Monday, August 11, 2008

Najib: Forum disruption expected

Najib: Forum disruption expected
Maria J. Dass and Husna Yusop

KUALA LUMPUR (Aug 10, 2008): Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak said today the disruption of the Bar Council's open forum on conversion to Islam was "expected" and blamed the council for being "stubborn" in not listening to advice from the authorities.

Commenting on Saturday's forum which had to be ended prematurely due to a noisy protest by about 500 people outside the venue in Lebuh Pasar Besar here, Najib said: "We expected this to happen and we had already told them that holding an open forum on this issue would invoke this sort of reaction from some groups, but they were stubborn."

"We live in a multiracial country and we have been able to live peacefully so far because we have been tolerant, respectful of the sensitivities of all races and by adhering to the tenets of the Federal Constitution.

"If we dispute these basic ideals, it will definitely evoke reaction from other groups. So if we were to upset this, it will evoke disagreement which can affect our peace and harmony," he said, after opening the Bumiputera Real Estate Convention and Exhibition 2008.

Meanwhile, Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said the forum would not have been a big hoo-ha had the title of the discussion been more "Muslim-friendly".
She said the lawyers were trying to find a solution for family members affected by the conversion of one family member to Islam due to the conflicts relating to jurisdiction between the syariah and civil courts.

"Apart from legal issues, we must focus on humanitarian issues. It is important that we realise that R. Subashini, T. Saravanan and S. Shamala are real people. So, these are humanitarian issues we are dealing with," she said at the opening of the forum on Saturday.

The forum, titled "Conversion to Islam: Article 121(1a) of the Federal Constitution: Subashini and Shamala Revisited," attended by about 200 participants including the media, was originally scheduled to take place from 8.30am to 1pm.

Demonstrators gathered in front of the Bar Council secretariat building chanted Allahu Akbar, carrying placards and banners and shouted for it to stop. They were representatives of Muslim NGOs and political parties, including the Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM), Peninsular Malay Students Federation (GPMS), Muslim Organisations in Defence of Islam (Pembela), Malaysian Islamic Propagation and Welfare Organisation (Pekida), Alumni of Umno Club Overseas Students, PAS Youth and Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Due to the growing tension, the police advised the organisers to stop the forum, which had started at 8.40am, earlier than scheduled and Ambiga announced that the forum would wrap up at 10am.

However, 25 minutes later, a group of protestors led by GPMS vice-president Jais Abdul Karim and Pembela member Zulkifli Noordin, who is also PKR Kulim-Bandar Baru MP, accompanied by the police, marched into the auditorium on the 1st floor of the building where the forum was held.

At that time, former Suhakam commissioner Dr Mehrun Siraj was giving her views but was told off rudely by one of those in the group, who said he represented Umno, that she was conspiring with the un-Islamic goings-on in the forum.

When the group became vociferous, Ambiga declared the forum closed at 10am.
Earlier, the forum heard eyewitness accounts from two women whose lives were affected by the conversion of their fathers to Islam and a spontaneous sharing from a German woman who was a Muslim convert.

The first was a young Chinese woman whose father embraced Islam to marry an Iranian Muslim. The second was an older Indian woman, a devout Christian, whose father married a Malay Muslim and the family underwent conflict with religious authorities when her father died.

The German married a Malaysian Malay in England and was converted to Islam by his family when they moved here, only to be divorced and abandoned after 10 years. Her second marriage to a Malay ended in divorce after six years and after that she was a single mother raising three sons without any help from her ex-husbands.

The second session involved a panel discussion of the custody battle between Subashini and former husband Saravanan or Mohd Shafi Saravanan Abdullah; and Shamala and former husband Dr Jeyaganesh who converted one of their sons to Islam.

The panel consisted of lawyers Mohd Haniff Khatri Abdullah (counsel for Mohd Shafi), K. Shanmuga (for Subashini) and Ravi Nekoo (for Shamala).

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