man-made constitution.
Increasingly, this view is heard within government and the
judiciary and, lawyers say, have coloured court judgments. Wherever Islam is a
factor, civil rights, laws, legal protection are giving way, according to many
At another level the debate is over reforming the
constitution to make it more Islamic.
''A growing number of Muslim now believe in reforming the
constitution and if they have sufficient numbers in parliament they can make the
changes,'' an academic told IPS.
Unlike before, however, more Muslims and non-Muslims alike
are now speaking up after years of silent suffering, something sparked by a more
liberal climate under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.
While moderate Muslims reject the right of the mainstream
Muslim majority to speak for them, non-Muslims are opposing what they say is the
'silent and insidious' encroachment of mainstream Islamic Shariah laws into
Freedom of worship became a hot issue after Muslim clerics
unleashed a mob on a harmless cult, last year, that worshiped giant teapots,
flattening the entire commune with bulldozers. Some 100 followers of Ayah Pin,
who preached a synthesis between Islam and other religions, are either in jail
or on bail awaiting judgement as deviants.
Their plight has angered moderate Muslims and fired up
human rights activists into demanding protection for minorities.
Another incident, in January, involving conservative
clerics angered non-Muslims across the country. A soldier, who had allegedly
converted to Islam, was buried as a Muslim over the objections of his Hindu
wife. A civil court refused to intervene saying it had no jurisdiction. It also
ruled that non-Muslims have no remedy under the law in such cases.
Few ordinary Malaysians are aware of the constitution, let
alone the protection and guarantees it grants to citizens.
This supreme document was overshadowed by the autocratic
executive, a tame media and rapid economic development that created a false
confidence of human rights and fundamental freedom.
''Unfortunately, there is also no culture of
constitutionalism both in the legal fraternity and society. There is also no
coherent development of jurisprudence by our courts,'' Cyrus said, explaining
why the constitution has remained in the background after nearly half a century