The Issue of Islamic Apostasy in Malaysia - What Say the Law?

Recently the issue of Muslims leaving the faith has become a big story in Malaysia. The recent hoo-haa about a supposed mass baptism of Muslims at a church caused a huge uproar, and proved to be just a vicious rumour. At the recent UMNO assembly one delegate even called for Malays who leave Islam to be stripped of their Bumiputera guaranteed privileges, as if Bumiputera privileges are denoted by religion rather than race. Other times, we hear that Muslims can't even convert. So what exactly is going on?

First, we need to look at the constitution. It says two things of interest to this topic. One is that Islam is the official religion; second that freedom of religion is guaranteed. Some are now interpreting that to mean that Muslims can't convert but surely the first says nothing about that. I know the Pope has never been allowed to visit Malaysia (in his professional capacity anyway); I know foreign non-Islamic priests find it hard to get visas to work in Malaysia; I know that (whether it is the law or not, I'm unsure) that one cannot preach a non-Islamic religion to a Muslim. But what if a Muslim wants to leave the faith? After all they can decide Islam is not for them out of their own free will. Can they do so?

The big problem at the moment is that they need to go through the Islamic Syariah system to get the Islamic court to approve of their leaving the faith before the government will recognise it. Those who want to leave say that since they are no longer Muslims (in their eyes anyway) why should they require permission from the Syariah court? After all the syariah court can say, 'no, sorry mate, we aren't granting it. You're Muslim, like it or not.' One case (The Lina Joy affair) is currently at the High Court-their judgement is anticipated by all. While I must admit to know little about the case, I must say that a fair reading of the constitution should give her the right to convert without obtaining permission from the Syariah courts, but I have my doubts about the High Court being free of political pressure. Malay-Muslims chauvinists will almost certainly take to the streets should the verdict not satisfy them and that Badawi wants to avoid at all costs.

There is, in my opinion, a legislative way out of this conundrum that can satisfy all parties and is already working in the state of Negeri Sembilan. It reduces the right of a Muslim to immediately renounce the faith but does not stop them from doing so, once they have attended couselling with a relevant Islamic authority. One determined to leave the faith will leave anyway (officially or in their hearts); if they have to jump through a few hoops to do so, perhaps that is best for for keeping Malaysian society free from too much turmoil. As well, some may well decide after counselling that 'hang on, I don't want to leave after all,' and that surely should satisfy most Muslims. At the moment Syariah courts are state controlled and one can go to jail for doing so in some states (including my very secular state of Sabah), and even get whipped in Pahang!! Surely this is against the constitution, and might well get wiped out by the impending High court decision (though I'm unsure what secular legislation can do with respect to Syariah Courts).

A lot of Muslims in Malaysia may not like it that one should be allowed to leave the faith, just as many non-Muslims in Malaysia do not like the premacy of Islam in Malaysia but maybe, just maybe, we can all find a healthy compromise to satisfy all parties. Surely only the extremists on all sides will disagree?

One should read the article in the New Straits Times (http://www.nst.com.my/Current_News/nst/Sunday/National/20061119093155/Article/local1_html) by P. Selvarani about this issue, where an expert, Dr Mohamed Azam Mohamed Adil is interviewed about the topic. It certainly shed a lot of light on the issue for me, and maybe for you as well.

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