Wednesday, April 2, 2014

So, is it now a crime to have Muslim sounding names?

I USUALLY try to refrain from commenting on issues pertaining to religion due to the sensitive nature of the topic but there are times when I feel compelled to speak up, especially when injustices are committed in the name of religion.

Last week carried 'Malaysia achieves another first: Christian woman convicted of Khalwat'. The misunderstanding stems from the fact that the 42-year-old woman –  a reflexologist – goes by the name ‘Halimah’.

Any person with their head screwed on right would have dropped the case as soon as they discovered the mistake, but no, not the Penang Islamic Religious Department (Jaip).

In the midst of this, Penang Religious Affairs, Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs committee chairman Datuk Abdul Malik Abul Kassim defended Jaip, saying the Mutiara Traditional Herbal Centre that employed the Indonesian national could have avoided trouble with religious authorities by not employing a person with a "Muslim sounding" name.

The owner of the centre, Datin Josephine Ong, was spot on when she said Abdul Malik knows "nuts" about Indonesians.

Those who are well read, travel often to Indonesia or even those who bother to chat with local Indonesian workers will know that it is hard to tell the religious background of an Indonesian through their name.
Muslims and Christians in that country tend to share names such as Rita, Diana, Anna, Natalia, Hannah, Angeline, Kristina, Kris, Ricky and Nasution among others.

In Indonesia, Muslims and Christians even have Hindu sounding names such as Lashmi, Mina, Saraswaty, Putra, Putri, Dewa, Dewi, Gunawan and Surya among others. I know of at least one Muslim woman, who works in an international non-governmental organisation who named her daughter Nala (which means nice) and her son Mahesa (which means great lord in Sanskrit). Bandung born Indonesian artist Krishnamurti Suparka is a Muslim, as is Indra Rukmana the son-in-law of former Indonesian president Suharto.

Even here in Malaysia I have had Indian Muslim friends by the name of Meena and Asha. The list of names is long, but I’ll not say too much as I may risk confusing Jaip who may start going after Hindus in Penang.

This is becoming a major embarrassment and concern in this country, ignorant religious authorities who have too much of an ego to admit and rectify a mistake when they have made one. The apt term for them is ‘bodoh-sombong’ used to refer to people who are dumb but put on a mask of pride to hide it.

I met Halimah last week. She is illiterate, demure and timid by nature – someone whom bullies can pick on easily.

So Jaip turns up on Dec 8, 2011, drags her out of her workplace based on her Muslim sounding name saying she has committed khalwat. They haul her to court and read her the charge in a language she doesn’t understand.
She can’t read what has been written down either, and there is no lawyer or translator to help her. She is then charged and sentenced to 14 days in jail and a RM3,000 fine by the Syariah lower court and this was upheld by the Syariah High Court. The case is currently at the Syariah Appeals Court level. 

All this time and effort wasted, despite the fact that she has submitted her baptism certificate and necessary documents to prove that she is a Christian.

What is the point Jaip?

Why does Halimah have to suffer because you are ignorant about the culture in her home country? 

We know you may have religious honour and such to protect, but is this what religion is all about?

I thought religion was all about justice and fairness and protection for those who are weak and oppressed. Aren’t you doing the exact opposite?

I don’t think you are protecting the honour of the religion you are authorised to uphold if that’s what your intention was. If anything, you are giving it a bad name.

Logically how can the Syariah High Court ask Halimah – who confesses to not practicing either Islam (the religion of her mother) and Christianity (the religion of her father) despite being baptised – to recite Christian prayers in court under duress?

How is the Syariah court suddenly an authority in deciding whether one is Christian by the prayers he or she recites?

I’m a Catholic, I know how to say the rosary, but I have no idea how an Anglican Christian, Methodist Christian, Syrian Christian, Greek Orthodox Christian or host of other Christian denomination would respond if they were asked to pray. I don’t think that even the Pope can tell for sure what prayers are being recited by followers from different denominations and people from different parts of the world – some chant, some sing, some dance and some pray quietly in their own way and in their own languages.

What if Halimah were a Hindu or Buddhist and told to pray? She could have uttered some gibberish and passed it off as chants or prayers in Sanskrit? Would the religious authorities or the Syariah Court even know what she was saying?

What if she’s an atheist?

Does it even make sense for the Syariah court to ask Halimah, a Christian who does not fall under their jurisdiction to stand in the dock and pray so that it can decide what religion she practices?

This whole episode is ridiculous and reeks of injustice. Some might ask me why I am bothered by this. It’s not my problem in any way.

Well, my first name – Maria – is Muslim sounding too. So should I dust off my baptism certificate and start carrying it around in anticipation of meeting the most ignorant of authorities?

And more importantly, I have a right to be bothered and speak up, in view of the increasing number of non-Muslims like Halimah being dragged to the Syariah court for the most ludicrous reason.

Of course we are told that that court will be fair as it will act on the fairness of Islamic principles, and I have no doubt that Islam as other religions do promotes justice, fairness and all things good.

But I can’t say the same for some of the authorities tasked to uphold the sanctity of the religion. They are doing quite well in giving it a bad reputation instead.

How can fairness be applied by those who act in the most unjust of ways to begin with? It is because of this that I doubt that justice will ever be served for non-Muslims who have the misfortune of being dragged through Syariah proceedings.

Why is this being allowed? Who checks on the religious authorities when they themselves act in ways that go against their religion? Who are they accountable to? Who brings them to justice?

Frankly I don’t see an end to this predicament, but till then all the rest of us can do is to speak up against the injustices we see. We owe it to people like Halimah who are bullied because they can’t do so themselves.

[Maria J Dass is a freelance journalist who has covered issues that affect people and communities in the country for over 14 years. She hopes to do her part to put things in order for future generations in this country. This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not represent the view of nor the blogger].

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