Conversion to Christianity Earns Death Threats, Risk of Incarceration:

The New York Times reports:

[Malaysian] Lina Joy ... converted from Islam to Christianity eight years ago and since then has endured extraordinary hurdles in her desire to marry the man in her life.... [S]he is now in hiding after death threats from Islamic extremists, who accuse her of being an apostate.

Five years ago she started proceedings in the civil courts to seek the right to marry her Christian fiancé and have children. Because she had renounced her Muslim faith, Ms. Joy, 42, argued, Malaysia’s Islamic Shariah courts, which control such matters as marriage, property and divorce, did not have jurisdiction over her.

In a series of decisions, the civil courts ruled against her....

About 60 percent of Malaysia’s 26 million people are Muslim, 20 percent are Buddhist, nearly 10 percent are Christian and 6 percent Hindu....

In rulings in her case, civil courts said Malays could not renounce Islam because the Constitution defined Malays to be Muslims.

They also ruled that a request to change her identity card from Muslim to Christian had to be decided by the Shariah courts. There she would be considered an apostate, and if she did not repent she surely would be sentenced to several years in an Islamic center for rehabilitation....

Last month, Prime Minister Badawi appeared to side with the Islamists when he ordered that forums organized around the country to discuss religious freedom must stop. The forums, run by a group called Article 11, named after the section of the Constitution that says Malaysians are free to choose their religion, were disrupted on several occasions by Islamic protesters....

“Church members know us as who we are, and the outside world knows us as we were,” [another convert] said. He was fearful, he said, that if his conversion became public the religious authorities would come after him, and he could be sentenced to a religious rehabilitation camp.

One such place, hidden in the forest at Ulu Yam Baru, 20 miles outside the capital, is ringed like a prison by barbed wire, with dormitories protected by a second ring of barbed wire. Outside a sign says, “House of Faith,” and inside the inmates spend much of their time studying Islam....

Thanks to Cynthia Reed for the pointer.

Doesn't Israel also have numerous laws which favor one religion over another?
8.24.2006 5:06pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Niiiiiiiice ... and no, Blogfan, I don't think Israel sentences people to incarceration for converting from Judaism to Christianity. Though you do have to live with breaking your mother's heart.

A White House that had any ghost of credibility, trace of diplomacy, or genuine interest in American ideals, would be working to influence nations like Malaysia towards bare tolerance of religious diversity. Better luck after 2008, perhaps.
8.24.2006 5:19pm
TJIT (mail):

Way to stay on topic, troll.
8.24.2006 5:21pm
jgshapiro (mail):
Doesn't Israel also have numerous laws which favor one religion over another?

What a silly comment.

Apart from being off-topic, since the post was discussing neither Israel nor anything so vague as "laws favoring one religion over another," the analogy is false as well: Israel has no law making it criminal for a former (or current) Muslim to marry a Christian, for example. Only Islamic states have these laws, and they run counter to the expressed claim of freedom of religion.

Israel also has no concept of civil marriage, only religious marriage. Marriages performed in Israel have to conform to religious law to be performed there (regardless of what religion), since clerics control domestic family law. But marriages performed outside of Israel are valid in Israel, regardless of whether they conformed to religious law. And no one is ever sentenced to prison or death or religious re-education camp in Israel for desiring, or obtaining such a marriage.
8.24.2006 5:21pm
TJIT (mail):
Sad to hear about this case, Malaysia struck me as a country that handled relations within a diverse society pretty well.
8.24.2006 5:22pm
Please don't feed the troll....
8.24.2006 5:37pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
A good example of why separation of church and state make good sense and the opposite doesn't.
8.24.2006 5:49pm
If Islam is such a great religion, why are its adherents so afraid of people switching? I blogged about that back in March when that fellow in Afghanistan was thretened with death for converting.
8.24.2006 5:55pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):

To some extent but one must distingush laws favoring an ethnic group and those favoring a religion. Most of my jewish friends are atheists but could still benefit from the right of return. However, this is really irrelevant. These laws are roughly equivalent to the laws that many western european countries have favoring some religions over others, e.g., Church of England in the UK. True the exception from milatary service for Torah studies is slightly more impactful but as I understand it one can get waivers or at least deferments of milatary duty for a great many reasons and it is social pressure as much as legal threats that encourages people not to spend too much effor avoiding service. Also it's possible other religious groups get the exception as well and I'm just unaware of it.

