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A Saddening State of Affairs

On Wednesday, the Malaysian Federal Court rejected a lady's appeal to have her religion removed from her identity card. This has been heavily watched as a landmark case in my home country, as the lady in question was a born Muslim, and issues of officiating the departure of a Muslim from the Islamic faith raises questions about our Constitutional rights as Malaysians.

For Malaysians, the National Identification Card is our entire identity as citizens. It carries information regarding every aspect of our lives. Apart from the basic information one would expect, current versions of the IC even include bank card and commuter card functions. More importantly, it identifies which of our two courts, the Federal Court and the Syariah Court, is responsible for trying any given citizen depending on the kind of legal issue raised. It does this by listing the religion of the card carrier as either "Islam" or typically, "Other". I've mentioned some of my own issues with this system before. Put very simply, changing one's religion on the IC declares that person's rights in the eyes of the law in a very large way, and a declaration of being non-Muslim after being born Muslim is one of the most controversial Constitutional rights a Malaysian can possibly exercise.

With specific regards to this case, on first glance, I'm not particularly angered by this, nor am I at all surprised at the Federal Court's ruling. I am disappointed and sad at the folks praying outside the Court.

I went off to look up reports on the major pro-government English newspaper back home to see what they're saying -- they're the most likely newspaper to avoid actual feelings from religious groups, which are rather annoying to factor into these things. I suggest starting with this article as a primer on the affairs at stake. Reports on related issues are also linked to at the bottom of this article's page. The main concern that I see comes from the Federal Court, the Syariah Court and the Bar Council in trying to work out their responsibilities with regards to ruling on religious conversions.

The legal logic the Federal Court used here was that Lina Joy could only remove "Islam" from her Identification Card if the Syariah Court first approved an application from her part to leave the Islamic faith, and issued her a certificate stating as such. They put the responsibility ofdealing with her conversion on the Syariah Court, deciding that they were not the Court to go to on matters of Muslim conversions.

The fact is, the Federal Court and the Syariah Court have been at an impasse on Muslim conversions for years. The Bar Council, as do some Federal Court judges and most of the moderate-liberal Non-Governmental Organisations, and also non-Muslim religious organisations, have consistently agreed that religious conversions are a constitutional matter. This makes it a Federal Court matter.

The Syariah Court, as the Islamic court of Malaysia responsible for handling all Muslim-related legal matters, is often seen as the court responsible for handling matters of Muslim apostasy. This is because it also legally handles a non-Muslim's conversion to the Islamic faith. Based on the legal logic used earlier, the correct legal path Lina should have taken was to apply for an apostasy certification from the Syariah Court,and then apply for the removal of "Islam" from her IC.

The Syariah Court, however, has a real reputation for consistently rejecting the vast majority of apostasy applications it sees.

Many Muslims wanting to opt out of the religion would also prefer to take their case to the Federal Court, if at all, for simple security reasons:

1. Apostasy as a criminal offence under the Syariah Court is actually decided by the individual states, not the Federal Court. This means that some states find apostasy more offensive than others.

2. The varying punishments for apostasy go from jail terms and fines to mandatory religious rehabilitation. The last option in particular has developed a really nasty reputation over the years, with reports of some states locking people up in highly unsatisfactory locations.

3. The Syariah Court, being a Muslim court, is predisposed from the start to discriminate against Muslims wanting to leave the religion. It is expected that officials will be as unhelpful as possible whenever they can. They don't have to be, but the reputation is there.

4. Article 11 of our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion for all Malaysians. This strongly implies that a block on a person converting to a different faith in our country goes against their enshrined constitutional rights. And all matters relating to interpretations of Constitutional rights go under the Federal Court.

Regardless of my personal opinion that religion should be kept out of our legal system at all, the main concern at work here is how our founding fathers deliberately kept the wording of our legal system vague on religious freedoms so as not to insult our multi-ethnic community when we started out. Back in the 50s, it was reasonable to assume people were actually a lot less conservatively religious than they are now. I don't actually think our founding fathers ever predicted Muslims in Malaysia would get the way they are in the present era.

I understand why they had to be as vague as they did, and don't disagree with their purpose.

I would love to see the Federal Courts being given the wholesale right to decide on issues of religious conversions, regardless of whether a person is Muslim or not. This helps ensure that these legal matters will be settled through the most impartial eyes possible, under the supreme laws of our country.

So I'm disappointed in a way they fobbed it at the Syariah Court, even though I can see the logic they used in this case. I don't exactly know if I think highly of Lina Joy either. She seems like she's trying to make a statement (in this case to marry legally as a Christian), and though I admire her spunk, I don't know if this is the right time in Malaysian history to approach this issue.

The fact of the matter is that Malaysia has a number, not a majority, but a number of ex-Muslims who live quiet, relatively normal lives inMalaysia. They register themselves as Muslims and do all the obligatory "face"-saving stuff because going up against the courts, or even Muslim society, is hard on the people they know and can cause a lot of the most ridiculous discrimination. Those who wish to marry and to raise children in different faiths usually just leave the country.

It's a sad state of affairs. I wish it wasn't so. But look at me, I'm not in the country anymore.

We have a growing conservative Muslim presence in Malaysia that is trying to stretch our official religion, dual legal system and vague legal wordings to preserve religious tolerance as far as they can take it. They have infiltrated our government, our agencies and our corporate culture. It is a frightening state of affairs if we look at it within the context of just this period in time. But.

Over the last 20 years, Malaysia has experienced incredible economic changes, and with it, incredible social changes as people's education, status and possibilities for intellectual expansion have simply exploded. It has created a well-educated, reasonably comfortable middle class. It has taken people by surprise. A lot of people simply haven't had time to really digest everything yet, and I think quite a number of us are a little frustrated and scared of it all. Some of us have gone deeply leftwards, others, madly right.

From what I can tell, the madly right are the more powerful of the two groups, because they are more vocal and more rabid about seeing their way through. The moderates are fence-sitters and peaceable folk. It's hard for me to imagine them up in arms.

Our current administration is just able to keep things under wraps, enforcing a strict, authoritarian Moderate government. But the people there are getting old, and I do worry that their replacements may not be as open as they could be to moderation, never mind more liberal values. I think though, that this is merely a phase, again, a backlash to sudden change. In another 20 years, with increasing globalization, with increasing exposure to the outside world, with an inevitable maturity in the type and kind of educational access Malaysians can receive, I think we won't end up being all that bad. I firmly believe I'll see a more tolerant Malaysia rise out of this within my lifetime.

Or maybe I have to, because the opposite reaction will be just too much to bear.

Props to the awesome scanner_darkly for bringing this issue to my attention. Most of this post was actually derived from an email I sent to him in response, so I have him to thank for this train of thought, and allowing me to post it here as well.