Malaysia: A legal blow to religious freedom - the Lina Joy verdict
Miss Joy, now 43, converted to Christianity in her 20s, changing her name from Azlina Jailani. She wants to wed her Christian boyfriend but Malaysia in effect bans Muslims from marrying outside the faith. She went to court after the government department that issues identity cards let her change her name but not her religion. The Supreme Court, like the lower courts, upheld the department's decision. Rather trivialising Miss Joy's struggle, the chief justice said she could not expect to convert from one religion to another on a "whim". In a development typical of Malaysia's widening religious and racial divide, the only non-Muslim on the three-judge bench dissented from the judgment.
Article 11 has been in the country's constitution since independence from Britain 50 years ago. However, things were muddied by a 1988 amendment, which denied the regular courts all jurisdiction over matters dealt with by the sharia courts. It was not clear if this gave sharia judges the right to overrule Article 11 for those born Muslim and to tell them they must remain so. It now seems that indeed they can.
The ruling will confirm the fears of many Malaysians-not just among the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities-that the country is suffering "creeping Islamisation". As the sharia courts and other religious authorities have become more active in recent years, a stream of cases has arisen in which freedoms enjoyed by non-Muslims have been denied to those the religious authorities regard as belonging to the country's majority faith, followed by some 60% of its 27m people, mostly ethnic Malays. Families have been divided because one parent was deemed to be Muslim despite insisting to the contrary. In 2005, the religious authorities snatched the corpse of M. Moorthy, a famous mountaineer whose family insisted he was a Hindu, and gave it a Muslim burial, arguing he had secretly converted to Islam.
Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, has been struggling to promote his own brand of moderate, "civilisational" Islam. But he has opened space for the radicals by clamping down on even temperate debate of religious issues. Last year he shot down a proposed "inter-faith council" and banned a civil-rights group from holding public debates on freedom of worship. Last month he abruptly cancelled a long-planned gathering in Kuala Lumpur of senior Muslim and Christian scholars-including the Archbishop of Canterbury-on the ground that he was too busy to attend it.
In many places, constitutional guarantees of liberty are undermined by laws constraining religious belief. Indonesians, for example, are also obliged to state their religion on their identity cards and to choose between just six officially recognised faiths. The governor of the state of Rajasthan, in India, is being pressed by the state assembly to approve a law punishing conversion from Hinduism. Constraints on individuals' rights to choose their beliefs are usually backed up by claims that religions are somehow "under threat": a curious lack of faith-in faith itself.
31 May 2007