Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim in Malaysia

See Also: Doing the Impossible: Quitting Islam in Malaysia

Malaysia’s highest court ruled today in a split decision that a Kuala Lumpur woman who renamed herself Lina Joy has lost her 12-year fight to legally become a Christian. According to Malaysian law, Joy will remain a Muslim whether she wants to or not, and her religious status will remain on her identity card. Justice Richard Malanjun, a Christian, dissented in the ruling.

The outcome of the case was hardly unexpected, given Malaysia's religious and ethnic history. A crowd of about 300 Muslims waited outside, reading the Koran and chanting as Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim delivered the judgment to a packed courtroom in the administrative capital Putrajaya, saying that jurisdiction over Joy’s case remains with Malaysia’s syariah, or religious court. As the decision was being read, the shout “Allahu Akhbar” resounded through the Palace of Justice.

Joy, 43, remains a recluse, fearing retaliation in Malaysia’s always edgy religious and ethnic atmosphere. She cannot legally marry her non-Muslim partner, a cook, because the law requires non-Muslims to convert to Islam if they wish to marry someone of that faith. She has not spoken to the press since her case became public. She converted to Christianity when she was 26.

In 1999, although Joy succeeded in getting officials to change her name on her MyKad, a national identification card that must state the bearer’s religion, she was unsuccessful in having the word Islam removed. That was what brought her to the federal court, which considered three questions: Whether syriah court certification was needed before the National Registration Department could change the religious affiliation on Joy's ID card, whether the NRD correctly construed its powers when it imposed the above requirement, which is not expressly provided for in the regulations and most importantly, whether the syriah courts' authority took precedence over the civil courts in cases where Muslims renounced their faith.

Although the case was decided nearly a year ago, the federal court delayed its public ruling, partly because of the thorny legal issues and the question of whether the country’s federal courts should defer to syariah law. Despite the fact that Malaysia is largely a moderate Islamic country, only about 60 percent of its citizens are Muslims, existing in an uneasy balance with the mostly Chinese Christian, Buddhist or Taoist minority who make up about 25 percent of the population. Indians and other minorities make up another 11 percent.

Authorities earlier this week were urging calm, as were Muslim religious leaders. The victory in court should defuse any further concerns, although Christian opponents were expected to be holding silent vigils and issuing statements. The reform organization Aliran issued a statement saying that: "The freedom of religion guaranteed by the Federal Constitution under Article 11 comes across as hollow and meaningless. This decision has totally rendered null and void the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. Under the circumstances, the Federal Court’s decision has a devastating effect on issues of fairness and justice. Concerned citizens will rightly wonder whether the judiciary is capable of delivering justice for those who turn to it. They will be turned away from the judicial system of the country thinking that the judges who are sworn to uphold the Federal Constitution in the course of their duty are not living up to their oath of office."

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, either with a fine or a jail sentence or both. Muslims dominate most of the public institutions and have done so since bloody 1969 riots that officially killed 192 persons on both sides of the ethnic divide, but are presumed to have killed hundreds more

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 syariah. Not surprisingly, the syariah courts have ruled unanimously that ethnic Malays must remain Islamic.

Malaysia, however, is on an increasingly secular path on all sides of the ethnic and religious divide. On a breakneck path to modernization for the past 25 years, 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 increasing 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 syariah courts have particularly 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.”

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Then, last year, a 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 syariah court that had declared him a Muslim.

Religious tensions have occasionally flared. Last November, Muslims gathered outside a Catholic church in Ipoh after text messages 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 denied it. Although the SMS 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 blogs, further stoking the fire.

The attorney general’s chambers announced recently that it was considering establishing a commission to study religious-sensitive cases like Joy’s, said 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.'

The most recent incident that has gripped Malaysians and make international headlines is the forced separation of a Muslim woman, Siti Fatimah, from her husband, Suresh Veerapan, who contended that Siti was no longer a Muslim and in fact a practicing Hindu born to Muslim parents, and that her name is actually Revathi Masoosai. Islamic religious 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 in April. In an interview with the television network Al Jazeera, Siti Fatimah’s mother said she would raise the couple’s 15-month-old granddaughter as a Muslim.