The Muslim Lawyers Association

Zaid Ibrahim

There are a number of lawyers’ association in the country. There is the Muslim Lawyers Association (which I started in 1987) and there are others such as those comprising lawyers practising in the Shariah Courts (peguam syarie).

The Muslim Lawyers Association has apparently been making headlines with “unlawyer-like” remarks when commenting on events happening in the country.

The latest statement attributed to them concerns the need for MAS to adopt strict Islamic rules. Presumably, the Association is of the view that MAS flight MH370 went missing because MAS did not observe strict Islamic codes, whether in crew uniforms or serving alcohol on overseas routes.

In other words, God was so angry with MAS that He made the plane disappear.

When they make such outrageous statements, some members of the public blame me for starting the Association in the first place.

Well, I established the Association not to make Muslim lawyers stupid but to make Muslim lawyers at the Bar defend the “secular” Constitution that I foresaw 25 years ago as being threatened by ambitious politicians.

In our country, the “separation” between civil (common law) and religious law, although tenuous, must be vigorously defended or we will become a “Taliban country”.

Let me explain.

In 1987, Parliament amended Article 121 of the Federal Constitution. This amendment was one of the most significant and “historic” in the sense that it had far-reaching effects.

Previously, “judicial power’” was specifically vested in the High Court but this was removed by the Amendment. The message to judges was that they only had whatever power Parliament or the State Legislatures gave them, and nothing more.

Then Article 121A was inserted (at the same time) under which the Shariah Court was conferred exclusive jurisdiction over all matters within its purview and no appeal to, or judicial review in, the High Court could be made (as was the case before the Amendment).

The areas covered as “matters within Islamic law and the Shariah Court” are always unclear since Schedule Nine of the Constitution was drafted by secular lawyers but is now interpreted by lawyers and judges who have strong religious beliefs.

The “Islamisation” of law in our country started from this date. As a lawyer trained in the common law who believes strongly in the Rule of Law, I was very concerned about this encroachment. I felt it was a political move that would destroy the secular nature of our Constitution.

When the Constitution is disregarded, theocrats will rule and we will no longer be the democracy that this nation was founded as. That’s my belief. My reaction was to assemble a group of Malay-Muslim lawyers who I thought were “secularists” like me, and that’s how and why the Association was started.

From my experience as Secretary of the Bar Council in the early 1980s, the Bar Council was always reluctant to comment or take strong views about Islamic issues and the laws pertaining to the Shariah Courts, even when such matters affected Constitutional principles.

This was understandable because most members were non-Muslims— they would be accused by Islamists of “interfering” in Islamic matters whenever they said anything.

The Islamist NGOs would target the Bar Council Muslim Law Sub-Committee if any statements issued by the Bar on human rights or the Rule of Law “infringed” or “violated”, in their view, Islamic tenets or laws. The situation is worse today than 25 years ago.

So I thought that if we could group Muslim lawyers who were all trained under civil or common law jurisprudence, and who understood the meaning of Rule-of-Law democracy and freedom, they would make the best defenders of our secular Constitution.

Being Muslims, they would not be easily accused of being “infidels” or “threatening the religion” because they too would understand Islamic principles of justice and the common good.

It did not turn out that way.