The Muslim-Non Muslim “divide”

Updated On: Jun 01, 2007

Leaders of Islamic states agreed to cooperate to tackle key issues such as economic backwardness and illiteracy at the third World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) in Kuala LumpurMalaysia.

The WIEF is a conference held annually for members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and is aimed at improving economic relationships between Muslim countries.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who delivered the keynote address in Kuala Lumpur, said, “We must change our partners' perception of the Muslim world…. We must change their attitudes toward us from something negative or indifferent - if not hostile - to something positive and enthusiastic.”

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi agreed, saying, “For the Muslim ummah, the lesson is clear: We need to unleash innovation by ensuring that our entrepreneurs have access to the capital they need to succeed” He also urged the other leaders, “We must rediscover our ability and passion for knowledge and innovation ... we must reclaim this legacy.”

Following the conference, Badawi gave an interview to CNN saying, “So I am now directing the attention to something else, which is equally urgent, which our religion wants us to undertake, to respond, (and) that is development. We have to develop, we have to do well and that is very important.”

The Chairman of the World Islamic Economic Foundation, Musa Hitam urged delegates not to worry about ‘Islamophobia.’ He said, “It's an important subject but for another forum. Let us prove we can overcome it by being a success story.”

Unfortunately, Musa Hitam might have been too optimistic in thinking that economic success would dispel Islamophobia. The WIEF resolution has since been overshadowed by a Malaysian court ruling which denied a Muslim woman who had converted to Christianity from being legally recognised as a Christian.

Joy had been born into a Muslim family as Azlina Jailani but converted to Christianity and sought to remove ‘Islam’ from her identification card. However, the highest secular court, Federal Court ruled 2-1 that only an Islamic sharia tribunal could legally certify her conversion. The ruling also means that Joy cannot legally marry her Christian fiancé without him converting to Islam.

About 500 people gathered outside of the court to hear the conclusions of the case. Chief Justice Tun Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim delivered the main judgment saying, “a person cannot, at one’s whims and fancies renounce or embrace a religion.” Hence, Joy could only renounce her religion according to the rules and laws of the particular religion. Since the syriah court had jurisdiction over cases involving Islam, the syriah court, by implication, had jurisdiction over cases involving Muslims renouncing Islam.

The dissenting judge, Chief Justice of Sabah and Sarawak Datuk Richard Malanjum said that requiring Joy to go to the Syariah court for an apostasy certificate was “unreasonable for it means the appellant is made to self-incriminate.” This is because apostasy was a criminal offence in some Malaysian states.

The court ruling showed the tension inherent in the Malaysian legal system which had two different jurisdictions. A member of parliament for the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), Teresa Kok, called for a constitutional amendment that would make explicit the civil courts' superiority over sharia courts in all matters.

Various international newswire and regional media raised concern over the ruling.

The South China Morning Post (31 May 2007) warned that, “Far from favouring Islam, the decision plays into the hands of those who espouse an intolerance towards the secularism that has made Malaysia a respected voice of Islamic moderation and tolerance among both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. That leadership role has been particularly important in the post-September 11 world.”

The Japanese Kyodo News (31 May) said, “Freedom of religion took a beating in Malaysia when the country's highest court ruled Wednesday that a Muslim woman cannot renounce her faith unless sanctioned by the sharia court, which is a near impossible hope.”

The Agence France Presse (31 May) noted that, “The court's verdict comes amid mounting racial and religious tensions in multiracial Malaysia, where minority religious groups fear their rights are being undermined, even though the country is traditionally seen as moderate.”

The Associated Press (31 May) cautioned that, the verdict could “further polarize the country's multi-religious society.”

On the other hand, some of the Muslim groups downplayed the concern raised over the ruling. The Chairman of the Muslim Professionals Forum, Dr Mazeni Alwi said, “The decision is welcomed because this issue does not deal with human rights but is more of a procedural issue.” The Head of UMNO Wanita’s Legal Bureau Datuk Kamilia Ibrahim commented, “Regardless of the points of law and arguments, what Lina Joy wants to believe is personal to her but her identity (being born a Malay and Muslim) cannot change. The case should not have been brought to court because it affects and creates fear and sensitivity in our society.”

However, such views are not shared by the human rights and non-Muslim groups. This is especially since the ruling comes after a series of cases involving religious conversions where the rights of the non-Malays are perceived to be undermined.  (31 May 2007)


Lina Receives Decision With ‘Great Sorrow’ (New Straits Times, 31 May 2007

Federal Court Dismiss Lina Joy’s Appeal (New Straits Times, 31 May 2007)

Department ‘Wrong’ to Deny Lina Joy’s Request (New Straits Times, 31 May 2007)

Lina Loses Appeal (The Sun, 31 May 2007)

Reactions range from relief to concern (The Sun, 31 May 2007)

Woman loses bid to drop 'Islam' from IC (Straits Times, 31 May 2007)

Malaysian woman criticises court in religious conversion row (Agence France Presse, 31 May 2007)

Malaysian woman hints she may emigrate after losing fight to become legal Christian (Associated Press, 31 May 2007)

Malaysia’s Highest Court Squashes Woman’s Bid to Be Recognised As Christian (Associated Press, 31 May 2007)

Malaysia court denies Muslim woman's conversion to Christianity (Kyodo, 30 May 2007)

Constitution, not sharia courts, has primacy (South China Morning Post, 31 May 2007)

Once a Muslim, Always a Muslim In Malaysia (Asia Sentinel, 30 May 2007)

Muslim Unity Key To Economic Power: SBY (Jakarta Post, 29 May 2007)

Forum sees simple steps to Muslim development(Agence France Presse, 29 May 2007)

PM Cites Poverty, Illiteracy & Backwardness As Real Threats to Muslims (Bermama, 29 May 2007)

Efforts to boost intra-trade among Muslim states hit obstacles(Business Times [Malaysia], 29 May 2007)

President Calls for Enhanced Cooperation Among Muslim States To Face Global Challenges (Antara, 28 May 2007)