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Malaysia: First (Living) Woman Allowed To Leave Islam


May 8, 2008 

Malaysia attempts to present itself as a "liberal" Muslim state. Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution states that a citizen can follow any religion of their choosing, contains a clause which shows that Malaysia has no concept of religious freedom but adds: "The law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam." Article 3 states that Islam is the official religion of the state, but Article 3 (1) of the constitution states that 'other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation'.

Additionally, there is a racist element in Malaysia's constitution. All ethnic Malays are said to be Muslim. At the age of 12, each person in Malaysia is issued with an identity card - called MyKad - upon which the person's religion and race are listed. And all Malays are automatically said to be Muslims.

The problems are made worse by the racism of Malaysia's ruling party - UMNO. This party has ruled in a coalition since Malaysia became independent in 1957. After race riots in 1969, the party has actively promoted a racist policy of "ketuanan Melayu" which gives job preferences and privileges to Malays and Muslims above other racial/religious groups.


A similar case involved an ethnic Chinese woman from Nibong Tebal, Penang state, who was originally called Tan Ean Huang. She had married an Iranian man called Ferdoun Ashanian in 1999. Before she married him, she converted to Islam in July 1998, and her MyKad was changed by the NRD to acknowledge her conversion. She became known as Siti Fatimah. Only a few months after the marriage Ashanian deserted her, and his whereabouts are now unknown. In May 2006, she applied to Penang's Islamic Affairs Council to declare that she is not a Muslim. Siti Fatimah wanted her MyKad religious status to be officially changed to Buddhist.

She claimed that her conversion to Islam was only a means to get married, and after the failure of her marriage she had gone back to her Buddhist beliefs. She maintained reverence for Buddhist deities such as Kuan Yin and others. On August 11, 2007, Judge Othman Ibrahim Othman ruled at Penang's Syariah High Court that a decision would not be made until December 3. He ruled in the meantime that she should undergo Islamic counseling. As in other such cases, a decision has still not been made."

Today there has been a positive result for Siti. The news is carried by Associated Press, TVNZ, Japan Today, Bernama, International Herald Tribune, BBC and AKI:

In Penang state, in northwest Malaysia on Thursday, a Shariah High Court' decided that the 39-year old cake-seller could leave Islam. The court ruled that when Siti married her husband, the official Islamic authorities and her husband had both failed to give her proper guidance on Islam.

The judge, Othman Ibrahim, ruled that "The court is disappointed because MAIPP (Penang Islamic Religious Council) did not act quickly to save the faith of a Muslim and provide a procedure to control and supervise a Muslim convert so that she did not abandon Islam. Without reasonable methods, perhaps more will come to court to renounce Islam."

Othman also criticized the Penang Islamic Religious Council (MAIPP) for failing to attend the court until the proceedings were nearly over, despite MAIPP being issued with a summons and statement of claim.

Judge Othman ordered MAIPP to cancel the certificate that claimed Siti had converted into Islam.

Lawyer Ahmad Munawir Abdul Aziz of the MAIPP said: "So you can't blame her for her ignorance of the teachings and wanting to convert out."

Siti was pleased, and said: " I want to go to the (Buddhist) temple to pray and give thanks."

Siti had filed her appeal on July 10, 2006, naming MAIP as a defendant. She asserted that she had only converted on July 25, 1998 only to be able to marry her Iranian husband. He had absconded four months after the marriage. Siti claims she still eats pork.

Her lawyer said it was a landmark decision. Some minority groups have said that this was a victory for minority rights, but until Muslims are allowed to leave Islam, just as any other person can leave their religion to convert into Islam, there has been only a lucky result for Siti.

It is of no consolation to Kamariah Ali who is in jail, to Lina Joy, or to Hindu women such as Revathi Massosai who was placed in an Islamic "rehabilitation center", wher she claims she was mentally tortured. It is no consolation for the family of Hindu rubber tapper Marimuthu. His wife, by whom he had six children, was said to be a Muslim. He was told that unless he converted to Islam, he would be prosecuted for "khalwat" - being in close proximity to a person to whom one is neither a relative or marriage partner. His wife has been forced to leave her family.

Until these injustices are addressed, and the racist parts of the constitution (Article 160, section 2) that define all Malays as Muslims, and the amendment of 121 (A) is struck off, there is nothing here to celebrate. The news is good for Siti, but it is a fluke, rather than a basic right. I am reminded of the saying "one swallow does not a summer make".

Siti may not even be out of the woods yet - MAIPP has the right to contest the decision from the state's Syariah High Court. Ahmad Munawir Abdul Aziz, representing MAIPP, said that his group would be lodging its appeal within 14 days at the Penang Syariah Appeals Court.

Siti had also tried to have the NRD change the religious status on her MyKad identity card from "Muslim" to Buddhist". Judge Othman Ibrahim had refused, stating that his court did have jurisdiction over this matter.

Malaysia's largest trading partner is America. Perhaps the American government should be pressing for Malaysia to allow freedom of religion for all people in Malaysia. As a member of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the Malaysian government has moved further towards Islamism.

In 2007, during the nation's 50th anniversary celebrations of independence (Merdeka), Malaysia's chief justice Ahmad Fairuz suggested that common law should be abolished and replaced with Sharia law. 

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