On the right to religion…

For those living in Malaysia, and are mildly in tune with the quasi-legal going-ons in our beloved Motherland, they would have at least heard a tiny bit about Lina Joy and the controversy surrounding her. Who is Lina Joy? Why should we pay attention to what happens to this woman? What are the repurcussions for us, ordinarily mere mortals?

Let me begin by giving you a very very brief overview. Lina Joy was born as Azlina Jailani, to an ordinary Muslim couple. By default, all babies produced by Muslim couples are, obviously… Muslim. There is no two way about this.

The sales assistant has taken her case all the way to the Federal Court because unless the government recognises her conversion, she cannot get married under civil law. While Lina managed – the second time around – to get the National Registration Department to change her name from Azlina Jailani in 1999, accepting that she had renounced Islam, it refused to remove the word “Islam” from her MyKad. The NRD said it could not do so without a syariah court order certifying she had renounced Islam.

As long as the word “Islam” remains on her identity card, Lina cannot marry her Christian boyfriend, a cook, under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976. In 2001, she took her case against the NRD director-general, the Government and the Federal Territory Religious Council to the High Court. She lost – Justice Faiza Tamby Chik held that Malays could not renounce Islam because a Malay was defined in the Constitution as “a person who professes the religion of Islam,” adding it was the syariah court that had the jurisdiction in matters related to apostasy.

Lina appealed to the Court of Appeal and lost again, this time in a majority decision – Justices Abdul Aziz Mohamed and Arifin Zakaria upheld the decision of the NRD but Justice Gopal Sri Ram said it was null and void. In 2006, she got leave to appeal to the Federal Court and asked the panel comprising Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Richard Malanjum and Federal Court Justice Alauddin Mohd Sheriff these questions:

  • WAS the NRD entitled to require a person to produce a certificate or a declaration or an order from the syariah court before deleting “Islam” from his or her identity card;
  • DID the NRD correctly construe its powers under the National Registration Regulations 1990 when it imposed the above requirement, which is not expressly provided for in the regulations?; and
  • WAS the landmark case Soon Singh vs Perkim Kedah – which held that syariah courts have the authority over the civil courts to hear cases of Muslims renouncing Islam – correctly decided?
  • Now, the ruling is in. Lina Joy has lost. She therefore, remains a Muslim in name, cannot marry the man she loves, and will carry the word ‘Islam’ on her identity card although she has in fact, professed herself as an apostate.

    I’ve was taught once, when I was young and foolish, that the alternative to apostasy is death. A Muslim is never to let an apostate, a person who has renounced Islam, live. In short, a former Muslim must be killed. This was taught to me by a kindly old ustazah, no less. In the very same classroom, I was also taught that Islam is a beautiful religion, a complete and whole way of life, with a kind and ever-forgiving God. It is the latter face of Islam I have chosen to embrace. I have managed to push the violent and sometimes authoritarian teachings of Islam out of my psyche, and apply those that are less radical. Reading about Lina Joy’s decision today however, reminded me of how our Muslim society refuses to be flexible and adapt with the changing times, choosing instead to live as if we were still vassals living under the ever watchful eye of a feudal lord.

    It is difficult to imagine, that Lina Joy, by the teachings of our grassroots teachers, should be murdered, simply because she chose a different path than one laid out for her at birth. Should one, not be given the choice to choose their destiny? After all, a main tenet of Islamic teaching says that we are at the mercy of ever-loving Allah, but we must always always make an effort to choose our own paths and improve our lives. God will not change one who does not want to affect a change. Free will is what that separates us from God’s other creatures, and the use of our ‘akal’ is what determines our future in this life and the next.

    Therefore, by this reasoning, Lina Joy, by her own free will, has chosen to leave Islam. If she has chosen so, and God states that we are free to choose our destinies, why are the courts denying her right to religion? It is after all, between her and an ever-forgiving Lord. She has somehow found the peace to live this maddening life, perhaps with one who might be able to make her happy. Who are we, to stand in their way? Why should the syariah courts decide her fate, in this life and the next? Malaysia, after all, claims to adhere to a Constitution that claims the freedom to religion.

    How many times have the basic rights of Malaysians been trampled on by the syariah courts? How many people have been framed by the ‘mat skodengs’ who tell on unmarried couples in close proximity? What about women’s rights in the syariah courts? Some of them, the very same women who claim that when a man marries three other women in the name of religion, isn’t adultery?

    The civil courts had been my final hope, perhaps that however flawed our judicial system might be, it would uphold the rights of ordinary citizens… I guess, that hope too, is biting the dust… After all, we do live in ‘MALAYsia’ where only the righteous, or those that pretend to be righteous loudly enough, are always right…

    Hoping and praying, beyond all hope, that one day, that the basic rights of Malaysians are really the same, regardless of our religious or ethnic backgrounds – Jasmine.

    ps – My apologies, for those who think this particular posting is a little heavy on the thinking… After all, a girl’s gotta use her brains sometime, right?

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