Negri Sembilan Islamic enforcers detain debate contest’s chief judge over ‘sensitive’ debate topics

Ida Lim
A man reads the Quran inside a mosque during Ramadan in Benghazi July 19, 2013. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 13 — Negri Sembilan’s Islamic religious enforcers had reportedly detained the chief judge of the 2019 edition of the Piala Tun Razak inter-school debating championships, due to the featuring of debate topics that were allegedly religiously sensitive.

Ahmad Zaki Hamzah, who heads the operations unit in Negri Sembilan Islamic Religious Affairs Department’ (JHEAINS) enforcement division, reportedly said the Piala Tun Razak 2019 chief judge was arrested yesterday.

Ahmad Zaki said JHEAINS had arrested the 25-year-old who is also a local university student, after the latter had his statement recorded at the office of the state Islamic body’s enforcement division.

“The student was called to have his statement recorded at 11am following the selection of topics in the debate which touched on Islamic sensitivities namely ‘Rewrite the Quran’ and ‘Homosexual Practices are not sins in Islam’,” he was quoted as saying by local daily New Straits Times (NST).

Ahmad Zaki said the arrest was to assist in Jheains’ investigations under Section 50 of the Syariah Criminal (Negri Sembilan) Enactment 1992, which covers the offence of insulting Islam that can be punished by a maximum RM5,000 fine or maximum three-year jail or both.

According to NST, Ahmad Zaki said Jheains had released the university student on bail with one surety at 5pm yesterday, also saying that the state religious body would be completing the investigation papers to be sent to Negri Sembilan’s Shariah prosecutors.

NST also reported Ahmad Zaki as urging against the promotion of matters that may breach Islamic law and advising the referral of Islamic law matters to the authorities such as muftis.

The name of the chief judge who was arrested by Jheains was not revealed.

The Piala Tun Razak or Tun Razak Cup is a debate contest for students aged 13 to 15 years old from the country’s prestigious boarding schools, and this year’s edition which concluded on October 13 saw defending champion Sekolah Tun Abdul Rahman from Ipoh emerge as the victor.

The debate motions which eventually triggered the public backlash and action by the Islamic authorities were those in the 2019 Piala Tun Razak’s pre-quarter finals round, which were hosted by Sekolah Dato’ Abdul Razak in Seremban, Negri Sembilan.

On October 15, the Ministry of Education said its Higher Education Department was reviewing the possibility of taking action against the Piala Tun Razak’s two co-chief adjudicators Mohammad Aidil Ali and Iyad Zakiy Amal, who are also public university students.

The ministry had said investigation findings showed that the two who sat on the panel for the selection of Piala Tun Razak debate motions had not consulted Sekolah Dato’ Abdul Razak on the debate topics, also noting that the hosting school had said the chief jury was informed that the debate motions should not touch on the sensitivities of religions, ethnic groups and culture or issues that can “threaten national security”.

The debate motions

The two co-chief adjudicators had on October 14 apologised over any discomfort to those who found the debate motions to be insensitive and offensive.

In a statement, the duo explained that the theme of the pre-quarter finals round was “religion”, with three motions selected for debate.

The three motions required participants to debate whether separate legal systems for religious communities should be allowed in secular democracies; whether moderate Islamic scholars would republish Quran with the removal of contents vulnerable to radical misinterpretation if there was the ability to rewrite the Quran; and a scenario where being homosexual is not a sin in Islam.

Acknowledging that the second and third motions were deemed to be controversial, the duo however explained that these motions were “hypothetical motions” where the debaters have to envision an “imaginary world” where the motions can take place.

The two co-chief adjudicators said they had extensively discussed the second motion regarding the imaginary scenario of a newer version of the Quran and foreseen that it would not require anyone to “demonise or assassinate Islam as a religion”.

They stressed that the debate motions were not created with the intention to indoctrinate or brainwash debaters and are not a form of liberal agenda by anyone, also saying that debate as a sport requires participants to “think out of the box, to not limit one’s worldview while at the same time not sacrificing their faith and belief, and be ready to think critically”.

The duo also said there were other debating competitions with more controversial motions on religious topics for debate, saying that they thought it best to expose the young debaters to such motions in preparation for the reality of discourse in those contests and learn how to debate without jeopardising their faith in religion.

The duo said they had concluded these motions were safe for the Piala Tun Razak participants to debate despite their youth, saying that this was due to their confidence that the young debaters are “a group of bright talented people who are capable of executing the motions properly without having to fear that they would be indoctrinated into doubting their belief”.

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