Malaysia: The Islamisation of Malaysia

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By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal
This is an extended posting in two parts.

First there is an examination of the 30 May 2007 ruling in Malaysia's Federal
Court that finally and officially severs Malaysia's Muslims from their
fundamental and constitutional right to religious freedom (Article 11 of
Malaysia's Constitution) and shackles them to Sharia (Islamic Law, which
prohibits apostasy: "The Prophet [Mohammed] said, 'If somebody (a Muslim)
discards his religion, kill him.' " Bukhari:V4B52N260).

Secondly there is an examination of the Islamisation of Malaysia.

"Sharia" is spelled variously through this posting as I have elected to retain
the spelling in the various articles rather than standardise it.

We must now ask: Is Malaysia essentially an Islamic state that is in the
process of bringing its citizens and institutions and even eventually its
minorities into submission to the Sharia (which is the constitution of
political Islam)? Fundamentalist Muslims have successfully appealed to Sharia
to protect Muslim Malaysia from apostasy. So will they now also be able to
appeal to Sharia to protect Muslim Malaysia from "blasphemy" and "indecency"?
And if as it appears, Islam, openness, liberty and progressive modernity
cannot travel together, then where is Malaysia headed now?


On Wednesday 30 May 2007, a three-judge Federal Court panel ruled by a 2-1
majority in the case of Lina Joy v Majlis Agama Islam Wilayah Persekutuan and
2 Ors that only an Islamic Shariah Court has the authority to confirm a
Muslim's apostasy and authorise the removal the word 'Islam' from the religion
category on their government identity card.

The ruling was based on the 1988 amendment to Malaysia's Constitution which
dictates that once a person is legally recognised as a Muslim all their
religious legal issues are to be dealt with by the Sharia courts, not the
civil courts.

The 1988 constitutional amendment, Article 121 (1A), states that civil courts
have no jurisdiction on any matter which falls within the jurisdiction of the
Syariah (Sharia, Islamic Law) courts. This amendment was introduced to resolve
the conflicts between decisions of civil and syariah courts. The intention of
the parliament was to oust the jurisdiction of the civil courts from hearing
any matter which is within the purview of the Syariah courts. Before the
enactment of clause 1A, decisions of the Syariah courts could be reviewed by
the High Courts. According to the then Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, Muslims
were not happy with civil courts overriding the decisions of syariah courts.

The question then arose: does apostasy (conversion out of Islam) fall within
the jurisdiction of the Syariah Courts? This question was put to the courts in
1999 in the case of Soon Singh a/l Bikar Singh v Pertubuhan Kebajikan Islam
Malaysia (PERKIM) Kedah (1999) 1 MLJ 489.

The Singapore Law Review reports: "The Federal Court considered whether the
Syariah Courts' jurisdiction could be implied from other provisions in
statutes relating to Syariah Courts. The appellant in this case was a Sikh
and he converted to Islam when he was a minor. Upon reaching 21 years old, he
renounced Islam and executed deed poll declaring that he was a Sikh. Before
the High Court, he sought for a declaration that he was no longer a Muslim.
Respondent contended that the High Court had no jurisdiction since the matter
came under the Syariah Court's jurisdiction. The High Court agreed with
Respondent and dismissed the application. On appeal, the Federal Court
pointed out that all State Enactments and Federal Territories Act contain
express provisions vesting the Syariah Courts with jurisdiction to deal with
conversion to Islam. Relying on Craies on Statute Law 7th edition page 112,
Albon v Pyke (1842) 4 M & G 421,424, Bennion's Statutory Interpretation 2nd
Edition page 362, the Federal Court held that: 'when jurisdiction is expressly
conferred on the Syariah Courts to adjudicate on matters relating to
conversion to Islam … it is logical that matters concerning conversion out of
Islam (apostasy) could be read as necessarily implied in and falling within
the jurisdiction of the Syariah Courts.'" (Link 1)

In other words the court ruled that if the matter of conversion into Islam
falls under the jurisdiction of the Sharia courts, then it is "logical" and
may be "implied" that conversion out of Islam also falls under the
jurisdiction of the Sharia courts.

