Jun 03, 2007 04:30 AM
For decades, Malaysia has been regarded as a tolerant Muslim nation that treats its Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities fairly. But its image as a moderate, multicultural democracy was dealt a blow last week when the nation's highest court refused to recognize the conversion of a Muslim-born woman to Christianity.
In a deplorable 2 to 1 vote, split on religious lines, the Federal Court decreed that Lina Joy, who was baptized a Roman Catholic in 1998, must get an Islamic sharia court to certify she has renounced Islam before she can legally be deemed a convert and the word "Islam" be removed from her identity card. Until then, she cannot marry her Catholic fiancé because in Malaysia Muslims can only wed within the faith. She has been shunned, has lost her job and may have to leave Malaysia.
"She cannot at her own whim simply enter or leave her religion," says Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Abdul Halim. "She must follow rules." Yet the rule is a Catch-22 in that a Muslim-turned-Christian must appeal to an Islamic court more likely to punish her than to approve apostasy.
This is not what Malaysia's constitution seems to promise. "Islam is the religion of the federation," it says, "but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony." And "every person has the right to profess and practice his religion." For 50 years since independence, that professed respect for religion has helped preserve stability in a nation of 25 million, of whom 15 million are Muslims.
Malaysia's constitution also appeared to reflect a basic tenet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief." But the Joy ruling marks a disturbing retreat from these principles. If religion can trump freedom of conscience, what other rights can it trump?
"It is a major blow and a grievous setback to Malaysia as a secular nation," said Lim Kit Siang, who heads the Democratic Action party, the main opposition group in the country.
Rather than punt the Joy case over to sharia court, the Federal Court should have appealed to the constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion and ruled that as a baptized Christian she had removed herself from Islamic jurisdiction. The court should have ordered the Malaysian bureaucracy to amend her identity papers accordingly.
Malaysia is not the only Muslim country to subordinate freedom of conscience to religion. Many do. Saudi Arabia prohibits conversion from Islam. In Afghanistan, a Muslim was threatened with the death penalty for renouncing the faith. And a few years ago, Jordan convicted a Muslim for converting.
Typically, those who impose such draconian measures claim to be defending the "dignity" of Islam. But what dignity is there in coercing people to proclaim what their hearts and minds do not believe?
That is something Malaysia's high court might have pondered.