The row over the fate of M Moorthy, a mountaineering national hero, has highlighted the uneasy relationship between Malaysia's civil courts and its Islamic or sharia courts, with calls for clarity over which system is pre-eminent. 

The parliamentary opposition is pushing for the abolition of a piece of legislation which says the civil courts have no jurisdiction on matters under the purview of the sharia courts.

Critics of the article in question, a 1988 constitutional amendment meant to demarcate the powers of the courts, say that it is contributing to deteriorating race relations in Malaysia's multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. 

Contentious conversion

Moorthy's death last month sparked tensions when Islamic authorities claimed the body, saying he had converted to Islam in 2004 and changed his name to Mohammad Abdullah.

His widow, S Kaliammal, said she was stunned to learn of the "conversion" after he lapsed into a coma at the age of 36.

She said her husband was not circumcised, ate pork and continued to celebrate the Hindu festivals.

A minister has said civil courts
should decide on faith issues

Nevertheless, the sharia court confirmed the conversion and the High Court said it could not overrule its verdict - triggering an outcry and complaints that Kaliammal never had a chance to argue her case. 

Although there have been similar episodes in the past, this case involving a man famous for scaling Mount Everest during a 1997 Malaysian expedition hit the headlines and triggered a national debate. 

Malaysia's government, which struggles against what it calls fundamentalist elements, has championed what is perceived as a moderate form of Islam.

Kuala Lumpur has moved to cool anger among non-Muslims, who make up about 40% of the 24 million-strong population.

Civil courts favoured

Nazri Aziz, a minister in the prime minister's department, said that disputes over conversions involving Malaysia's Chinese and Indian communities, who live alongside the majority Muslim Malays, should be heard in a civil court where all sides can be represented. 

"When a person's faith is in question, the civil court should be allowed to hear it. Let evidence from both sides be produced," he said. 

"If we let the Muslim court decide this, justice might not be served because it would decide in favour of Islam." 

Charter change urged

Lim Kit Siang, the opposition leader, led calls for constitutional change at a recent forum of nearly 100 politicians, lawyers, activists and representatives of minority groups. 

"We would like to call for the repeal of the amendment and a restoration of the pre-1988 article," he said. 

The forum issued a statement expressing "grave concern and
dissatisfaction with the denial of justice in Moorthy's case and similar cases".

It also objected strongly to "the manner in which the various state religious authorities enforce Islamic law, in particular against non-Muslims".

Concerns over sharia

The inter-faith council of minority religions, the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and
Sikhism, has also said it is concerned that sharia is becoming the supreme law of the land. 

"The sharia court is apparently being given the absolute power
to determine whether a person is a Muslim or not ... [which could lead
to] hostilities between the Muslims and the non-Muslims"

Wong Kim Kong, spokesman,
Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism

"The sharia court is apparently being given the absolute power to determine whether a person is a Muslim or not," said Wong Kim Kong, spokesman for the council.

This could give rise to "hostilities between the Muslims and the non-Muslims". 

Abu Talib Othman, chairman of Malaysia's Human Rights Commission and a former attorney-general who drafted the contentious amendment, defended the legislation, which he said was never intended to deny justice to non-Muslims.

"The problem today is created by courts who have no courage to comply with the oath of office they took," he said, attacking the judge who refused to overrule the sharia court in the Moorthy case. 

"The court must hear his complaint and apply the law as they understand it. The courts today are regretfully taking the easy way out. Is he [the judge] incompetent or being threatened?"