Malaysia Considers Commission to Settle Religious Disputes

Malaysia's government is open to the idea of setting up a commission to settle disputes related to religion in this multi-faith country, a minister said Thursday, following pressure by religious and human rights groups.

According to the Associated Press, Malaysia’s Culture and Heritage Minister Rais Yatim said more efforts were needed to boost religious harmony in the predominantly Muslim nation, and acknowledged that there were few avenues to resolve conflicts between the law and religion.

"Some of us may be aghast to note there are yet areas which ooze with practices that may equate inequality," Rais told a meeting of private groups that want a panel to advise the government on religious policies.

Although open friction between Muslims and non-Muslims is rare in the modern, progressive Southeast Asian country that prides itself on religious moderation and racial tolerance, a number of such disputes have arisen in recent years.

As a result, activists believe the creation of a state-backed panel is necessary to probe complaints of religious rights violations and advise the government on laws to curb such abuses.

According to Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, who heads a committee spearheading a proposal for a National Interfaith Commission, said last week that the proposed commission would help resolve disputes such as a recent custody battle over the children of a parent who converted to another religion, a short-lived government ban on Bible published in an indigenous language, and a raid by Islamic morality police on a disco that led to the detention of dozens of Muslims for alleged indecent behavior.

“We cannot run from the reality that our society comprises people of various faith,” Sarwar told the AP last week. “The fact is that conflicts exist and will cause resentment to fester if we leave them entrenched.”

Yet despite reports that Malaysian laws are vague on whether the actions of the people involved in the disputes were right or wrong, Rais stopped short of committing to setting up the panel. He said only that the government would study the proposal and that representatives of major religions must agree on what specific purpose and powers such a panel should have.

"We do know how arduous it is to turn intent into policy and intent into law," Rais said, according to AP. "But we're trying to find a solution [...] that would make Malaysia a better place to live."

In Malaysia—where ethnic Malay Muslims form about 58 percent of the 23.5 million population—religion is a sensitive issue.

According to AP, many Muslim groups staunchly oppose the proposal for a state-backed commission, fearing it might encroach on the jurisdiction of Islamic courts and enforcement authorities.

"It is likely that this commission would meddle with the internal issues of religions, especially Islam," the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia said in a statement, received by the Associated Press.

"This would harm the sensitivities of religious followers and jeopardize religious harmony."

However, Rais said ultraconservative Muslims have nothing to fear.

"We have to be open minded. We should not be terrified of ideas," the minister said.

"An ultra Muslim may regard my being here as something that is not within the prime or mainstream inner thoughts. To those in that frame of mind, I just offer the age-old wisdom: Any lifting of a finger to make mankind more cooperative toward understanding each other is worth the effort."

According to earlier reports, representatives of dozens of private groups will hold a two-day conference to prepare the proposal beginning Feb. 24. The conference, which will also be attended by foreign diplomats, is coordinated by groups including the Bar Council, which represents more than 10,000 lawyers, and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism.