Asia-Pacific, Headlines

RELIGION-MALAYSIA: Conversion from Islam Upsets Muslims

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Feb 15 1998 (IPS) - Malaysia takes deep pride in its multi-ethnic roots, but an uproar in Muslim circles here over the conversion of a Malay Muslim woman to Christianity has shown how sensitive the country’s social fabric still remains.

Nor Aishah Bokhari, 25, set off a storm last month when she filed a 20-page complaint in the High Court saying she had renounced Islam and had disappeared with her Chinese-Catholic boyfriend, Joseph Lee, after her family had held her captive to prevent her from marrying him.

While intermarriages among Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups, Malay, Chinese and Indian, are not uncommon in this plural society, Nor Aishah’s renunciation of Islam is.

Usually, it is the non-Muslim who is expected to, and does, convert to Islam, and not the other way around, not least because it is generally accepted that non-Muslims cannot proselytise Muslims.

Soon after Nor Aishah Bokhari’s case became known, the opposition Islamic Party plastered 100,000 posters all over the country, urging Muslims to trace her and bring her back to Islam.

Analysts say the episode highlights some of the hurdles Malaysia has to clear if it wishes to achieve its aim of creating a genuine ‘Malaysian race’ by the 2020.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion but conversion from Islam, the official religion and whose adherents make up most of Malaysians, is frowned upon.

“Legally, she (Nor Aishah) has the right (to convert),” said author Dr Ariffin Omar, who has researched and written on Islamic deviant groups. “But socially, she will be ostracised.”

“It’s a problematic case and this is one the things holding up full integration in the country,” he added.

Malays make up about half of the country’s 21 million population. Ethnic Chinese comprise about a quarter, other indigenous groups 10 percent, with the remainder made up of Indians and other groups.

Ariffin says Nor Aishah is not the first Muslim to convert and marry a non-Muslim pointing to other similar cases in the past in which couples were also harassed.

In her 20-page complaint in the High Court on Jan. 16, Nor Aishah Bokhari accused her family of forcibly keeping her captive for 40 days with the help of police to stop her from marrying Lee. In a complaint filed by her lawyer, Nor Aishah said she escaped from her family home in Johore state on Dec. 30 and was now hiding with Lee, despite pleas from her family to come out and re-embrace Islam.

Ariffin says the close links between religion and ethnicity in Malaysia, considered sensitive issues here, often pose complications in marriages across religious divides. “The problem is that religious adherence in Malaysia is so closely linked to one’s ethnic identity,” he explained.

The official definition of a Malay, among other things, is someone who practises the Islamic faith. Not surprisingly, all Malays in the country are deemed to be Muslim.

This means that Malays who convert to non-Muslim religions not only renounce their faith, but also effectively lose their ethnic identities as Malays in the eyes of the larger community. Observed Ariffin: “They must be prepared to face the full weight of social disapproval.”

The case of Nor Aishah has led to some calls among Muslim groups for laws that would clearly prevent similar cases of apostasy. An Islamic paper suggested that those who renounce Islam be arrested under the Internal Security Act, under which people can be held without trial.

Some have even gone as far as advocating the death penalty for apostasy. Malaysian laws on apostasy, however, are unclear.

“At the least, the absence of clear-cut laws would be a source of friction between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities,” columnist Ahmad Faiz Abdul Rahman, of the Institute of Islamic Understanding, wrote in a national daily recently.

Social barriers may also lie ahead for those intending to marry persons of a different ethnic background or religion. Conservative parents, Muslim and non-Muslim, may balk and try their best to discourage their offspring from marrying “outsiders”.

“Why can’t my family and relatives respect my wish? Why can’t they leave me and my boyfriend Joseph alone?” Nor Aishah pleaded in her letter to the High Court. Her long, emotional plea for help was signed “yours in fear and pain”.

Social reformer Mustafa, an ethnic Malay, says marrying his Punjabi Malaysian wife “wasn’t easy initially”. He added: “Coming from different ethnic backgrounds, it was a problem for our families.”

The situation is different in other parts of Malaysia, however. In Sabah in eastern Malaysia, for instance, which has a different history from the peninsula, different ethnic groups and creeds can be found in many households.

Ariffin says ethnic barriers will fall further in the coming years, requiring Malaysians to cope with the issue. “Society will soon have to resolve the issue (of Muslims marrying non-Muslims) as women become more and more aware of their rights and freedoms and of their inherent worth as human beings – ironically as a result of wider access to western education and increasing secularisation,” he said.

In short, Ariffin added: “Islam has to be made more relevant to modern times.” And as attitudes and perceptions are slowly remoulded, the genuine Malaysian identity the country is striving for would be based on unity in real diversity, analysts say.

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