Lina Joy: A Case of State-minded Religion

BY LEE HAN SHIH
Apr 04, 2009
*Special to asia!

So the people of Thailand want to incorporate Buddhism into their constitution? They should first take a look at what happened to a woman called Lina Joy in their southern neighbour, Malaysia.

 

To many outside of Malaysia, Joy is the most famous Christian convert. Inside of Malaysia she is on record a Muslim. Therein lies her dilemma and the dilemma facing all non-Muslims and would-be non-Muslims in Malaysia.

Joy, 45, was born Azlina Jailani and brought up a Muslim. At age 26, she converted to Christianity. Eight years later she took the final step and had herself baptised. She also changed her name. She then applied to have both her name and religion changed on her identity card, which in Malaysia forms the base for all official records.

A name change usually takes a few weeks, if one is a non-Muslim. For Joy it took a whole year. But more importantly, she failed to have the word “Islam” changed to “Christianity” on her identity card – the reason being that in Malaysia, all Muslim affairs are governed by the Syariah (Islamic) court, and that court had refused to allow the change.

Joy had fallen in love with a Christian and wanted to marry him. But that was not possible while she remained a Muslim on record as Malaysian laws prohibit marriages between non-Muslims and Muslims.

That was in 1999. By then Joy had fallen in love with a Christian and wanted to marry him. But that was not possible while she remained a Muslim on record as Malaysian laws prohibit marriages between non-Muslims and Muslims.

Joy then started an eight-year campaign of working through the legal system to obtain what she considered to be her right under the constitution, of which Article 11 does proclaim: “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion.” Joy sued to have her religion changed in the high court, thus bypassing the Syariah Court. When that failed in 2006 she took the case to the highest judicial body, the Federal Court.

On May 30th, the Federal Court dismissed her appeal in a two-to-one vote. The Chief Justice, Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, ruled that Joy must have approval from the Syariah Court for the change of her religion.

"You can't change at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another," he said, conveniently ignoring the fact that Joy had spent nearly a decade pursuing her Christian faith, which surely under no measure could be called “whim and fancy”.

His decision was supported by another Muslim judge, Alauddin Mohd Sheriff; while the third judge, Richard Malanjum, a non-Muslim, dissented from the judgment. The court’s decision was welcomed by the more than 200 Muslims holding a prayer vigil outside the court room, and loud cries of “Allah-u-Akbar” (God is great) could be heard by those inside the court.

The Federal Court’s decision has further divided the people of Malaysia. It has also sparked concern over the role of the constitution – which in Joy’s case has turned out to be a mere nominal supreme law of the land – under the onslaught of militaristic religion. Malaysia has long been a country where all races could conceivably live together. It is now increasingly polarised. Is that what the people of Thailand want?

 

 

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Buddhism Divides Thailand

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Cheat Sheets: Thailand

 

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

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