KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Malaysia’s status as a moderate Muslim country is being put to the test in a milestone court decision that may allow Muslims to renounce their faith, a move considered one of Islam’s greatest sins.
The nation’s highest court is to rule on an appeal by Lina Joy, a convert from Islam to Christianity who for a decade has been locked in a battle with the government to have her decision legally recognised.
The appeal brings to a head passionate arguments about whether Muslims can renounce Islam at will and, ultimately, whether Malaysia is a secular country or is morphing into a conservative Islamic state under religious Sharia law.
“Our country is at a crossroads pending the outcome of this landmark case,” Joy’s counsel, Benjamin Dawson, told AFP.
“This decision is pivotal to the direction the country will take.”
The 42-year-old woman at the centre of the case is a member of Malaysia’s majority ethnic Malay community, who make up 60 percent of the population of more than 26 million.
Born a Muslim and called Azlina Jailani, she says her introduction to Christianity in 1990 changed her life for the better.
But it has left her fighting the authorities since 1997, first for her new name to be put on her identity card, then to have her former religion removed.
“Although I have been brought up as a Muslim, I have, from the beginning, not believed in the practices and teachings of Islam,” Joy, who rarely speaks to the media, said in a 2000 affidavit to a high court.
“I find more peace in my spirit and soul after having become a Christian.
“As such, I am of the opinion that I would be unfaithful, untrue and unfair to myself and to others should I carry on projecting myself as Muslim.”
Her appeal to the federal court centres on whether she must go to a Sharia court to have her renunciation recognised before authorities strike the word “Islam” off her identity card.
The court’s ruling is seen as pivotal because it could resolve a paradox in the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion but defines Malays as Muslims.
Malaysia’s civil courts operate parallel to Sharia courts for Muslims in areas of personal law such as divorce, child custody and inheritance.
The question of which takes precedence, however, is increasingly murky in cases that involve both Muslims and non-Muslims, who have little say in Sharia courts.
Lower courts have so far rebuffed Joy’s efforts, ruling that only Islamic courts can recognise her conversion.
The debate has grown increasingly fierce as Malays have become more openly pious, a phenomenon non-Muslim communities see as a worrying “Islamisation” of the country.
Analysts say the resurgence is fueled by a decades-old fight between the ruling United Malays National Organisation party and its Islamic opposition to prove their religious credentials and “out-Islamise” each other.
While rights campaigners argue that Malays have a right to renounce Islam, Muslim groups have denounced Joy’s legal challenge as a ploy to undermine the religion’s status.
“The process amounts to an attempt to deconstruct, to change radically the position of Islam as it is in the constitutional legal set-up of the country,” said Yusri Mohammed, the president of the influential Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia.
“We see this as something which is unacceptable, something which is a threat to the socio-religious harmony of the country.”
In other words, Islamic hegemony could be threatened.
Harussani Zakaria, the mufti of Perak state, recently cited a report that 100,000 Malays had renounced Islam and more were lining up to do so, although he has not provided details.
While Yusri said any social unrest over the Joy case would be “manageable,” emotions are frayed in a country which rarely sees demonstrations or acts of political violence.
Threats against her lawyers have been released on websites and in August, posters were circulated anonymously calling for the death of lawyer and rights activist Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, who has argued in Joy’s case.
“It is a symptom of the breakdown of civilised dialogue in this country. It is a sign of the reactionary times ahead,” he wrote in a newspaper article on the threats.
Dawson, Joy’s lawyer, said he expects a decision in the first half of 2007, and lawyers say decisions in similar cases in lower courts are being held over until the federal judges rule on her appeal.