World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
By WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
On 8 May, media across the world ran with the news: "Malaysian woman can leave
Islam." (BBC headline) Jurist, which reports legal news, commented: "Religious
rights groups hailed the decision as a landmark ruling for interfaith
relations." (Link 1)
Judge Othman Ibrahim's 8 May 2008 ruling in Penang's Syariah High Court,
whereby Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah (Tan Ean Yuang) (39) was granted leave to
revert from Islam to Buddhism, is indeed a landmark ruling. But before getting
too excited, religious liberty advocates should consider the following:
1) The finer details of the ruling make it unlikely that it could be a
precedent for many other cases.
2) A significant element of the ruling was the judge's castigation of the
Islamic authorities for failing to save the plaintiff's faith.
3) This case is not over yet. The Penang state religious council, which is
opposing the plaintiff's renunciation of Islam, has indicated that it is
preparing to launch an appeal.
4) For religious liberty advocates it remains absolutely unacceptable that any
Malaysian citizen should have to get permission from a Sharia (Islamic) Court
before they can change their religious identity.
THE PENANG RULING
The plaintiff, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian woman named Tan Ean Yuang (39),
converted from Buddhism to Islam in 1998 in order to marry an Iranian Muslim
named Ferdoun Ashanian. Tan subsequently took the Islamic name of Siti Fatimah
Tan Abdullah and the couple married in 2004. The marriage only lasted four
months and Siti claims that she has had no knowledge of her husband's
whereabouts since he deserted her.
In May 2006 Siti filed an application to renounce Islam and revert to
Buddhism. The court however "ordered that she learn more about Islam and
undergo three months of counselling with the Penang Islamic Religious
Department's unit ukhwah (brotherhood) to ensure she understood the religion.
However, she only attended the session once and remained steadfast in wanting
to revert to Buddhism." (Link 2)
On Thursday 8 May 2008, in the Syariah High Court in Penang, judge Othman
Ibrahim ruled in favour of Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah. While he noted that
apostasy is a great sin in Islam deserving of severe punishment even death, he
ruled that Siti was free to return to Buddhism on the grounds that she had
never practised Islam, and therefore the court could regard her as a
non-believer (kafir) and not an apostate (murtad). Siti's lawyer remarked that
"the ruling was important because it accepted that Muslims could renounce
Islam on the grounds that they had never practised the faith". (Link 3)
As the ruling rested on the plaintiff's alleged non-practice of Islam, it can
be assumed that had any Muslim testified to the contrary, Tan's application
would not have been successful.
Clearly this ruling will not provide a precedent for converts who have
practised Islam -- converts like Soon Singh, a Malaysian Sikh who converted to
Islam as a minor but in 1999, at the age of 21 years, sought redress through
the courts to renounce Islam and return to Sikhism. Soon Singh's appeal was
denied and the court ruled not only that all Muslims should have "Islam"
printed on their identity cards, but that Sharia courts should have
jurisdiction over all matters concerning Islam. This ruling became the
precedent for all subsequent appeals against apostasy. (See link 4)
A SITUATION THE JUDGE BELIEVES SHOULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED
When delivering his ruling, judge Othman Ibrahim regretted that Siti's Iranian
husband had failed her by failing to guide her in her new faith. He then
castigated the Penang Islamic Religious Council for neglecting its duties and
failing to "save" Siti's faith in Islam. "It is their obligation to encourage,
support, help and ensure that new converts understand and follow Islamic
teachings. However, in this case nothing was done until the last moment when
it was already too late." (Link 5)
According to Malaysia's The Star online, PAS [Parti Islam se-Malaysia] is
protesting the decision. "PAS vice-president Nasharudin Mat Isa said
renouncing Islam was forbidden, unless one had been forced to embrace Islam
under duress. 'If one has embraced Islam out of one's own free will, then one
must be subject to Islamic law, and the law forbids the renouncing of Islam
because it touches on one's faith in the religion,' he said." (Link 6)
The Malay Mail notes: "Only last week both BN [Barisan Nasional] and PAS
members of Parliament had argued that once you enter Islam there is no turning
back, not just for born Muslims, but also for converts." (Link 7)
Clearly PAS and the ruling BN government of PM Badawi are not interested in
advancing religious liberty. It can therefore be expected that this ruling
will not only stir the Great Apostasy Debate but initiate a debate about
conversion procedures so that conversions to Islam are legally secure.
While Judge Ibrahim did 'tear up' Tan's certificate of conversion to Islam he
did not grant her application to have a new identity card issued, saying that
was a matter for the National Registration Department (NRD).
The NRD is unlikely to issue Tan a new identity card while the Penang state
Religious Council is planning to appeal the ruling. "The council's counsel
Ahmad Munawir Abdul Aziz said the council would appeal within the 14-day
period, adding that among the concerns was the status of Siti Fatimah's
marriage as her conversion did not dissolve the marriage." (Link 8)
If the ruling is appealed, then Tan may find she has injured her case by
stating in her affidavit that she "stopped practising Islam" after her husband
left her. (Link 7)
Ultimately the ruling does not advance religious liberty in Malaysia -- it
merely perpetuates the unacceptable status quo whereby in matters concerning
Islam the religious liberty guarantees of the federal Constitution are deemed
subordinate to the rulings of state-run Sharia Courts.
Malaysian lawyer A Sivanesan cautions: "This is a landmark decision and gives
relief to Tan. However, non-Muslims should not be complacent with this
decision. The real remedy for them is for the civil court to bravely uphold
constitutional guarantees." (Link 7)
The best this ruling can do is to stir up Malaysia's Great Apostasy Debate
1) Malaysian woman can leave Islam. BBC, 8 May 2008
Malaysia Islamic Court Allows Reconversion from Islam
Jurist, 8 May 2008
2) Syariah court allows convert to renounce Islam
By Sharanjit Singh, New Straits Times
(Picture: Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah with lawyer Ahmad Jailani Abdul Ghani.)
3) Malaysia woman scores rare legal win to quit Islam. 8 May 2008
4) Malaysia: The Islamisation of Malaysia
WEA RLC News & Analysis. 8 June 2007
5) Judge: Council failed in duty to guide converts
6) MCA hails court decision. 9 May 2008
7) A precedent for converts. Malay Mail, 9 May 2008
8) Syariah High Court lets Muslim convert renounce Islam and go back to Buddhism
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