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Local Muslim non-governmental organisations have welcomed the executive ordeto immediately stop all discussions on religious freedom, except for one which argues against suppression of views.

In supporting discussions on religious freedom, Jamaah Islah Malaysia (JIM) deputy president Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh said the government should have taken a more amicable approach.

"Generally speaking, there should not be any suppression of the expression of opinions on inter-religious issues," he told malaysiakini .

However, he cautioned those expressing their views against sensationalising or manipulating the issues.

"These are sensitive issues. Racial and religious issues are always sensitive but suppression is not a solution either," he said.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi yesterday ordered all forums organised by the 13-member Article 11 coalition to stop immediately for fear of stoking religious fervour.

Allow discussions

Suggesting that the government plays the role of mediator, Syed Ibrahim said it should have figured out an amicable solution through moderated inter-organisational discussions.

"At the same time not forgetting that Muslim affairs should be left to the Islamic authorities," he added.

He said there was a need to draw the line although such limitations should not stop people from expressing their opinions on the issues.

"Both sides are gaining momentum. The Article 11 coalition is pushing their campaign and the opposing groups have started organising talks of their own. This is where a moderated discussion is better, to stop parties from hurling accusations at each other," he added.

A ban on open interfaith discussions, he said, does not resolve the tension because "it is a recurring issue waiting to surface again and again".

"To me, the real dialogue has not happened but a good start would be for the government to call for a discussion by asking the parties concerned to agree on a good setting," he said, adding that some Muslim NGOs were working on this.

Appropriate response

In an e-mail communique later, Badan Anti-IFC (Badai) chairperson Mohd Hafiz Mohd Nordin thanked the prime minister for finally making the long-awaited call.

He said Badai, the muftis and numerous Muslim NGOs had urged Abdullah to act against the Article 11 coalition in a memorandum submitted in early March.

"We hope the group will listen and adhere to the PM's directive. Nevertheless, Badai will continue to monitor all their activities especially the Muslim NGO within the coalition," he said, in an apparent reference to Sisters In Islam.

Mohd Hafiz said SIS is considered "extremely dangerous" because it has challenged the country's syariah system by alleging that the laws discriminate against women.

"Badai will immediately lodge a police report if the religious sentiments sparked by the Article 11 coalition and its 13 partners continues," he warned.

Malay empowerment movement Teras chairperson Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid, in welcoming the order, said the rationale was more than just claiming it as a sensitive issue.

"It touches on the authority of the Malay Rulers and the special position of Islam in the constitution. This is the fundamental principle and consensus we arrived at when our forefathers built this country.

"The discussion should be stopped. We support the PM's words. It is a very appropriate response," he said in a telephone interview.

He said Islam has been turned into a polemic with those who not an authority on the religion.

"Everyone is writing about Islam without considering the implications of both the verbal and written words, especially when it is not authoritative.

"Islam is not a free subject that all can comment on and discuss about freely. Open discussions on religious freedom does not take into account the stand on apostasy in Islam," he added.

Crossing the line

Mohd Azmi said people were crossing the boundary (by discussing apostasy) without care for Muslim sensitivities.

"Islam is not about getting in and out. It's about understanding, but its importance is being undermined.

"That is why when Article 11 (group) goes around discussing this on the basis of individual rights where people should be free to apostasise, the whole Muslim community is emotional."

On the reaction of Muslim NGOs in recent weeks to Article 11 forums, he said Muslims started feeling that the message was getting out in "a very dangerous way".

"This is the natural response to such a roadshow that tries to highlight the inadequacies of syariah laws and so-called injustices under the guise of discussing constitutional rights," he said.

He also warned of a chain-reaction that could spawn further misunderstanding, confusion and an emotional build-up.

"We've had almost 50 years of independence and have lived together in a very sober manner, then suddenly a group wants to discuss (sensitive issues) in a very aggressive albeit legal way," he added.

Mutual respect

In an e-mail statement, Organisations in Defence of Islam (Pembela) spokesperson Yusri Mohamad lauded the order as the best decision to ensure racial stability and harmony in the country.

He said it was in line with the resolutions adopted by the 10,000-strong crowd that attended the Syariah and Current Affairs Forum held at the Federal Territory mosque last Sunday.

Yusri, who is the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim) president, said prevailing inter-racial and inter-religious stability must be appreciated and upheld by all.

"This stability is built on mutual respect for the rights of all religions. This group should not question the special position of Islam in the constitution.

"Such attitude only serves to hurt the feelings of the Muslim community and could de-stabilise the country," he said, urging Article 11 to heed the prime minister's call.

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