Friday, June 01, 2007

Dual Systems Not So Good

I read in the newspaper a few days ago a report on a court case in Malaysia (links here, here and here). The case was about a woman who had converted from Islam to Christianity wanting to change the religion on her national ID from Islam to Christianity, and had her request denied by the National Registration Department. The Federal Court upheld the decision the National Registration Department made and it's reasoning. I think this is a bad ruling.

To understand why, first you need to look at why the woman wanted to change her religious status. Malaysia operates under essentially a dual legal system. Muslims are subject to Sharia law, and are subject to a separate Sharia court. Non-Muslims are only subject to civil courts. One example is that Muslims are not allowed to purchase or consume alcohol, but non-Muslims may. Also, Muslims may only marry other Muslims (if a Muslim wants to marry a non-Muslim, the non-Muslim must convert to Islam).

The problem for the woman who converted starts with the part of Sharia law which deals with those who turn away from the faith of Islam, the apostates. In some states of Malaysia, apostasy is a criminal offense, and at best to get labeled an apostate requires at least a year of counseling with a Muslim cleric, who must be convinced that you no longer truly believe. And this leads to the National Registration Department's reason for not allowing the woman to change her religious status. She had not been labeled an apostate, and since she was a Muslim subject to the Sharia courts, only the Sharia courts had the power to declare her no longer a Muslim. Without the say so of the Sharia court, they would not change her religious status. This is the decision that was upheld by the Federal court.

I see two big problems with this situation. The first is the existence of two different legal systems in the one country. If the woman had wanted to convert from Hinduism to Christianity this wouldn't have been a problem, but since she was a Muslim subject to Islamic law, she cannot do so. All people should be treated equally by the law, and to maintain separate systems for whatever reason undermines that principle. The second is that this goes against the freedom of religion clauses in the Malaysian constitution. Under this ruling, a large percentage of Malay are unable to choose their religion, but are assigned one based on their circumstances of birth, and cannot change it.

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