January 2008 – It was an incident that, in the U.S. and the rest of the West, wouldn’t have even garnered a shrug of the shoulders from the general population. In Malaysia, a country of 25 million people – 60% of which are Muslim – it went to the nation’s highest court.
The case involved a woman who changed religions, something that Americans might do two or three times before lunch. In 1998, a Muslim woman named Azlina binta Jailani converted from Islam to Christianity.
According to the Washington Post, she applied to have her name changed to the non-Muslim Lina Joy, and to have her religious status changed on her government identity card. Malaysia’s National Registration Department, however, agreed to the name change but refused to make the change in the religious category, since Muslim law prohibited Muslims from leaving Islam.
Joy went to a civil court to demand the change in status, but was informed that the Muslim religious courts – which deal with sharia (Islamic) law – must handle her case, since she had been born a Muslim. Repeated appeals, said the Post, ignored Joy’s argument that she should not have to go before a sharia court because she is a Christian.
However, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial by Angela C. Wu, the International Director of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the sharia courts have never authorized the “apostasy” of a Muslim. Instead, what the Muslim courts have usually ordered “has been years-long sentences to religious ‘rehabilitation’ camps for re-education in Islam.”
This past spring Malaysia’s highest court ruled against Joy. Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said: “You can’t at, whim and fancy, convert from one religion to another.”
The stakes were high for Joy, who in 2006 had to go into hiding in order to protect her life. The Associated Press’s Eileen Ng said that Joy’s loss before the high court meant that, if she “continues to insist she is a Christian, it could lead to charges of apostasy and a possible jail sentence.”
The high court’s ruling pleased Yusri Mohammad, however, who as president of the Muslim Youth Movement organized a coalition of 80 Muslim groups to oppose Joy. He told the Washington Post that the case was “not about one person, it is about challenging the Islamic system in Malaysia. By doing this openly, she is encouraging others to do the same. It may open the floodgates to other Muslims because once it is a precedent, it becomes an option.”
Free to practice Islam
It may seem strange for many in the West to hear the adherent of one religion argue against allowing members even the option of converting to another religion.
Joy’s case may be something of a bad omen. In the past Malaysia has been known as a tolerant Muslim nation, but the increasing popularity of a more strident Islamic fundamentalism is, in the opinion of some, endangering that tolerance.
“Our country is at a crossroad,” Joy’s attorney, Benjamin Dawson, said before the high court’s decision. “Are we evolving into an Islamic state or are we going to maintain the secular character of the constitution?”
Wu lamented the far-reaching implications of the high court ruling – that sharia law and civil law could not peacefully co-exist side-by-side, as they had for 50 years, in the face of an increasingly strident Muslim fundamentalism.
“Malaysia’s ability to protect fundamental human rights while navigating its parallel legal system among rising religious and ethnic tensions is an indication of whether it’s possible anywhere [in the Muslim world],” Wu said.
Wu’s ominous statement implies that democratic freedoms – of which religious freedom is only one – may not be something which radical Islam can even tolerate.
For example, the “Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom,” (USCIRF, www.uscirf.gov) released in May 2007, paints a portrait of a worldwide movement within Islam of increasing fundamentalism, characterized by a growing hostility toward all things Western, and a malevolent attitude toward minority religions, especially Christianity.
Like Joy’s experience in Malaysia, Christians in Muslim countries are discovering that religious conversion is a one-way street. In Egypt, for example, often considered a moderate Islamic state, the Egyptian Penal Code “is used frequently to prosecute alleged acts of proselytism by non-Muslims. Known converts from Islam to Christianity generally receive attention from the state security services; most conversions are reportedly done privately,” according to the USCIRF.
Even practicing one’s non-Islamic faith is often difficult in Muslim countries. In Indonesia the report stated that one of the factors in the large number of church closures there was a “vaguely-worded decree” issued in 1969 that stated that religious groups wanting to expand, renovate or build entirely new buildings must first obtain “community approval.”
Obviously, the USCIRF said, “[i]n areas where Christians, Hindus, or [non-traditional] Muslims were in the minority, this provision made building permits difficult, if not impossible to obtain. In addition, in some places, extremists pressured local government officials to revoke permits of longstanding places of worship and or destroyed those operating without permits.”
