Doing the Impossible: Quitting Islam in Malaysia
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- Date: Mon, 30 Jul 2007 08:55:41 +0800
Doing the Impossible: Quitting Islam in Malaysia
Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob
27 April 2007
A Malay woman?s long battle to legally convert to Christianity highlights
Malaysia?s religious and ethnic divide.
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
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
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
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
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.
Freedom???? : InterFaith????
Choose not be free is the "freedom" that was given to all human. I believe the
Human Rights Activist does not understood the word correcly. If you can only
choose "freedom" and not the opposites, are you really free!!!! In other words
you are somehow restricted to only choose "freedom". That is not freedom to me.
If you truly want to talk about "freedom" then you can choose both to be free
and not to be free. Please choose the right word when writing article, and
please do not debate about being free, when you yourself are not free in your
thinking. So what is "freedom"?. An ability to choose, including to choose not
to be free. So what you guys are talking about religious freedom? Don't malaysia
as a democratic country has the right to choose not to be free? If not, there is
no freedom here. As for the malaysian who choose the opposites, hence your
interpreration and perception is different from the one freely chooses by the
country, what does this say about yourself? Are you really really free?
Hmmmmmmmm........ And what about the freedom to interpret the word "freedom"
itself. Common guys, if you really want to talk about freedom, then please
understood the word freedom.
June 26, 2007
.... : rplahiri
how the young boys and girls think about azan calls in shrill loud sound though
number of mikes specially to those non muslims and unwilling to hear muslims ?
June 19, 2007
Religion is Private & Personal: An Absolute Exercise of Own's Free Will :
Secular is Best
Get a life, we are in the 21st Century, not BCE or 600CE! The right to or not to
have a religion is solely and exclusively an exercise of own's personal right:
God given or otherwise!
No one entity: persons and institutions alike has the right to decide another's
religion or the lack of it.
In Malaysia, some smart aleck decides for you that you a certain ethnic group
must have that certain religion and cannot change or face persecution! Than
there is this Rukun Negara that stipulates that you must believe in god, which
implies you must have a religion before you can be a Malaysian (Kepercayaan
kepada Tuhan), so you athiest out there, Malaysia has no place for you.
Come on, people, think, use your brain. Just because you were born in a manger,
does it make you a cow or a bull?
No one chooses to be born, but everyone must be given the right to choose to
have or not to have a religion, that is the very essence of religion: There
indeed is no compulsion in religion; it is a freewill choice.
A religion imposed upon is best a religion acquiced with compliance and at
I say, let the people go, and let the people grow, for Religious Freedom is the
acid test of all Freedoms!
June 7, 2007
.... : daron
I'm a Chinese falling in love with a Muslim girl. Just because of we're grown up
in Malaysia, my family strongly against us being together. I don't wanna
disappoint my family nor hurt the girl, therefore we're planning to migrate to
another country... and hopefully my family will understand this...
June 6, 2007
.... : azlan
www.faithfreedom.org. Check this out!
June 5, 2007
.... : hamzah
saya : one is bounded by muslim law, that is, once you're a muslim, you must
forever be a muslim.
dear saya, I believe Muslim Indonesians will strongly disagree with your
statement. do you know that I can leave Islam anytime I want in Indonesia simply
by declaring through my lawyer?
June 4, 2007
Free Lina! : V
This is bulls**t. I say let her decide! She doesnt even believe in islam and
she's certainly not practising it! 'We're a Democracy-we have article 11 in the
constitution' -a joke malaysia likes to tell the world.
speaking of dictatorships this whole case sounds like a religious dictatorship
June 4, 2007
.... : saya
It is true that Malaysia claims freedom of practice of any desired religion.
However, being a muslim, one is bounded by muslim law, that is, once you're a
muslim, you must forever be a muslim. But, Islam will *never force* people from
other religion to convert to Islam. Separating religion from politic is not most
the ideal solution for creating a developed country. There are more aspects
involved in shaping a country's development, such as economic stability and
efficient management of country resources. Hence, being a secular country is not
a ticket for the country's growth. For mr/miss Religion Free: I'm quite sure
that Malaysian would prefer to live in a democratic country than a country ruled
by a dictator. After all, dictatorship which is a part of autocratic form of
government, is considered as one of the lowest form of government.
June 2, 2007
.... : Ray
This is a classic example on why we should have separation of church/mosque and
state. This is a total joke that Lina joy has to go throuhg the court system all
these years. Everyone should be free to believe or not to believe. This only
confirms to me what I believe about Islam all along, which is definitely not
positive. I'm sl glad I left the country years ago. I can't have loyalty to a
nation who can't respect even the most basic right of a human being, that is the
right to one's own conscience. fight for Article 11 and syariah must be done
June 2, 2007
.... : hamzah
kickdefella - we will NEVER force to to believe and become Muslim.
question - why force Lina Joy to remain a muslim? she was born into a muslim
family and automatically made a muslim as a baby without having a say and now as
an adult, she finds peace in christianity, why not let her go with HER CHOICE?
June 1, 2007
.... : hamzah
zaid says "for your information, malaysia is an islamic country and every rule
and regulation has to comply with the syariah laws."
the last time I checked, Malaysia is still a secular country governs by the
Federal Constitution. Please show me where does it states that Malaysia is an
June 1, 2007
.... : Niiqui
As always, the malays and muslims in Malaysia are hypocrites. so thats why they
are forcing someone to be as hypocritical as they are.
