Politics & Policy

The Right Not to be a Muslim

In Malaysia, don't try to convert if you're a Muslim.

“God is great,” shouted the 200 or so demonstrators outside of Malaysia’s Palace of Justice. On Wednesday they were applauding the federal court, the country’s highest judicial forum, for denying a Christian convert the right to change her state-designated religion. The greatness of Islam’s God notwithstanding, the government of Malaysia saw it necessary to coerce a desperate 43-year-old women into continuing to identify herself as a Muslim.

Much injustice once was wreaked by Christians in the name of a loving God. Islam has yet to confront the tragedy of coercion. The result is authoritarian political systems, oppressive legal regimes, discriminatory social environments, and theologically-sanctioned terrorism. There are liberal, tolerant Muslims, of course, who are horrified by the injustices perpetrated in Allah’s name. But the refusal by so many average Muslims to respect — personally or legally — freedom of conscience encourages a political milieu in which dictatorship and terrorism naturally flourish. So long as Islamic populations are willing to fine, imprison, and even kill those within their own communities who worship a different God, or the same God differently, they are likely to at least tolerate, if not applaud and aid, the murder of such people in other societies.

The case of Lina Joy is a case in point. Malaysia has long been seen as a reasonably tolerant society. An illiberal democracy of the Asian mold, Malaysia is rated as “partly free” by Freedom House. While political Islam has had some success at the state level, it has had limited national influence because the secular ruling party retains the allegiance of most Malays, who, along with indigenous peoples, account for about 60 percent of the population.

The constitution formally proclaims the state to be secular and guarantees religious liberty. However, the document also recognizes Islam as Malaysia’s official religion, defines Malays as Muslims, and limits the “propagation” of other faiths. About 58 percent of the population is Islamic; 23 percent Buddhist; 11 percent Christian; 6 percent Hindu; and 2 percent other Chinese faiths.

Although there is no overt persecution in Malaysia, non-Muslims face significant restrictions. The government officially promotes Islam; Muslim civil servants must attend religion courses. “Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is strictly prohibited, although proselytizing of non-Muslims faces no similar obstacles,” reports the U.S. State Department. Violators may be fined and imprisoned. Moreover, “belittling Islam” comes with the risk of imprisonment under the Sedition Act.

Malaysia has variously barred and discouraged Christians from disseminating the Bible and other religious materials in local languages. Moreover, explains the State Department’s latest religious freedom report: “State governments have authority over the building of non-Muslim places of worship and the allocation of land for non-Muslim cemeteries,” authority that has been abused. Most significantly for Lina Joy, Muslims are essentially prohibited from converting.

While civil courts govern the affairs of non-Muslims, sharia courts adjudicate religious disputes and family law for Muslims. Apostasy is a serious Islamic offense, and converts face fines and imprisonment; some offenders are “counseled” and, if they remain recalcitrant, are sent to “rehabilitation” centers in the mold of Communist reeducation camps. (Only one of the 13 states in Malaysia actually allows apostasy, and only after an attempt at “rehabilitation,” while one sets death as punishment, though no one has yet been executed.)

Joy, an ethnic Muslim Malay born Azlina Jailani, began attending church in 1990. Eight years later she was baptized. Although the government accepted her name change, it would not replace “Muslim” with “Christian” on her national identification card without an apostasy certificate from a sharia court. “As a Muslim, bound by the shariah laws,” explained government counsel Datuk Umi Kalthum Abdul Majid, Joy “cannot apostasize at will.” If you are born Muslim, you stay Muslim, at least until a sharia court decides otherwise, which is never.

Joy went to civil court. Her attorney, Datuk Dr Cyrus Das, argued: “the multi-racial and multi-religious people of Malaysia exist in harmony under the guarantees given by a single common document called the Federal Constitution.” In contrast, Yusri Mohammed, head of the Muslim Youth Movement, contended that the constitution “cannot simply be understood as giving unlimited freedom to change one’s religion.”

Alas, Joy lost at the trial and appellate levels. The federal court heard her case last year. She was supported by several NGOs. The government attorney criticized these groups for mounting a “sustained attack on Islam.”

On Wednesday the court, by a two-to-one vote, rejected her appeal. Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim opined: “Apostasy is a matter linked to Islamic laws. It’s under the jurisdiction of the sharia court.” But for Joy to go to sharia court would be to invite criminal punishment as an apostate, something that (non-Muslim) dissenting Justice Richard Malanjum correctly observed was “unreasonable” to require of her.

