Last July in Malaysia a fatwa was issued on Sisters in Islam; the New York Times gives some facts:
In July, the official religious council in wealthy and populous Selangor State issued a fatwa, or religious decree, against Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian group that advocates women’s rights.
The fatwa declared Sisters in Islam “deviant” and also denounced “any individual, organization or institution that upholds the belief of liberalism or pluralism in religion.”
The fatwa did not define liberalism or pluralism, but called on the authorities to ban and seize books that promote the ideas and to “censor and block any social website contrary to Islamic teachings.”
Rosli Dahlan, a Malaysian lawyer who has represented clients challenging the power of the religious authorities, said the scope of the fatwa was unprecedented.
“This is an attempt by religious authorities to extend their tentacles into areas where they don’t belong,” Mr. Rosli said. “This seems to be a return to the Spanish Inquisition.”
The Rakyat Post reports on a press conference held by Sisters in Islam on October 31:
It was just 10 days ago that Sisters in Islam (SIS) found out the organisation had been declared as subscribing to “religious liberalism and pluralism” in a gazetted fatwa in Selangor.
The fatwa, gazetted on July 31 this year, also singled out “any individuals, organisations or institutions”.
Shocked at the fatwa, it compelled SIS to file a judicial review against it at the Kuala Lumpur High Court this morning.
This isn’t one of those meaningless internet fatwas that any random schmuck can issue, this is an official fatwa. (So why didn’t the council inform Sisters in Islam? I have no idea.)
SIS is challenging the fatwa by the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) on several constitutional grounds, including the violation of their right to freedom of expression, association and religion, as guaranteed by the federal constitution.
They will also question Mais for allegedly having trespassed federal powers that only the Parliament could make laws restricting fundamental liberties and the fact that the religious authority could not direct federal institutions like the Malaysian Communications And Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to block social media sites.
According to the fatwa, it deemed any publications with elements of liberalism and religious pluralism as “haram” and also urged the MCMC to block websites that opposed Islamic teachings and laws.
What a nightmare.
Also present at the press conference, Zaid said he supported the judicial review and questioned whether the religious authorities themselves understood the meaning of “liberalism and pluralism” in the matter.
“I know they (SIS) have done a lot of good work. As Muslims it’s our obligation to help those in need.
“How can you ‘haramkan’ an organisation that helps people, Muslims in fact,” he said.
Zaid said it goes back to the prime minister himself, who has lauded moderation in the country and Malaysia’s involvement in the UNHCR, but let the likes of Isma, PAS and Perkasa run free.
“I go back to the prime minister. He needs to make the system practical so that it doesn’t breach the rights of others.
“We want the prime minister to tell us where we are going. The country is in a serious situation and we have to distinguish where we draw the line,” he added.
Sisters in Islam issued a press release on their challenge October 31.
Sisters in Islam (SIS) has filed a judicial review on a gazetted fatwa in Selangor declaring SIS as subscribing to “religious liberalism and pluralism”, and therefore deviating from the teachings of Islam. The fatwa allows for any publications deemed “liberal and plural” to be banned and seized. In addition, it calls for any form of social media that go against the “ajaran Islam dan hukum Syarak” to be blocked by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commissions (MCMC).
We view with grave concern the allegations made against us and question the basis for this fatwa. Since 2003, SIS has served close to 10,000 Muslim women who turned to us for legal help to seek redress to their marital problems. We have trained over 4,000 women on their legal rights through our popular legal literacy workshops. More than 90% of them stated that the knowledge provided by SIS has empowered them to know their rights in Islam. We teach women how to access the justice system for themselves and for their children, accompany them to court, and recommend lawyers to represent them. These thousands of women we have helped and trained have gone on to help others in their families and communities.
They explain the legal situation, which is quite startling:
Malaysia is the only Muslim country that enables a fatwa to have the force of law through a mere gazetting process and then criminalises any violations of the fatwa. According to section 13 of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Selangor) Enactment 1995, any person who gives, propagates or disseminates any opinion concerning any issue, Islamic teachings or Islamic Law contrary to any fatwa for the time being in force can be fined up to RM3,000, or jailed for up to 2 years, or both. Any document or other medium [sic] may be seized and destroyed even without any conviction.
So there you go. This council can issue a fatwa, not inform the people who are subject to the fatwa, and then get them fined or thrown in jail or both for continuing to do what they’ve been doing for years. What a grotesque set up.
These excessive powers exercised by the religious authorities of Malaysia, with the complicity of the executive and legislative bodies are dragging the country down the road to theocratic dictatorship.The criminalisation of non-compliance to a fatwa deviates from Islamic legal theory and practice. A fatwa is merely an advisory opinion to guide Muslims to lead a life according to the teachings of Islam. It is not legally binding and it is optional for the individual to follow it, or seek another fatwa.
It’s gruesome. Now the theocrats are bullying SIS for challenging the fatwa.
PAS Youth castigated Sisters in Islam (SIS) today for plans to challenge in the courts a fatwa, or religious edict, against liberalism and religious pluralism, labelling the Muslim women’s group as “insolent” and “extremist”.
Defending Selangor’s Fatwa Council, the Islamist party’s wing also accused SIS of challenging the monarchy and the Federal Constitution, which it said puts Islam as the religion of the federation.
“SIS’ insolence in challenging the National Fatwa Council’s prohibition against it for professing liberalism and religious pluralism is proof that the group is driving a deviating agenda against Islamic teachings in this country,” said a statement by the wing’s deputy chief Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi.
“Insolence” is it – people daring to think they have rights is “insolence.”
We need to keep a beady eye on this.