Malaysia: Court Denies Woman's Appeal to Leave Islam
Muslim protestors disrupt public forum on dual legal system's jurisdictional disputes.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, August 15, 2008 (Compass Direct News) - A civil court on Aug. 5 denied a woman's appeal to renounce Islam in favor of Christianity, highlighting the jurisdictional disputes in Malaysia's dual legal system. Lim Yoke Khoon had filed a suit in her original ethnic Chinese name to renounce Islam and embrace Christianity. In a 2-1 majority ruling, the Shah Alam Court of Appeal denied her case on a technicality: According to judges Tengku Baharudin Shah Tengku Mahmud and Sulong Mat Jeraie, Lim had ceased to exist under her original name when she converted to Islam and assumed her new name, Noorashikin Lim binti Abdullah. The 35-year-old Lim is reportedly expected to appeal to the country's top civil court.
After marrying a Muslim man in 1994, Lim converted to Islam and obtained a new identity card with her Muslim name. She divorced three years later. In 2003, she applied for a change to her name and religion on her identity card, but the National Registration Department told her she must get permission from the Islamic sharia court to renounce Islam. She sought a declaration from the high court that she was no longer a Muslim, but it ruled in 2006 that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case. Malaysia's civil courts have not been known to rule in favor of non-Muslims in conversion cases in recent years. Many, such as Lina Joy, have been directed to obtain an exit certificate from the sharia court in order to leave Islam. But Lina - and others like her - are reluctant to subject themselves to a religious court that has no jurisdiction over them since they are no longer professing Muslims.
A public forum to discuss such jurisdictional disputes, in this case the dual court system's effect on families of people who convert to Islam, was scheduled for Saturday (Aug. 9) but Muslim protestors succeeded in halting it after only one hour. Sponsored by a body of legal practitioners called the Malaysian Bar Council, the public forum that began at 9 a.m. was scheduled to last until 1:00 p.m., but police advised organizers to end it at 10:00 a.m. as protestors outside the council headquarters shouting "Allahu Akbar [God is greater]," "Destroy Bar Council" and "Long Live Islam" became rowdy. A handful of protestors flanked by police officers marched into the building shouting for the meeting to end immediately. The forum had been widely criticized by various Malay-Muslim groups and individuals for raising the ire of Muslims by touching on issues sensitive to Islam. Among those critical were cabinet ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar and Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
Prior to the event, the Bar Council had been urged to either cancel the forum or hold the event behind closed doors, but the organizers decided to proceed albeit with the cautionary measure of requiring participants at the open forum to register. A day prior to the forum, the Bar Council issued a press release to clarify the purpose of the forum through council Vice President Ragunath Kesavan. Ragunath made clear that the forum would not question the provisions of Article 121(1A), which confer jurisdiction over Muslims in personal, religious and family matters on the sharia courts, and that the forum would not question Islam or its status as enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Rather, Ragunath said, the purpose of the meeting was to address issues affecting families of those who convert to Islam and were caught between the separate jurisdiction of the civil and sharia courts. The morning of the forum, two unidentified men on motorcycles threw kerosene bombs into the compound of a residence formerly occupied by the president of the Bar Council, Ambiga Sreenevasan. Many believed the incident was linked to the Bar Council's forum on conversion.
Other Muslim Responses
Not all Muslims agreed with the protestors' actions. Leaders of the Muslim political party PAS and Muslim-led multi-racial party, PKR, have distanced themselves from members who participated in the raucous disruption of the Bar Council forum. Dr. Dzulkifli Ahmad, director of the PAS Research Centre, told The Star daily on Wednesday (Aug. 13), "We were unanimous that [the forum] should have been allowed to proceed," and that "those who had united to oppose the forum had no understanding of the issue at hand."
PKR Deputy President Syed Husin Ali reportedly also condemned the "rough action" of the protestors, although he said the party agreed with its adviser Anwar Ibrahim that the meeting should have been held behind closed doors "in view of the sensitive reactions and wrong perception among a section of the Malay-Muslim community." Karim Raslan, a Malay-Muslim columnist at The Star argued that "we can't achieve any sense of mutual agreement unless we are willing to talk - and openly - to one another about the issues that matter."
Civil society groups and members of the non-Muslim community, including those from the ruling coalition government, have also criticized the Muslim protestors' actions for failing to acknowledge long-standing problems non-Muslims caught in jurisdictional conflict situations have had to face and endure. Others have urged the government to take decisive and immediate steps to address the problems arising from the country's dual legal system. In Malaysia, sharia laws are binding on Muslims in personal, religious and family matters while civil laws apply to all citizens.
Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, representing five different women's groups, reportedly called on the government "to act against mob rule and to allow citizens more democratic space for open dialogue." T. Mohan, youth coordinator of the Malaysian Indian Congress, a party within the ruling coalition, told online news agency Malaysiakini on Monday (Aug. 11), "[The protestors] should have come out with their proposals in addressing the
issue of non-Muslim husbands who abandon their spouses and their families and convert into Islam, rather than stop a legitimate forum." Dr. Koh Tsu Koon, acting president of Gerakan, a party within the ruling coalition government was quoted in local media as calling for the government to convene a joint committee of civil and sharia lawyers "to formulate, clarify and rectify procedures related to marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims, conversion, custody of children and burial rituals."