In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, all public, religious expression that does not conform to the state’s version of Islam is banned. The enforcement of this ban falls to the mutawaa, the religious police, and it is frequently applied to the private practice of religion – even by non-Saudi citizens.
“Many persons worshipping privately continue to be harassed, arrested, imprisoned, and then tortured and deported. They are generally forced to go to great lengths to conceal religious activity from the authorities. …” said the USCIRF. “There is a continuing pattern of punishment and abuse of non-Muslim foreigners for private religious practice in Saudi Arabia. …”
A different mindset
The radical Muslim antipathy toward religious freedom must seem quite alien to Westerners, but it becomes comprehensible when one considers the Islamic view of religion and state in Muslim countries.
According to the USCIRF report, for example, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud said in a 2005 interview that public worship by non-Muslims is not permitted in his country. He explained that “to allow any non-Muslim places of worship to be built in Saudi Arabia ‘would be like asking the Vatican to build a mosque inside of it.’”
But Abdullah’s analogy is clearly a false one, since the Vatican is a religious entity, while the nation of Saudi Arabia is a political one.
And yet this analogy is helpful because it reveals the stark contrast between the mindset inherent in much of the West and that in the Muslim world. While in the U.S. there are frequent arguments about where to draw the line between church and state, there is apparently no similar dichotomy in Islam. There is no need to argue about the line between mosque and state because religion and the state are one and the same.
According to America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, Mark Steyn’s spectacular book about the West’s struggle against Islamofascism, Islam is more than a religion. It is, in fact, an ideology that governs the entire cultural life of a Muslim nation.
That’s why, Steyn said in his acerbic writing style, “Those lefties who bemoan what America is doing to provoke ‘the Muslim world’ would go bananas if any Western politician started referring to ‘the Christian world.’ When such sensitive guardians of the separation of church and state endorse the first formulation but not the second, they implicitly accept that Islam has a political sovereignty too.”
Not only do many Muslims believe that the religious realm and the political/cultural one are indistinguishable, but they believe they were melded together by the Prophet Muhammad himself. As a result, no one has the right to separate them. The religious ordering of an Islamic culture cannot be threatened by other religions.
This would obviously make it difficult for Muslim governments to appreciate Western pleas for religious freedom within the Islamic world. If there is no distinction between religion and state, then how could an Islamic government allow the free exercise of religion by Christians? It would be tantamount to a small group of church members asking the pastor to allow them to hold a Muslim service in the fellowship hall while the morning service was being conducted in the sanctuary.
In Indonesia, for example, supporters of a policy that restricts the building of Christian churches claimed that it was necessary to maintain “social harmony.” The USCIRF quoted one man who said: “[I]f we don’t limit the number of places of worship they will be abundant. There would be competition from different religions or sects, and it would create public disorder.”
Subservience to Islam
This paradigm makes the subjugation of non-Muslim religions a necessity in maintaining the faithful adherence of a culture to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. According to Robert Spencer, Director of Jihad Watch and author of Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, the late, influential Muslim writer Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi argued that non-Muslims should be allowed to “cling to their false, man-made ways if they so wish.”
Before one concludes that non-Muslims have religious freedom after all, Maududi goes on to insist that such religious freedom comes at a price. “In such a situation the [Muslim] believers would be under an obligation … to make them live in subservience to the Islamic way of life,” he said.
This obviously runs against the grain of Western notions of the equality of all people – which undergirds the entire premise of religious freedom.
But that’s the point, Spencer said. He cites Iranian journalist Amir Taheri, who insisted that “Islam is incompatible with democracy” because of the religion’s “rejection of the idea that all people have equal dignity, a Christian idea that was central to abolishing slavery.”
Taheri said, “Non-Muslims can, and have often been, treated with decency, but never as equals [with believing Muslims.] … In no country anywhere in the Islamic world do non-Muslims enjoy full equality of rights with Muslims.”
This means that, for the foreseeable future, Christians and other religious minorities who live in Muslim countries have little prospect of obtaining the kinds of freedoms that normally mark a Western democracy.
Of course, that means the corollary is also true: The kinds of pressures and even persecution experienced by Christians like Lina Joy will also continue.