Doing the Impossible: Quitting Islam in Malaysia

April 27, 2007

Author: Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob

Source: Asia Sentinel

Twelve years ago, when she was 26 years old, a Kuala Lumpur woman named Azlina Jailani came to a momentous decision. She converted to Christianity and changed her name to Lina Joy.

Joy, now 42, today is at the epicenter of one of the most difficult issues in Malaysian society, one that authorities are approaching with something akin to alarm. What she would like do is marry her non-Muslim boyfriend, a cook, and get on with her life. That appears to be impossible because, under Malaysian law, Joy is still a Muslim, regardless of her beliefs.

Joy has been carrying her long fight to change her religion up through Malaysia’s judicial system, starting with the High Court in Kuala Lumpur in 1999. The case is before the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest tribunal and a decision is expected soon. She is hardly the only Malay who would like to bail out of the traditional religious straitjacket, but in the face of the country’s convoluted religious mores, she is one of the very few with the moxie to fight for what she views as her religious rights.

Every Malaysian citizen over the age of 12 must carry an identification card, called a MyKad, which states the bearer’s religion. In 1999, Joy, a sales assistant, succeeded in getting officials to change her name on the card. Although she said she had been baptized in 1998, she was not able to have the word Islam removed from the card. Her fight to do that is what got her to Federal Court.