In any case it is utterly ridiculous to suggest that the minor conviences given to certain religions, be they in Israel or elsewhere, are comparable to throwing people in jail for changing their faith.


As to the post itself I am horrified at this practice. If it has not already been done the UN and international bodies need to make it very clear that jailing people for changes in religious belief is a violation of human rights and will be accompanied by the normal diplomatic and commercial sanctions. In fact, I firmly believe international bodies ought to declare that the mere existence of religious courts with the power to impose criminal sanctions is a violation of human rights.

However, I do have to wonder what purpose is served by posting this particular example in such detail. Human rights abuses suck but they are happening all the time. Why pick this one about islam rather than the jailing of Chinese dissidents or oppressive actions by other governments? (Do third world christian nations behave differently or does the influence of first world churches keep them in check?)

If the poster feels that this sort of inhuman treatment goes underreported/uncondemned out of fear of offending religious sensibilities then, assuming his assesment is correct, I share his goals. However, I am skeptical of the appropriatness of this particular incident to accomplish this purpose. Jailing people for conversion to christianity is clearly no worse than jailing them for conversion to any other religion, advocacy of heretical islamic views or violation of any other religious law. Choosing an example where the individual wishes to convert to christianity when the mention of prison camps in the article suggests a wealth of other examples seems designed to inflame a christian audience.

I realize that you probably didn't run across any of the other stories so I don't want to cast blame. However, I do feel that the choice of examples is unfortunate and more good could be done with examples that don't encourage people to view this as a religious conflict.
8.24.2006 6:00pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
Isn't Maylasia one of those countries always cited to prove that Islam is compatible with a modern, pluralistic society?
8.24.2006 6:03pm
Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
I have a meta-question -- and maybe Prof. Volokh will think this isn't the place for it.

What is the purpose of picking up stories about the horrors of repressive Islamic regimes?

Some say -- and I am not accepting this premise, only raising it for discussion -- that it's part of a propaganda war to portray Islam or selected Islamic countries as The Enemy -- aggressive, violent, repressive, implacable. (It's a proposition that is more credible when you look at some sites -- say, Little Green Footballs -- and much less when you look at others -- say, this one).

This is not to say that a blogger has to have a reason other than whimsy to blog about something. That's silly. But what elevates Islamic repression to the level of notice necessary to blog? Is anyone expecting these countries and communities to be anything other than repressive? Isn't it, arguably, a sort of dog-bites-man story?

Now, there could be non-propaganda reasons to post such stores. For instance: (1) a story is particularly heart-wrenching or speaks particularly to some human truth, (2) to remind us how lucky we are to live under (for the most part) the rule of law, (3) to counter academic, popular, or media sentiment that places Islam or Islamic countries in an artificially positive light, (4) to counter genuine ignorance of practices in these places, etc. Surely there are more.

But is this why the Islamic evil of the day is so prevalent now?

It reminds me, in a way, of Left-leaning sites that tend to play up Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson or their ilk. There's reasons to blog about it that have nothing to do with propaganda. But sometimes I get the vibe that the message is OMG Christians are such jerks.

I'm not convinced either way. But, when we're in one (at least) war and some are thinking of ramping up another one, I view the trend with some skepticism. That skepticism has nothing to do with the truth of the underlying message -- that the repressions in question are apalling. It's about the choice of subjects and emphasis.
8.24.2006 6:13pm
Houston Lawyer:
Muslim societies increasingly resemble the old Soviet Union. Just substitute faith in Islam for loyalty to the communist party.
8.24.2006 6:17pm
Not true Houston Lawyer, the old Soviet Union crumbled (as Mr. Volokh knows from personal experiences I'm sure.) Islam is such a compelling system of belief that people are willing to fight tanks with rocks to protect it. Communism had no where near this level of alliegance.
8.24.2006 6:39pm
I just realized my last note, but not my first one, is off topic. My apologies.
8.24.2006 6:41pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Isn't there a UN Declaration of Human Rights? Doesn't that Declaration claim to protect freedom of conscience and religion? If so shouldn't all muslim countries that show the same disregard for the organization's principles as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc., etc., remove themselves or be removed by members that abide by the UN Charter. Oh, never mind, I forgot the UN is a pathetic joke.
8.24.2006 6:44pm
Ex-Fed (mail) (www):
Bah, logicnazi beat me to the punch.
8.24.2006 6:51pm
angela (mail) (www):
Malaysia is a signatory to the UDHR, but it is not to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is the document that gives legal force to those rights. However, to the extent that it is part of the United Nations, it has a duty to protect the rights enshrined in the UDHR.

