Doing the Impossible: Quitting Islam in Malaysia

A Malay woman’s long battle to legally convert to Christianity highlights Malaysia’s religious and ethnic divide.

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Twelve years ago, when she was 26 years old, a Kuala Lumpur woman named Azlina Jailani came to a momentous decision. She converted to Christianity and changed her name to Lina Joy.

Joy, now 42, today is at the epicenter of one of the most difficult issues in Malaysian society, one that authorities are approaching with something akin to alarm. What she would like do is marry her non-Muslim boyfriend, a cook, and get on with her life.  That appears to be impossible because, under Malaysian law, Joy is still a Muslim, regardless of her beliefs.

Joy has been carrying her long fight to change her religion up through Malaysia’s judicial system, starting with the High Court in Kuala Lumpur in 1999.  The case is before the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest tribunal and a decision is expected soon.  She is hardly the only Malay who would like to bail out of the traditional religious straitjacket, but in the face of the country’s convoluted religious mores, she is one of the very few with the moxie to fight for what she views as her religious rights.

Every Malaysian citizen over the age of 12 must carry an identification card, called a MyKad, which states the bearer’s religion. In 1999, Joy, a sales assistant, succeeded in getting officials to change her name on the card. Although she said she had been baptized in 1998, she was not able to have the word Islam removed from the card. Her fight to do that is what got her to Federal Court.

It is not possible to be an ethnic Malay in Malaysia without being a Muslim. Apostasy or conversion is a punishable offence in most states in Malaysia, either with a fine, a jail sentence or both. Muslims, most of them ethnic Malays, make up 60 percent of Malaysia’s population and dominate public institutions in an uneasy balance that has remained touchy since anti-Chinese race riots in 1969 that are presumed to have killed hundreds on either side of the ethnic divide. Some 25 percent of Malaysians are ethnic Chinese, followed by Indians with about 11 percent. Indigenous peoples and non-citizens make up the rest.

Despite the fact that one clause of the country’s original federal constitution guarantees freedom of religion, another, added later, states that “State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan, federal law, may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam”.  Generally, the government has sought to stay out of the issue and has referred questions over apostasy or conversion to the country’s shariah, or Islamic courts. Not surprisingly, the shariah courts have ruled unanimously that ethnic Malays must remain Muslims.

As much as anywhere in the world, unique religious strains are playing themselves out in Malaysia. While the country has been on a breakneck path to modernization for the past 25 years, its urban citizens of all ethnic groups have become more secular, with young Malays adopting miniskirts, jeans and all the accoutrements that go with modern lifestyles.  Religious and government leaders have watched that with concern

Accordingly – and especially with the departure of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad,  an authoritarian figure who largely kept ethnic concerns isolated ‑ official Islam is stiffening its resistance. The shariah courts have refused to budge on any issues involving a change of religion.  One woman, Kamariah Ali, who joined a sect and publicly renounced Islam in 1999, was ordered jailed in 2005 on charges of “insulting Islam.”
Then, last year, a ethnic Indian mountaineering hero and Army corporal named Manyan Moorthy died of cancer and was buried in a Muslim cemetery with Muslim rites despite the fact that his wife insisted he had never converted.  The civil High Court ruled that it could not overrule the shariah court that had declared him a Muslim.

 “The apparent conflict of laws has arisen due to the dual court system in the country. Some have termed the shariah and civil courts parallel systems, each dealing with mutually exclusive matters of the law,” said Tricia Yeoh, Senior Research Analyst of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) a prominent local think tank. “Article 11 of the Federal Constitution clearly states that every person has the right to profess and practice his religion. However, any matter pertaining to Islam comes under the jurisdiction of the shariah court. The point of contention comes when it is unclear which court has jurisdiction. In a series of recent cases, we have seen this ambiguity come into play”.

Religious tensions have occasionally flared. Last November, Muslims gathered outside a Catholic church in Ipoh after text messages circulated claiming that the church was preparing to baptize a group of Malays, including a celebrated yachtsman, Azhar Mansor, who had sailed around the world single-handedly in 1999 without an engine. Azhar, who no longer lives in Malaysia, is widely believed to be a quietly practicing Christian although he has publicly denied it. Although the messages proved to be false, authorities were forced to move in to forestall violence. Unverified accusations of mass conversions into Christianity by Malays have been swirling in the press and on-line, further stoking the fire. 

In an attempt to defuse the tension, the Chief Justice of Malaya, Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, has promised that the nation’s highest court will soon deliver its judgment on Joy’s case.

“It is the next change. It will be sooner than you think," Ahmad Fairuz said. Observers believe the case, which has been under appeal for more than two years, has been stalled over worries of social unrest.

Given the delicate racial balance, the Malaysian government is taking no chances with what they regard as a potential time bomb. The 40-year-old ethnic riots remain fresh in Malaysian minds, along with a 1950 custody case in Singapore that sparked the worst ethnic unrest in that city's history. In that case, the High Court in December 1950 awarded custody of Maria Hertogh, then 13, to her biological Dutch-Catholic parents after she had been raised as a Muslim following the family’s separation during World War II. Ensuing riots claimed 18 lives and injured as many as 173 people with huge losses in property.

The attorney general’s chambers announced recently that it was considering establishing a commission to study sensitive cases like Joy’s, said the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Nazri Abdul Aziz. The commission, if it comes to into existence, is expected to include religious leaders of all faiths. The government wants a system in which disputes such as conversion, especially when it involves children, can be addressed in an extra-legal manner. Nazri was quoted in Parliament defending the delay in Joy’s case because “it is very sensitive and we have to consider the consequences. Even if it is made in the right decree, the acceptance may be difficult,”

An unofficial coalition of activists, lawyers, non-governmental organizations and scholars, who call themselves Article 11 after the freedom-of-religion clause in the federal constitution, has been campaigning for religious freedom for all Malaysians, but stopped after experiencing a backlash from Muslim-Malay protesters, compelling the government to step in. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told Article 11 to cease discussions on faith. “If the discussions are not kept in check or contained,” he said, “they are bound to raise tension in our multi-religious society. Religious issues are even more sensitive than ethnic issues.”

The most recent incident was the alleged forced separation of a Muslim woman, Siti Fatimah, from her husband, Suresh Veerapan, who contends that Siti is no longer a Muslim and is a practicing Hindu born to Muslim parents, whose name is actually Revathi Masoosai. Islamic officials charged Siti Fatimah with committing apostasy and ordered for her sent to a “rehabilitation” center for almost 100 days.  Her detention was extended another 80 days last week. In an interview with the television network Al Jazeera, Siti Fatimah’s mother said she would raise the couple’s 15-month-old grand daughter as a Muslim.

Tricia Yeoh believes that the only way forward is to tackle the issues head on. “Any positive change will depend very much on the political position taken by the government,” she says. “Because every decision is closely tied to its effect on the government's electorate, any relief to the current state of growing religious intolerance is centered upon our leaders' political will. Without any serious intention towards tackling the problems, it is difficult to imagine that any solutions will be provided in the near future.”

Certainly that is true. As far as is known, only one person has ever been allowed to leave Islam in Malaysia. An 89-year old woman named Nyonya Tahir who converted to Buddhism in 1936 had her decision accepted – 69 years later ‑ in 2006, after she had died.

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