This ruling was widely viewed as flawed. Not only is it inconsistent with the
law that states that if you are leaving a non-Muslim religion for Islam, then
the Syariah Court (not the religion you are leaving) has jurisdiction, it is
also a violation of the fundamental right of religious liberty which maintains
that no third party should have jurisdiction over a person's faith.

Another outcome of this case was the government's decision to make it
mandatory that all Muslims have "Islam" on their identity card.

The case of Lina Joy (a Malay convert to Christianity) v Majlis Agama Islam
Wilayah Persekutuan and 2 Ors hinged on a decision by the National
Registration Department (NRD) to refuse Lina Joy's request to remove the word
"Islam" from her identity card. In October 1999 the NRD had consented to
changing Lina's name on her card from Azlina Jailani to Lina Joy. However when
her new card was issued under the new regulations which came into force on 1
October 1999, it had her birth religion "Islam" on it, even though Lina had
stated on her application form that she is a Christian. (Source: Justice
Richard Malanjum's Judgment.)

The NRD contested that Lina needed a Syariah court order certifying her
renunciation of Islam before it could make the change. In 2001 Lina filed a
suit against the NRD Director-General, the government and the Federal
Territory Religious Council.

After losing at both the High Court and Court of Appeal, the matter finally
came to the Federal Court with these three questions:

1) Was the NRD entitled to require a person to produce a certificate or a
declaration or an order from the Syariah court before deleting "Islam" from
his or her identity card;

2) Did the NRD correctly construe its powers under the National Registration
Regulations 1990 when it imposed the above requirement, which is not expressly
provided for in the regulations;

3) Was the landmark case Soon Singh vs Perkim Kedah – which held that Syariah
courts have the authority over the civil courts to hear cases of Muslims
renouncing Islam – correctly decided?

The Star reported on 31 May 2007: "Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul
Halim has ruled that the National Registration Department had reasonably
required Lina Joy to get a certificate of apostasy from the Syariah Court.
This would allow the court to proceed to make a deletion (of the word 'Islam')
from her identity card.

"The top judge also ruled that since the Syariah Court had the jurisdiction
over cases involving conversion to Islam, it should, by implication, have the
power to decide on apostasy matters.

"'I do not see any defect in the 1999 Federal Court judgment in the case of
Soon Singh (which decided on the same grounds and which led to the provision
for Muslims to state their religion in their identity card).

"'To say that she is not under the jurisdiction of the Syariah Court – because
she no longer professes Islam – is not appropriate,' said Ahmad Fairuz in his
41-page judgment. He added that the way one leaves a religion is set by the
religion itself.

"'No one is stopping her from marrying. She is merely required to fulfil
certain obligations, for the Islamic authorities to confirm her apostasy,
before she embraces Christianity.
"'In other words, one cannot embrace or leave a religion according to one's
whims and fancies.'" (Link 2)

According to Associated Press writer Eileen Ng, "Judge Richard Malanjum, the
only non-Muslim on the panel, sided with Joy, saying it was 'unreasonable' to
ask her to turn to the Shariah Court because she could face criminal
prosecution there. Apostasy is a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences.
Offenders are often sent to prison-like rehabilitation centres." (Link 3)

The judgments can be found at the website of the Malaysian Bar:

- the Islamisation of Malaysia.

In October 2006, Asian Analysis published a piece by Clive S. Kessler
(Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology, The University of New South
Wales, Australia) entitled "The Long March Towards Desecularisation" (Link 4).

Kesser regards recent developments in Malaysia as "the latest phase. . .in the
long march towards desecularisation, towards arresting and then reversing the
implicit secularisation of Malaysian life and the state that the 1957
constitution set in train and intended implicitly to promote."

He writes: "Those who created the independence constitution assumed that,
though not yet a fully secular society, Malaya would evolve in that direction:
partly because of its own irrepressible cultural and religious pluralism and
partly because that seemed the trajectory of modern nationalism and modernity
itself. The 1957 constitution was a compromise that acknowledged the public,
emblematic significance of Islam as the state's official religion yet tried to
provide potential space, even support, for freedom of, from and in religion.