Lina Joy, if you are ever reading this, leave Malaysia! migrate to another
country on the grounds you can't practice your faith because you are forced to
be a muslim.. am very sure the french and danish government would accept your
All the best!
May 31, 2007
.... : a guest
Kickdefella, so you claims that Islam is supreme, the only Truth. I dont want to
argue about religion's supremacy, just a question to ask: Even a person have no
faith, no trust, not agree with the way Islam works, will he still considered as
Islam follower? Receive the deeds for believing in Islam? If not, then why
enforce people as Muslim even they dont want to be? Its only a matter of power
with larger population. Islam has been a potential problem of the world, not
nominal muslim, but the people manipulating Islam population
May 30, 2007
.... : kickdefella
I UNDERSTAND YOUR CONCERNS. This is the way you think: "everyone should be
allowed to choose their religion. Every religion is equal and good. We cannot
force anyone against their will". The thing is, Islam is not like other
religion. In Islam, every other religion is wrong and the followers of other
religion will rot in hell. Islam is supreme, and there is only one God worthy of
worship. Islam is the only religion that make it an offence for the follower to
convert out, and the punishment is death. However, due to changes of times ,
etc, the Muslims refused to follow strictly the teaching and are willing to go
for lesser offence. Still, apostasy is not an option. WE never claim that we're
equal and our religion is more less like others, we say that there is only one
God but we will NEVER force to to believe and become Muslim. BUT once you
voluntarily become a Muslim, you cannot change it just like that. You can be a
Christ worshipper today and a Buddhist monk tomorrow, but you cannot do that to
Islam. Peace. You will find the real God if you're really searching for Him.
May 25, 2007
.... : a guest
it is jus so damn silly how tose people jus force people to stay a muslim just
because they were born muslim! and u know wat is even more silly?
to fight over people's dead body so as to be buried in a muslim cemetry!
i mean jus how desperate is that?
May 16, 2007
Truth : wjx
I am a Malaysian.Democracy is just a cover page lie here.
Sometimes, non Muslim who have relationships with Muslims will get harrased by
religions officers (my friend, non Muslim had his university's grades lowered
because he has a Malay, a must be Muslim, girlfriend)
For the person who says Singapore favours mandarin speakers, may I ask what is
wrong with that? Malays are free to learn Mandarin.
I cant even get the course I want in a local University with my results but I
must thank Singapore to let me study the course I wanted. The reason is because
I am a non-Malay. What a joke!
In addition, there are Mendaki scholarships for Malays in Singapore, which
practically makes their education free if they can make it in their studies.
That is called meritocracy and chinese in Singapore do not have access to that
scholarship. They need to compete on other scholarships which Malays can compete
You want something, you work for it. Not just sit there and expect the
government to adjust policies to your favour. Globalization is going to eat up
I can easily write about all the discriminatory policies and incidents in
Malaysia for another ten pages at least.
May 1, 2007
Irony : Ina : http://www.breatheandlive.com
Its ironic that a government claims there is freedom to practice whatever
religion one chooses and yet forces some individuals to practice some particular
religion. It's a most troubling situation when one's "choice of belief" is
governed by fear of repacautions and not truly by one's will. The development of
Malaysia is only being hindered as it continues to mix matters of religion and
April 28, 2007
To Mr 'Get the facts' : luke
.... so what you are saying it that treatment of apostasy towards Islam in M'sia
is mere retaliation against S'pore? It sounds like Monthy Python ...
April 28, 2007
Get the facts : Youre Kidding
Religion free, you have got to be kidding right? Singapore is one of the most
racist countries on earth. The plight of Muslims in Singapore is well
documented. From the tudung case to "Mandarin preferred" in job applications,
Singapore is a one of the most discriminatory countries you have.
April 28, 2007
To En Zaid : luke
You write 'other people cannot practice their religions freely'... this would
imply that Malays cannot enjoy such a freedom, right? ... dont get me wrong, I
am not putting one religion against the other here (I am agnostic and respect
anyone's beliefs) : my point is ... what is so great about a religion that
forces itself upon people? something like what Bush said to the world after 2001
: "you are either WITH or AGAINST us"... I find all this very sad!
April 28, 2007
a wise decision : zaid
as a malaysian, i applaud the government's decision to let the fate of the
apostates to the syariah court. for your information, malaysia is an islamic
country and every rule and regulation has to comply with the syariah laws. but
this does not mean that other people cannot practice their religions freely.
malaysia does not need to follow other countries' ways just to be a developed
country. and as a result of of this unique ruling system, malaysia has emerged
as one of the most successful countries in the world.
April 28, 2007
.... : Ranto
It defies logic to call someone Muslim if they have renounced that faith. The
Court is creating an illogical fiction because the reality makes a mokery of
such a judgement as well as a mockery of the country. If the Court has true
faith in God they would leave the judgment to Him and not make themselves seem
unduly defensive and insecure in their own faith.
April 27, 2007
No Religion In Politics : Religion Free
What's the common traits of US, UK, FR, CA, AU, JP, SG... developed country have
in common? No religion in politics, school. This Malaysia is doing exactly the
opposite (and so do the Saudi, United Emirates, Afghan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan...)
What do you get? Stupid policy create stupid country. But can we change it? I
doubt it. The only way is revolution. lots of people die and a dictator raise to
the top and if he is a really smart guy, he'll model his constitution as the
developed country and the next generation will have hope. The closest example is
April 27, 2007
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