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Malaysia: Religious Pluralism and the Constitution in a Contested Polity

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Malaysia has a classically plural society with a Malay/ Muslim majority and a legal system which, for historical reasons, is bifurcated between the common law and Islamic law. It also has a colonial-era federal constitution under which Islam is a state issue. Disputes concerning religion are both many and divisive. They are dealt with mainly in constitutional terms, especially in debates about the notion of an Islamic state, in light of Article 3 and the enshrinement of an official religion and in litigation. The latter is rendered complex by the separation of Islamic from common law jurisdiction in 1988, a fact that has given rise to highly sensitive and troubling litigation involving, especially, religious conversion in Lina Joy (2007). This article traces historical developments relating to religion and the law, and finds cause for some optimism that religious divides can be bridged by constitutional means, in light of recent judicial responses and evolving debates about the constitutional position of Islam.

Affiliations: 1: Centre for Asian Legal Studies, National University of Singapore


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