No surprise, Islamic activists were pleased. “We hope that we have seen the last of such attempts” to escape the jurisdiction of sharia courts, said Yusri Mohammed. “We invite anyone who feels that they are aggrieved or victimized within the current system to choose other, less confrontational and controversial attempts towards change and reform,” he added.

However, Malaysia’s government will not change the law, since the ruling UMNO party fears the political power of the Islamic PAS party and for years has been playing to Islamist sentiments. Emigration is the only safe alternative, one often taken by converts. Indeed, after the judicial decision, Joy said she might leave her country. For the judges denied her the “simple but important fundamental right that exists in all persons: Namely, the right to believe in the religion of one’s choice.”

Thus, in Malaysia today religion is a matter of ethnicity, fixed for all time. Sharia courts do not allow people to abandon Islam. But the decision puts all non-Muslims at risk. “It casts a large shadow on civil liberties and the constitutional rights of Malaysians,” complains opposition politician Lim Kit Siang. The decision was a “very regressive interpretation of the constitution,” said S. Sharmila, secretary-general of the National Human Rights Society.

Rev. Hermen Shastri, secretary of the Council of Churches, remains hopeful: “We still go by the possibility that the constitution allows any citizen of the country to exercise his or her right to choose a religion and practice it.” But for a convert, at least, faith can be exercised only at great cost and in secrecy.

Particularly disturbing was how the chief justice dismissed the liberty of individuals to act on their conscience. “You can’t at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another,” said Ahmad Fairuz. Yet even granting this condition, Joy did not make a frivolous decision. As she explained in her court filings, “I have, from the beginning not believed in the practices and teachings of Islam.” Thus, “At all material times after having been introduced to Christianity I have attended Christian churches for mass on every Sunday.” The reason for her switch: “I find more peace in my spirit and soul after having become a Christian. As such, I am of the opinion that I would be unfaithful, untrue and unfair to myself and to others should I carry on projecting myself as a Muslim.”

Joy was disowned by her family and fired from her sales job after customers complained. She and her ethnic Indian boyfriend (a fellow Catholic) are barred from marrying — he would have to formally convert to Islam. Without a legally-sanctioned marriage, any children could be treated as evidence of having sex out of wedlock, would be designated as Muslims, and could be taken away if not provided with an Islamic education. Joy and her fiancé went into hiding out of fear of Muslim extremists, who threatened to hunt them down.

Her case sparked street protests. Private meetings on religious freedom were disrupted by Islamic fundamentalists and banned by the government. Joy’s Muslim lawyer received death threats.

Sadly, about 15,000 converts are estimated to be in Joy’s situation, essentially legal non-persons. A 48-year-old Christian convert declared: “We are discriminated [against] and virtually live underground lives. Our parents, siblings and friends all shun us like lepers.” Many converts simply hide their true faith, living double lives.

Malaysia is a respected member of the international community: economically successful, politically stable, hostile to terrorism. Nevertheless, Malaysia is falling prey to the totalitarian temptation. “We praise Allah for the decision taken by the court,” said Yusri Mohammed. Why? Joy “is encouraging others to do the same. It may open the floodgates to other Muslims,” he feared. Some newspapers predicted mass conversions if Joy triumphed.

Yet this argument suggests that even Islam’s strongest adherents have serious doubts about the credibility and appeal of their religion. After all, people would convert only if they believed that Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or another faith, not Islam, was the truth. Complained Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad, senior fellow at the Institute of Islamic Understanding: “If Islam were to grant permission for Muslims to change religion at will, it would imply it has no dignity, no self-esteem. And people may then question its completeness, truthfulness and perfection.” Questions that apparently cannot be allowed, perhaps because Islam’s strongest proponents believe the answers would be insufficient.

Be that as it may, many Malaysian Muslims do believe that only the law, backed by the threat of punishment, can maintain the allegiance of their fellow citizens. Freedom of conscience must be feared. Those answering the call of faith must be suppressed. “Our country is at a crossroad,” observed Joy’s attorney, Benjamin Dawson: “Are we evolving into an Islamic state or are we going to maintain the secular character of the constitution?”

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be the former. “The idea of a secular state is dead in Malaysia,” worries Farish Noor: “An Islamic society is already in the cards.” Angela Wu, who intervened in the case for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, charges that Islam is “gradually ripping up the fabric of freedom” in Malaysia. Indeed, Malaysia has moved a large step closer to the less tolerant, more violent Islamic societies which the West understandably fears. Malaysia’s descent towards darkness is a tragedy for Malaysians, obviously, but also for Americans and other people of goodwill around the world.

– Doug Bandow is vice president of policy for Citizen Outreach and the author of several -books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon Press).

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire and Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics.


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