"Not everybody was happy with this expedient, and within two years of
independence that discontent found expression in the spectacular political
success of Malaysia's Islamist party PAS (then known as PMIP) in Kelantan and
Terengganu. With that began the protracted, intensely competitive and ever
escalating 'Islamist policy auction' between the dominant UMNO, anchor of the
ruling Alliance and later Barisan Nasional coalitions, and PAS."

Concerning the systematic nature of the Islamisation Professor Kessler writes:
"The cascading events over the last year (2006) are all part of this strategy:
to place the secularists and religious pluralists on the back foot; by
tactical positioning and rhetorical identification, to isolate progressive and
modernist Muslims from the Malay Muslim mainstream and to stigmatise their
concerns as heretical and disloyal, and them as friends and dupes of the
enemies of Islam, in the eyes of conventional Muslim majority opinion; to
block and counter the momentum that any secularist tendencies or
non-'Islam-centric' religious pluralism might generate; and thereby not just
to advance desecularising processes but, driven by the pious new Malay Muslim
middle-class activists, to move Malaysia into a post-liberal or
'post-progressivist' political phase and era. With them a new Islamist
politics has not merely come of age but moves towards and is now capturing the
centre of Malaysian political life."

On 3 May 2007, YaleGlobal online published a piece by Sadanand Dhume (Asia
Society, Washington, DC) entitled, "Malaysia Backpedals on Modernity". (Link 5)

YaleGlobal prefaces Dhume's article with this introduction: "A fundamentalist
streak of Islam within Malaysia is coming into conflict with the flourishing
civil society that has made the nation a model of peaceful and democratic
development in Southeast Asia.

"Muslims in Malaysia, unlike their Hindu or Christian compatriots, are
ultimately subject to strict Islamic law, known as sharia. In fact, the
national judiciary cannot override a ruling by a sharia court. These Islamic
religious authorities intrude more into the everyday life and private matters
of Malay citizens, preventing conversions to other faiths and separating
children deemed Muslim from non-Muslim parents. The national government not
only acquiesces to the assertiveness of the Islamic authorities but has itself
become increasingly outspoken on behalf of Islam worldwide.

"The paradox of a country that dreams of becoming a global technology and
innovation hub, yet actively sponsors a repressive self-governed community in
its midst, may soon become untenable. After all, an advanced economy runs on
its people. By denying the full protection of its laws to half its citizens,
Malaysia endangers the future prosperity of all."

Sadanand Dhume contends that three and a half decades of progressive
Islamisation has produced a Malaysia that is increasingly authoritarian,
repressive, intolerant and heading backwards. "In a globalised and
increasingly competitive world, Malaysia cannot expect to modernise its
economy without modernising its society. In practical terms, this means
choosing the universal values of freedom of conscience and freedom of inquiry
over the narrow dictates of Islamic orthodoxy."

Dhume details several examples (as does Kessler) that demonstrate the "ongoing
clash between the modern and the medieval". He notes the recent case of
Revathi Masoosai who was born to Indian Muslim parents and raised by her Hindu
grandmother. After she married a Muslim man and had a child, the authorities
intervened, forcibly separated the couple and removed their 16-month-old
daughter to the custody of Revathi's Muslim mother. According to Pakistan's
Daily Times, Revathi was then put in an Islamic rehabilitation camp. Her 100
days detention was subsequently extended for another 80 days an account of her
non-cooperation. Her husband was not permitted to visit. He wept as he told
Daily Times, "We are treated like animals." (Link 6)

Dhume also notes the scandalous Muslim burial given to Malaysian Hindu
rock-climber M. Moorthy; and Lina Joy's struggle to have her conversion from
Islam to Christianity legally recognised. He notes the government's assault
upon the Sky Kingdom cult and the razing of dozens of Hindu temples over
recent years.

