Conversion of minors: No justification

P Ramakrishnan
21 June 2013

The Federal Court was wrong in its judgment in 2008 about the conversion of minors, says P Ramakrishnan.

A lot has been said that Islam is a just religion, a religion of peace and compassion. All this is true. In keeping with the virtues and values of Islam, Islamic adherents are under a solemn obligation to give meaning to this by what they do and practise.

In other words, the Islamic faithful cannot be indifferent to the fate of someone who is of a different religion. They cannot deny the rights of these people nor can they be dismissive of the suffering when one Islamic faithful leaves his former family in the lurch after converting.

As a human being, he is expected to provide for his wife and children notwithstanding his embrace of Islam. If he fails to discharge this responsibility that is expected of him, should Islam embrace him? Should a man who betrays the trust of a family and abdicates his responsibility be welcome into Islam? Should such people be allowed to bring disrepute to the religion?

Unfortunately this is what is too often happening today. Secretly, the man converts, and all hell breaks loose for the family. He is not bothered. He compounds the misery of his wife by unilaterally converting his children to Islam. He shatters the life of a mother; and claims refuge in Islam. There is a moral question here.

One would expect religious authorities to guide him in the path of righteousness before he is allowed to convert. He should be advised to exemplify Islamic virtues by displaying compassion and discharging his responsibility to his family before he can find a place in Islam.

The religious authorities contribute to the family break-up when they convert his children without the knowledge or consent of their mother. By so doing, they add to the suffering of the helpless mother. Is this fair?

In a recent case, it is reported that a husband abandoned his wife from Jelebu in February last year without providing for her welfare, and converted to Islam. In April this year, very quietly and without the knowledge of his wife, he converted both his children aged five and eight.

These children were not born Muslims. Is it right to convert minors who have no knowledge of Islam? Having been brought up in the Hindu faith, how do they reconcile their conversion to Islam?

It is wrong for Negeri Sembilan State Islamic Affairs Department director Datuk Johani Hassan to insist that “when one parent embraces Islam, the children can be automatically converted. … The law does not say that we need the consent of both parents before we can convert their children.”

The Federal Court might have erred when it ruled that the word “parent” in the Constitution meant a singular person and therefore a single parent could convert the child. But the phrase “consent of the parent” could not have meant that. If that was the intention of the framers of the Constitution, they would have expressed the intention as “consent of either parent”.

This contention must be correct. Malaysian Bar president Christopher Leong had pointed out that “Article 160 of the Federal Constitution explains the rules of interpretation. … It is stated that words importing the masculine gender include females and words in the singular includes plural and vice versa.”

How this important point could have been overlooked is a mystery to me. According to Mr Leong, “Until 2002, the Bahasa Malaysia version, as published by the Government Printers, translated ‘parent’ as ‘ibu bapa’. However, in the 2002 edition of the translated Federal Constitution, the word ‘parent’ was translated as ‘ibu atau bapa’,” he added.

For the word “ibu bapa” to be changed to “ibu atau bapa” would require an amendment to the Federal Constitution. But from what can be ascertained, there was no such amendment. The original intention of the Constitution must remain unaltered.

That is crystal clear. The Malaysian Bar must move to have the Federal Court decision reviewed. Otherwise, a great injustice will be perpetuated.

In this unpleasant and worrying controversy, why is the Cabinet not speaking up especially when a decision was made in April 2009? It was then decided that children of parents where one of them opts to convert must continue to be raised in the common religion at the time of marriage.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department at that time, Datuk Seri Nazri, said it was decided in the Cabinet meeting that a spouse who has converted into Islam would also have to fulfil his or her marital responsibilities according to civil marriage laws.

“Religion should not be used as a tool to escape (marital) responsibilities. Conversion is not a ground for the automatic dissolution of a marriage,” he said at a press conference at Parliament building on Thursday (23 April 2009).

“The children should be brought up in the common religion. For the spouse who intends to convert into Islam, he or she would also have to come clean,” he said.

This is a fair and just Cabinet decision. Why is the Barisan Nasional government not enforcing this decision? Why is the Prime Minister allowing this unnecessary controversy to drag on? Our nation should not be embroiled in this issue.

Please speak up, Mr Prime Minister.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 22 June 2013 - 10:35 am

    The Bar Council president is right that according to legal rules of interpretation “words in the singular includes plural and vice versa”. In addition, when a couple married they were both non muslims and therefore it would be reasonable of one to expect of the other that the child conceived out of their union – in relation to whom both share equal rights and responsibilities- will not be unilaterally converted to another faith that the other does not, and would not, at both the time of the marriage or the child’s birth, have approved. To allow one parent to have the unilateral right to subsequently do so is to permit him to renege on the earlier common understanding and agreement that form the very basis of both the union and the offspring that comes from it in violation of the other’s rights which cannot be justified on ordinary considerations of what is fairness – unless one implicitly proceeds on the assumption that the the superiority of the Religion overrides all other considerations.

  2. #2 by tuahpekkong on Saturday, 22 June 2013 - 5:20 pm

    I believe all religions are compassionate. It is the people who are not enlightened enough who are causing the problems. Suppose the person who converts is the sole bread winner of the family, how are his wife and children going to fend for themselves if he takes along all his assets upon conversion? This reminds me of a fireman who converted to Islam without his wife’s knowledge. It took a long, long time after his death for his wife to get back some of his assets. And that was called a “sedekah” by a former cm.

  3. #3 by negarawan on Sunday, 23 June 2013 - 10:14 am

    Any religious conviction has to be through the heart and not by force. Any true religious conversion has to be a conversion of the heart, not by external force. In Malaysia, force is used by certain religious quarters to convert individuals, and this is clearly wrong by any moral and religious standards. The bigoted and opportunistic actions by these religious quarters are a clear reflection of their lack of human compassion and respect. Also, two wrongs does not make a right. A strong and fair leadership is needed to resolve this problem, but unfortunately we have a lame and insincere government! Change is urgently needed!

  4. #4 by good coolie on Sunday, 23 June 2013 - 11:26 pm

    Another factor is the secretive aspect of these conversions. Secrecy is used to defeat rights of the non-Muslim party. Lifting the veil of secrecy will inform affected parties so that they can have timely recourse to legal remedies.

    The shadow of the Constitutional Amendments resulting in Article121(1A), which prevented civil courts from determining the religious status of putative converts to Islam, still hangs over every civil marriage. MIC and MCA voted for that amendment to the constitution. After that, they went pleading to the PM of the day with petitions in their hands, only to be rudely rebuffed.

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