The more important point is that Malaysia's own constitution protects religious freedom (to "practice and profess") to all its citizens. However, the federal system also provides for limited jurisdiction to Syariah courts over Muslims. That limited jurisdiction is specifically set forth, and usually applies to property and some family law disputes.

The problem is two-fold: first, with the definition of who is a Muslim. Everybody agrees that Syariah courts do not have jurisdiction over non-Muslims. The problem is when some Muslims do not wish to be ruled by Syariah law (it's another issue whether you can be a Muslim and not subscribe to Syariah, but it should not be for the state to decide) and when there are converts out of a religion that says you cannot convert without a Syariah court ruling of apostasy.

Further, over the last two decades, Islam has come to play more and more a part of public life, and the implied jurisdiction of Syariah courts has graduated expanded beyond the legislative mandate via the refusal of the civil courts to accept jurisdiction over matters it should have, and deferring instead to the Syariah courts in those matters. A lot of civil court judges are Muslim, read into that what you choose. Of course many are not biased, but I imagine in a climate where the larger Muslim community (about 55% of Malaysians), it is quite difficult to remain unbiased when you subscribe to a religion that imposes a total legal worldview as well. To give you an idea of how things are developing there, it is estimated that in ten years there will be more lawyers trained in Syariah law than in civil law.

The case illustrates why civil enforcement should not be leant to religious courts. For example, the Catholic Church can excommunicate, baptise, or judge, whomever it wants, but in America, those decisions will not be given legal force by civil courts. This has been firmly established in a long line of interesting cases, including ones involving Jewish gets, religious divorces.

The Becket Fund, a religious liberty law firm defending people of all faiths, issued a legal opinion analysing these issues, if you are further interested. There are also a lot of other resources, including domestic filings, on that page. The Becket Fund is also taking the issue up at the United Nations Human Rights Council in September.

You can also run a search on my blog to find a lot of other commentary, including of a visit to Malaysia with several interested parties there.
8.24.2006 7:46pm
Interesting post, thank you angela!
8.24.2006 8:32pm

In rulings in her case, civil courts said Malays could not renounce Islam because the Constitution defined Malays to be Muslims.

They also ruled that a request to change her identity card from Muslim to Christian had to be decided by the Shariah courts.

So...she just has to pull a Loretta Sanchez. Ms. Sanchez is the individual who challenged B-1 Bob Dornan for a House seat in Lower Alta California under some "white" last name and lost. Then she became Hispanic by changing her last name to Sanchez and won.

So if the Malaysian lady changes her Malay name to a Chinese name, then she would be Chinese, and Chinese are not Muslim so she would have to have her identity card changed to some other religion, Christian say, and the Sharia courts would not have jurisdiction because she is Chinese and Christian.

Of course, they would probably kill her then for being an infidel.
8.25.2006 4:09am
David M. Nieporent (www):
So...she just has to pull a Loretta Sanchez. Ms. Sanchez is the individual who challenged B-1 Bob Dornan for a House seat in Lower Alta California under some "white" last name and lost. Then she became Hispanic by changing her last name to Sanchez and won.
Not to get too far afield, but the facts are off and that's a slightly pejorative way of describing it. The substance of your allegation -- that she began using Sanchez for reasons of ethnic politics -- may be correct, but it's not like she made up the name. Sanchez was (and obviously still is) her maiden name. She ran originally under her married name -- not against Dornan, but for a local election. Two years later, she defeated Dornan for Congress while using her maiden name. (She had also switched parties in the interim.)
8.25.2006 6:40am
humorless wretch
8.25.2006 3:15pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):

It is, indeed, a dog-bites-man story. But there are two important issues. There is a large cohort of folks in the west who don't believe it. And, when we read of a dog biting a man, we usually don't have to worry about the dog coming a backyard near you soon.
8.28.2006 1:36am