Dhume then contends: "The nub of the problem lies in Malaysia's inconsistent
approach to modernisation. Unlike neighbouring Singapore, which stands for
equality before the law and a strict meritocracy, Malaysia has sought
prosperity against a backdrop of deepening Islamisation and handouts for
ethnic Malays, deemed by law to be Muslim. Until recently the Malaysia of vice
squads and apostasy laws did not intrude upon the Malaysia of glittering
skyscrapers and high-speed airport trains.

"But the rise of China, India and Vietnam, and the demands of a shift from
low-cost manufacturing to more knowledge-intensive work, raise serious doubts
about the viability of the Malaysian model. The country needs freedom of
inquiry to unleash the creativity of its people. It needs to foster an
atmosphere of tolerance to staunch the outflow of the country's brightest
non-Malays and to attract overseas talent and investment. Neither is likely
without rethinking the twinned and contentious issues of ethnic preferences
and religious supremacism."

Dhume notes that Malaysia's rise in the field of information technology has
been particularly challenged by the fact that Malaysia "finds it hard to
attract and retain Indian and Chinese engineers. Meanwhile, many of the
country's brightest students – especially non-Malays – migrate to Australia,
the US and Singapore, where everyone enjoys freedom of conscience and equality
before the law."


The Islamisation of Malaysia has been built around the same core framework as
Islamisation in virtually all other Muslim states the world over:

* the globalisation of Saudi Arabian Sunni fundamentalist (Wahhabi) doctrine
which is founded on Muslim supremacy and is pro-Sharia, pro-jihad,
anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, intolerant, agressive and imperialistic. (The
Saudis starting exporting ideology globally in the early 1970s.);
* inspiration from the Iranian Islamic Shiite Revolution of 1979 (which was a
product of Shia Islam plus Maxist Revolutionary ideology);
* the shifting into high-gear of Saudi Arabian Sunni fundamentalist global
dissemination of doctrine through the 1980s. (This was done to counter Persian
Iran's Shia revolution. Wahhabi ideology is also virulently anti-Shia);
* the globalisation of Islamic jihad (a product primarly of the 1979-88 Afghan

As noted by Dhume, "The OPEC oil boom of 1973 allowed Saudi Arabia and the
Gulf States to bankroll efforts to Arabise the Muslims of South and Southeast
Asia. The ripples of the 1979 Iranian Revolution were felt directly on
Malaysian college campuses. During the 1980s the headscarf became ubiquitous
among Malay women. Meanwhile, in a bid to outdo the Islamist opposition in
terms of piety, the ruling party UMNO [United Malays National Organisation]
went on a mosque-building spree. Religious students made a beeline for the
Middle East and Pakistan, and in a show of pan-Islamic solidarity, visa rules
were eased for visitors from many Muslim countries."

Malaysian academic Farish Noor, in an October 2006 interview with Australia's
ABC Radio National Religious Report, also regards the Islamisation of Malaysia
as having began in earnest the 1970s. "I think what we are witnessing in
Malaysia today is the natural development of something that began in the '70s
when both UMNO and PAS were trying their best to, in a sense, engage in what I
call the Islamisation race in order to put to the fore the Islamic
credentials, rather than their national credentials, to basically out-Islamise
each other; both parties trying to demonstrate how committed they were to
Islamic and Muslim concerns. This is obviously intended to bolster their
support among their majority Malay-Muslim constituency. But I think at the
expense of marginalising non-Malays and non-Muslims in the country." (Link 7)

The 1980s was also marked by the rise of Anwar Ibrahim, who at the time of his
co-opting to UMNO in 1982 was the charismatic leader of the Islamic Youth
Movement. Anwar Ibrahim became the Islamic conscience of UMNO.

In 1988 the Constitution was amended to raise the status of the Sharia Courts,
making them the supreme authority for Malaysian Muslims.

