Last Saturday, the Oriental Hearts and Mind Study Institute (OHMSI) conducted a talk on “Islamic State: Which Version? Whose Responsibility?” with the keynote address by Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, director of the Islamic Renaissance Front. The forum was held at a church in Subang.
But the person who captured the headlines was PKR deputy president Nurul Izzah Anwar who was one of the moderators. In response to a question from the floor, she found herself caught in a controversy over whether Malays have a right to choose their religion.
She was speaking to a largely urban non-Malay audience and, as seen in a video recording of the event that has now gone viral, she was greeted with loud applause.
The feisty politician has since denied making any statement suggesting that there should be no compulsion on Malays to be Muslims.
But she earned a royal rebuke from the Sultan of Selangor and she has quickly blamed Utusan Malaysia for allegedly distorting and twisting her reply to a member of the audience.
To make things more complicated, the person who posed the question to Nurul Izzah has now expressed her disappointment over the latter’s about turn on the issue.
Lawyer Siti Zabedah Kasim was quoted as saying by news portal Free Malaysia Today that “I believe Nurul Izzah was just trying to impress the people. She didn’t think of the consequences.”
For many non-Muslims, especially those living in urban areas, the issue was probably dismissed as a non-starter and seen as another political move to discredit Nurul Izzah.
But for conservative Muslims in the rural areas, it would be unthinkable and unacceptable.
Luckily for Nurul Izzah, the language used at the forum was English and the video that’s currently going around does not have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles, thus making the damage less severe – for now.
But for Nurul Izzah to deny it vehemently now would suggest that she has woken up to the grave political consequences of what she has done. If there was no impact, she would have just shrugged it off. She now wants to get out of this tricky spot.
The easy part is to blame Utusan Malaysia, which is well known for its nationalist slant, but the pro-Pakatan Rakyat news portal Malaysiakini also carried the same story using the same angle on Nov 3.
Nurul Izzah has also put PAS in a corner. On Friday, PAS spiritual adviser Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat said that if Nurul Izzah had indeed made her controversial statement on religious freedom, “then something is not right” while PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang wanted to hear from her.
Their only purported concerns, or a way out, seem to be that they have doubts over the accuracy of reporting by the media.
DAP strongman Ngeh Koo Ham tweeted last week in support of Nurul Izzah, quoting Article 11 of the Federal Constitution which states that every person has the right to profess and to practise his or her religion. But Ngeh, a lawyer, did not say it has to be read with other applicable laws.
There are laws restricting the propagation of other religions to Muslims. Article 160 of the Federal Constitution, for example, is clear that all ethnic Malays are Muslims. A Malay is defined as someone who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language and adheres to Malay customs.
The fact remains that the majority of Malays want this to remain as law and as practice and convention.
Nurul Izzah’s slip has been seized on by Umno because the fight in the polls is essentially over the majority Malay votes, especially in the rural constituencies which are heavily in favour of the ruling party. Of the 222 parliamentary seats, only about 45 are Chinese-majority in urban areas and there is not a single seat with an Indian majority.
Nurul Izzah’s case will also have a deep impact in PAS where the divide between those regarded as sympathetic to Anwar and the more orthodox ulamas is concerned. Former deputy president Nasharuddin Mat Isa, for example, is solidly in the Islamist party despite his overtures to Umno. He has regularly spoken up against the DAP, a PAS ally, but remains untouched because he is said to be protected by the anti-Anwar forces in the party.
The church in Subang has found itself in the spotlight for hosting the forum. Recently, another church which hosted a forum on the elections found its speakers and the media squabbling over the accuracy of some negative remarks made on Pakatan Rakyat.
There’s a lesson here – keep religion out of politics. But as long as there are politicians masquerading as theologians of their respective faiths, no one will take this advice kindly.