On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Halt the overzealous theocrats

Zarena and Mohamad Adzib showing the press statement to reporters after their meeting while her family members and Jais officers look on.

Zarena and Mohamad Adzib showing the press statement to reporters after their meeting while her family members and Jais officers look on.

IT is said that weddings and funerals have many things in common. They are ­emotional ceremonies that bring people, especially family members and friends, together.

They also bring out the best and the worst in people, so the saying goes. And going by recent events, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

We are talking here about our religious authorities, who seem to have created a record of sorts, not to mention grabbing international media attention, for Malaysia.

They have long been known to show up at funerals to take away the bodies of those they believe were Muslims and therefore ought to be buried according to Islamic rites. They may have the records of the conversion, but problems arise when the families themselves are not aware, more so when the individual had not lived as a practising Muslim.

In our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society, such cases are more common than thought.

On June 1, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) supposedly stopped the Hindu wedding ceremony of Zarena Abdul Majid to question her religious status.

Although a subsequent meeting between Zarena and the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) ironed out the issue with a joint statement that said “Jais had ­conducted its investigations in a proper manner without hurting the feelings of the family and guests who attended the wedding”, the damage had been done.

Here’s the complication – Zarena was brought up as a Hindu but her estranged Muslim convert father had registered her as a Muslim when she was a child. Her mother, a Hindu, brought her up as a Hindu.

The incident has once again focused attention on the position and powers of Jais in its dealings with the non-Muslim community.

The seizure of 321 copies of the Bahasa Malaysia and Iban language Bibles from the Bible Society of Malaysia on Jan 2, for example, certainly put the department in the spotlight and on Wednesday, the Attorney-General finally issued a statement which would hopefully bring the case to closure.

The Attorney-General said investigation papers showed that the seized books were essentially Bibles in Bahasa Malaysia, and that the Al-Kitab Berita Baik contained materials from the Bible, Torah and Psalms. The statement pointed out that the seized items were not “controlled items” and that it was not a national security issue.

While the A-G stopped short of directing Jais to return the seized Bibles, he said it was now up to Jais to take “the next course of action” in accordance with the law.

In a statement yesterday following the latest developments, both Mais and Jais are standing firm not to return the seized Bibles. Mais said the Selangor state government did not have the right to order for the return of items confiscated in the course of investigation.

“As such, both the council and Jais would not abide by the instruction,” the statement said.

Malaysians are disturbed, if not outraged, over the manner in which Jais has been carrying out its work, especially when it intrudes into the affairs of non-Muslims.

While Jais has blamed the media for using emotive words like “raids” to describe their actions, it cannot be denied that Jais is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as high-handed and insensitive in carrying out their work.

It would appear that Jais, although under the jurisdiction of the state’s higher ­authorities, is more powerful than the Mentri Besar of Selangor himself.

In the Zarena case, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim said he was “embarrassed” while the BSM issue showed how he was simply ignored and had to turn to the federal authorities, like the A-G, for help.

Meanwhile, in Penang, the Penang Islamic Religious Department (Jaipp) cut short a funeral ceremony on Sunday afternoon and claimed the body which they said was that of a Muslim convert.

The Jaipp said its records showed that the deceased, known as Teoh Cheng Cheng, 38, converted to Islam 17 years ago and registered her Muslim name as Nora Teoh Abdullah.

The Syariah High Court declared she was not a Muslim and Judge Zaim Md Yudin ordered her body to be returned ­immediately to her family for burial.

Penang state executive councillor Datuk Abdul Malik Abul Kassim had to apologise on behalf of Jaipp for the manner in which its officials interrupted the Taoist-style funeral, admitting its actions were “insensitive”.

Both these incidents have left many Malaysians disheartened and even angry at what this country is turning into and, worse, how elected state leaders seem to have their powers usurped by these moral and religious police.

In the child custody disputes involving Muslim fathers who refuse to return their children to their Hindu mothers despite court orders, Malaysians, especially non-Muslims, have the right to question the ­reliability of the police as law enforcers.

Even when the bench gives them clear directions, the police are claiming that they are caught in the middle because of conflicting orders from the civil and syariah courts.

At the heart of the two current situations is the fact that both marriages were registered under civil law and the jurisdiction of the civil courts cannot be disputed, nor can its orders be ignored. That the husbands subsequently converted does not mean that any Syariah court decision must take priority, as there are non-Muslim parties involved over which the religious courts have no authority.

The police are now claiming they are “sandwiched” between the syariah and civil courts but the bottom line is that they have failed to obey court orders that the children be returned to their mothers.

Fair-minded Malaysians, regardless of their faiths, have reasons to be angry – it is the job of the police to enforce the laws and NOT to interpret the laws. If the police is unsure, they should ask the Attorney-General.

It is preposterous for the police to ­suggest that these affected children be placed in welfare homes when it is so clear that it should be the mothers who should have the priority in these cases. Let the children grow up and decide what faith they wish to profess.

Firdaus Husni, the Bar Council’s constitutional committee chairman, reportedly said that although Article 121 (1A) of the Federal Constitution stipulates that civil courts have no jurisdiction over any matter within the purview of Syariah courts, the law was not meant to give the latter ­superiority over the former.

Or, as the Ipoh High Court judge puts it, “In as much as a Civil High Court would restrain from and refuse to entertain a custody application of a parent in a marriage under Muslim law, so also would a Syariah Court refrain from and refuse to entertain a custody application in a civil marriage.

“Both legal systems in the Civil Courts and the Syariah Courts and the streams flowing from it must be kept pure and that involves respecting each other’s jurisdiction as conferred by the Federal Constitution, the federal laws and the State Enactments.”

Can we see some common sense, decency and justice prevail instead of letting religion, whether imagined or otherwise, cloud our judgments?

Malaysians have never seen the police ignore the orders of the High Court judges – and that has set off a dangerous ­precedent because it has given the impression that these judges, just like the state executives, are powerless.

We have not become a theocratic state, at least not yet, but those with religious ­powers appear to now enjoy the upper hand, wielding the kind of clout that has never been seen before.

Against this highly disturbing trend, with the push for the implementation of hudud laws, it is shocking that there are non-Muslims who are prepared to place their future in the hands of theologian-­politicians.

I do not think that our founding fathers, especially Tunku Abdul Rahman, would want Malaysia to head in this direction. It has to stop.