Malaysian society is now gripped by a fundamental question: is the country, which is more than half Muslim, an Islamic state? In practice, various religious and ethnic groups give Malaysia a distinctly multi-cultural character. But the Malaysian constitution provides room for arguments on both sides of the question, and the relatively secular status quo is facing a serious challenge.
Drafted by a group of experts in 1957, under the auspices of the country’s former British rulers, the constitution includes two seemingly contradictory clauses. On the one hand, Article 3 states that Islam is the religion of the federation, and that only Islam can be preached to Muslims. On the other hand, Article 11 guarantees freedom of religion for all. As a result, Malaysia has developed both a general civil code, which is applied universally, and Islamic law, which is applied only to Muslims in personal and family matters.
Recently, however, some Muslim groups have pressed the government to proclaim Malaysia an Islamic state, on the basis of Article 3 and the Muslims’ population majority. Ultimately, they would like Malaysia to be governed by Islamic law.
For years, there was little need to resolve this constitutional issue. For example, if a Muslim decided to renounce his faith, the matter would be handled outside the legal system, or conversion records would be sealed. Today, however, every Malaysian must declare a religious affiliation, which is registered with the government – a requirement that has made it difficult for a Muslim to leave Islam without formalizing the change of status through the legal process.