Conversion of minors to Islam without consent of both parents is a controversial issue in the Southeast Asian country
Officials in Malaysia use a telescope to perform a 'rukyah,' the sighting of the new moon for the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Putrajaya on March 22. (Photo: AFP)
Selangor is one of the few states in Malaysia where consent from both parents is required to convert their children to Islam. That almost changed four years ago.
There was a move to table an amendment to an Islamic law that would no longer need both parents’ consent, just one. But that did not happen.
An Islamist party leader brought this up at a political rally last week and said that it was the speaker of the state assembly, a non-Muslim, who blocked that amendment.
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“How dare he block matters involving Muslims, what does it have to do with him?” Roslan Shahir Mohd Shahir was quoted as saying about Ng Suee Lim.
Ng is from the Democratic Action Party (DAP) which is in the state’s ruling bloc, while Roslan is from Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), the opposition.
Ng had abruptly postponed the assembly session in 2019 and the amendment could not be tabled.
"Islamic laws in Malaysia do not allow Muslim children to be brought up by a non-Muslim parent"
It was not Roslan’s PAS that wanted the Islamic law on child conversion in Selangor amended. It was the Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led government, which had wanted to change the Administration of Religion of Islam (Selangor) Bill 2019. They felt the consent of one parent was good enough for the conversion of children.
This caused tension within the PH bloc with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) pushing for the amendment and the predominantly non-Muslim DAP opposing it. The matter was put on the backburner and the PKR has not brought it up yet.
Islamic laws in Malaysia do not allow Muslim children to be brought up by a non-Muslim parent. When one parent converts to Islam, that parent automatically gets custody of the children and in some states in Malaysia, he or she can unilaterally convert them.
The custodial tussles in many of these unilateral conversion cases and the position taken by religious leaders against the non-Muslim parent are a major concern to religious minorities.
A Hindu woman contesting the unilateral conversion of her children has filed a police report against a PAS leader for criminal intimidation and another report against a preacher for slander.
Loh Siew Hong's abusive ex-husband converted to Islam and took their three children away without her knowledge. After three years of looking for them, the mother of Chinese-Indian parentage finally found them. The children were converted in the northern state of Perlis, where unilateral conversion is legal.
One case that has been in the public eye for a decade is that of a Hindu mother, Indira Gandhi Mutho, who tried to get custody of her three children and challenged their unilateral conversion since 2009. Her legal battle took her to the Supreme Court in 2018 where the judge gave a landmark ruling.
The federal court decided in her case that for children born from a civil marriage or a couple who were both non-Muslims, the consent of both the mother and the father is required before a certificate of conversion to Islam can be issued to their children.
“We hope all parties will see this matter positively to preserve the harmony"
Despite this ruling, the state laws allowing unilateral conversion will continue to be valid until they are declared void for being unconstitutional by the courts.
This is why in March this year, Indira and 13 others filed a lawsuit against eight laws that allow unilateral conversion to Islam in seven states and three federal territories.
The 14 plaintiffs include two women claiming to be “victims” of unilateral conversion where they were converted to Islam as children without both parents’ consent. One plaintiff later made claims that she is being harassed by an Islamic body for pursuing this case.
There are 13 states in Malaysia and three federal territories. The consent of both parents is required in only three states, one of which is Selangor. The rest either require the consent of just one parent or none at all.
During the Najib administration, there was an attempt to table a Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill which would have prohibited unilateral conversion in the country. The government bowed to pressure from conservative Muslims a day before it was to be tabled in parliament and the bill was withdrawn.
“We hope all parties will see this matter positively to preserve the harmony between the races and faiths in our diverse community,” de facto law minister Azalina Othman was quoted as saying.
Roslan’s intention to revisit the issue was obviously to strengthen Muslim-Malay support for his Muslim-Malay coalition, Perikatan Nasional, in six state elections on Aug 12. One of the six is Selangor, the richest and most populous state. Anwar’s bloc has been ruling Selangor since 2008.
Selangor is home to the largest number of non-Malays in the country. There are 2.6 million of them and they make up more than a third of the state’s 7.2 million population.
Roslan’s comment is also a reminder that these numbers do not matter. The motion to allow unilateral conversion can be introduced in the state assembly by either of the coalition members that form the Selangor government.
A unilateral conversion law is strongly backed by the PAS. The PKR has not given any indication that they are dropping this amendment.
Should this amendment be tabled again, there is a good chance it may go through.
In the now-dissolved assembly, more than two-thirds of the elected representatives were Muslim Malays. The racial-religious breakdown is likely to remain the same in the next state assembly.
The Muslim-Malay representatives would most likely vote for the amendment.
To get this amendment removed, it would take a long and challenging legal journey. It would be far better to ensure it never gets tabled. Non-Muslim communities and religious leaders need to make their objections audible and pronounced.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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