Further to this, as Sadanand Dhume notes, during the 1997 economic crisis,
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed became a "global cheerleader for anti-Semitism
– publicly peddling conspiracy theories about attacks on the Malaysian ringgit
and accusing Jews of 'rule[ing] the world by proxy'." (Link 5)

The 1998 sacking, trial and imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim (on questionable and
humiliating sodomy charges) bolstered the causes of Islamic and opposition
groups. Observers report that subsequent to this there was a dramatic increase
in visible expressions of Islam, such as headscarves and skullcaps, especially
on University campuses. There was a revival of Islamic pop music while
discrimination against non-Malays and non-Muslims grew. Farish Noor has said
that it was as if the Malay populace decided that in Anwar's absence they had
to take responsibility for the Islamisation program. This in turn only
encouraged UNMO to work all the harder at establishing its Islamic credentials
in competition with the increasingly popular PAS (Islamic party).

Farish Noor, in his ABC Religion Report interview (Oct 2006) also comments on
"the emergence of a pan-Malaysian-Indonesian conservative religious front".
Noor says that Malaysian and Indonesian Islamic NGOs and political parties
have been networking intensively for the past decade and that this networking
often extends to Pakistan and Bangladesh. "This is not necessarily a bad
thing, but when the agenda is hijacked by more conservative forces, that wish
to use these conspiracy theories in order to set up a kind of hate machine
directed towards other religious communities, then I think it does become
problematic, particularly for countries like Malaysia, with a multiracial,
multi-religious background." (Link 7)

Noor contends that some two dozen new Islamic NGOs and lobby groups have
sprung up in Malaysia and Indonesia in recent years that are basically
carrying on the political struggle through non-political means. Noor and
Kessler both describe these Islamic NGOs as sectarian and communitarian.
According to Noor, the Islamic NGOs are marginalising and weakening secular
civil society in both countries.

Noor observes that the political Islamisation program is being driven by
public demand. He notes that Abu Bakr Bashir's fundamentalist Islamic ideas
have been around for decades but have only now become popular. "We need to
understand how and why there has been this shift, to a register that is more
sectarian, more communitarian and even more radically violent." Noor then
focuses exclusively on the need to improve the economic situation, standards
of living and governance.

While this is undoubtedly critical, the need to address ideology is far more
critical, for Islamic intolerance starts with Islamic ideological


On 1 June, Jamaliah (26), an ethnic Indian woman born Muslim pleaded for the
government to help her renounce Islam so she could be recognised as a Hindu.
On 30 May, after hearing the court verdict in Lina Joy's case, Jamaliah's
Hindu boyfriend ended their six-year-long relationship because he could see
that there was no hope that they could ever marry. Jamaliah was so distraught
she attempted suicide.

According to Associated Press Jamaliah's father had converted from Hinduism to
Islam so that he could take a second wife, a Muslim. "Jamaliah was born to his
first wife, a Hindu, in 1981 after her father's conversion to Islam. She was
abandoned by her mother shortly after birth and was brought up by her father
and Muslim stepmother. For that reason, she was registered as a Muslim,
although she began practising Hinduism when she was old enough to pray."
[Note: In line with Sharia, Jamaliah would have been deemed Muslim as soon as
her father converted to Islam.]

"'I don't want to be a Muslim. All this while I've been living life as a Hindu
and I only want to marry a Hindu man,' Jamaliah said. 'I want to change my
religion but the court's ruling in Lina Joy's case has shattered my hopes for
a future.'" (Link 8)

Elizabeth Kendal
[email protected]


1) http://www.singaporelawreview.org/events/lecture/2006_speech.htm

2) CJ: NRD's requirement is reasonable. 31 May 2007

3) Malaysian Christian Convert Denied Recognition
By Eileen Ng. Associated Press Writer, 30 May 2007

4) The Long March Towards Desecularisation
Asian Analysis. October 2006

5) Malaysia Backpedals on Modernity
By Sadanand Dhume, YaleGlobal, 3 May 2007
Growing assertiveness of Islamic courts intrudes on the rights of non-Muslims
threatening social harmony in the prosperous nation.

6) Malaysia parts Muslim wives and kids from Hindu men

7) Farish Noor and 'creeping sharia'
ABC Radio National Religion Report, 11 October 2006

8) Malaysian Muslim woman pleads for government help to convert to Hinduism

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