Children should not be forced to convert, says ex-Perlis mufti

Asri says children should have the freedom to choose their own religion upon turning 15. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Asri says children should have the freedom to choose their own religion upon turning 15. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, July 4 — Children should not be forcefully converted to Islam, former Perlis Mufti Datuk Dr Asri Zainul Abidin has said as non-Muslim tempers continue to flare over a newly-mooted law permitting the unilateral conversion of minors to Islam.

Instead, Asri said children should be allowed to decide which religious beliefs they want to profess upon turning 15, while their Muslim convert father should be given the right to educate them in Islam should the court grant custody to their non-Muslim mother in divorce cases.

“Leave the matter to the children. It’s a free country,” Asri told The Malay Mail Online in an exclusive interview here yesterday.

“If you force someone to embrace something they don’t like, they may want to change religions. Then, apostasy cases will happen again,” said the well-known Muslim scholar.

Non-Muslim groups, the Malaysian Bar and politicians on both sides of the divide have denounced the Administration of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013, which allows the unilateral conversion of children below 18 years to Islam, as unconstitutional.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam suggested on Tuesday that a translation error was at the centre of the religious row on the Bill that was tabled in Parliament last week.

Subramaniam reportedly said that the Malay version of section 107(b) of the proposed law, which states the conversion of a minor requires the consent of a “parent or guardian”, was not in line with the English version.

The MIC deputy president noted that the Malay version translates the word “parent” to “ibu atau bapa” (“mother or father”).

But Asri pointed pointed out that the Quran states there is “no compulsion in religion”, the same line that invited controversy last year when PKR MP Nurul Izzah Anwar declared it during a forum.

Asri said that according to the Tafsir Ibn Kathir, which is a commentary of the Quran, that statement was revealed when the Ansar community in Madinah embraced Islam and wanted their children — who had been sent earlier to the Jews to be baptised — to be similarly converted to Islam.

“For that, Allah revealed that there’s no compulsion in Islam,” said Asri. “So, nobody can force others to embrace a religion, not even their parents.”

Asri pointed out that if Muslims were afraid of children choosing religious faiths other than Islam, they should educate children well.

“If you educate someone and you believe that Islam is a strong religion and has more evidence than others, people will embrace the religion full-heartedly,” he said.

Selangor PAS commissioner Dr Abd Rani Osman said on Tuesday that the conversion of children to Islam should require the consent of both parents as religious conversions are a “big issue”.

Custodial tussles in cases of unilateral child conversions have been a growing concern over the years and provide a high-profile glimpse of the concerns of Malaysia’s religious minorities over the perceived dominance of Islam in the country.

It also highlights the complications of Malaysia’s dual legal systems where Muslims are bound by both civil and syariah laws, the latter of which do not apply to or recognise non-Muslims.

In 2009, then Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz said the government will ban the unilateral conversion of minors to Islam, in an attempt to assuage concerns among religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country.

But cases since then, such as that of a Hindu mother in Negri Sembilan who discovered in April her estranged husband had converted their two underage children to Islam after he had done so a year earlier without her knowledge, illustrate the lack of adherence to the ruling.

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