Uncivil Conversions

Uncivil Conversions
January 29, 2008

A Malaysian civil court earlier this month released a woman’s body back to her grieving husband, after Islamic authorities withdrew their assertion that she had converted to Islam six days before her death. The case of Wong Sau Lan represents a rare victory in a civil court case involving a non-Muslim against the Islamic Council. But the problem remains that the Islamic authorities continue to exert control over the civil judiciary in Malaysia.

The day after Wong Sau Lan died, her husband, Ngiam Tee Kong, received a letter from Malaysia’s Federal Territory Islamic Council. The Islamic Council, created by the government to govern Muslim affairs, did not write to offer condolences, but to state that Wong had converted to Islam six days before her death. They made this claim on the say-so of a traditional healer Wong had consulted in her final illness; the traditional healer happened to be Muslim. Under directions from the Islamic Council, the hospital where Wong died reportedly would not release her body to Mr. Ngiam unless he first agreed that she was a Muslim, which designation would mean that she would receive a Muslim burial.

But Mr. Ngiam, himself a Buddhist, was adamant that his wife was baptized as a Christian in November, never converted to Islam, and remained a Christian at her death. Three weeks after Wong’s death, the civil court ordered her body released to her husband only after the Islamic Council determined that her conversion was not properly carried out according to Shariah, and withdrew its case. Had the Council proceeded in its conversion claim, the case would undoubtedly have fallen into the jurisdictional chokehold of the Shariah system, just as more and more cases involving non-Muslims have in recent years.

In Malaysia, the Shariah courts’ jurisdiction is constitutionally restricted to “persons professing the religion of Islam” in enumerated matters related largely to family law. However, the Malaysian Constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom for all have slowly been eroded as the civil courts broaden Shariah’s reach by refusing to hear a broad array of cases over which the Shariah courts lay claim. This happens even when they involve non-Muslim citizens, who have only limited standing to make claims or testify before the Shariah courts.

Take the case of Maniam Moorthy, a lifelong Hindu — and a national hero for being the first Malaysian to climb Mount Everest — who was buried as a Muslim in December 2005 after Shariah courts ruled, on the testimony of his former army buddies, that he had converted before his death. His family protested the Islamic Council’s claim over his body, but the civil authorities refused to take the case. Instead, they referred his widow to the Shariah courts, which heard testimony from Muslim former army colleagues about his “secret” conversion, but refused to hear evidence from his non-Muslim family about his Hindu practices.

Last year, Lina Joy, née Azlina binti Jailani, sought to change her legal religious identity because she converted to Catholicism, but the civil courts ruled her case was the purview of Shariah judges. Malaysia’s Shariah courts recognized conversion out of Islam in only one previous case — posthumously, for a deceased woman who reconverted out of Islam to the Buddhist faith of her birth. The civil judges argued that allowing Ms. Joy, an ethnic Malay born to a Muslim family, to be declared a non-Muslim before the civil courts would “consequently be inviting the censure of the Muslim community.” Ms. Joy is now in hiding.

More recently, Malaysia’s highest court threw out a petition by Subashini Rajasingam, a Hindu, to prevent her estranged husband, Muhammad Shafi Saravan Abdullah, né Saravanan Thangathony, from registering the younger of the couple’s two sons as Muslim. Mr. Shafi had already registered their other son to Islam without her knowledge and Ms. Subashini fears she will lose custody and visitation rights of both children if Mr. Shafi is permitted to “convert” their second son. Ms. Subashini’s fear is well-justified. In rejecting her plea, one of the high court judges made clear that since the father of her children is now a Muslim, Ms. Subashini must take her case (and her chances) to the Shariah courts, which are not bound to protect her constitutional rights.

These cases are about more than jurisdictional questions. In simultaneously enforcing religious law and civil law in a multi-religious society, Malaysia has seen the gradual erosion of fundamental rights in the name of Islam.

Ultimately, the majority Muslim population in Malaysia must consider what role they wish Islamic law to play in this democratic nation’s civil public life. They must ask whether Shariah is meant to supplant all forms of civil law wherever Shariah lays a claim, or whether there is room for the sometimes competing rights of non-Muslims in a nation whose constitution is meant to protect the rights of all.

In the meantime, one Malaysian man waited three grueling weeks to bury a loved one. But he could do so only at the discretion of the Islamic Council.

Ms. Wu is the executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington



Earlier Report from New Straits Times 

NST Online » Local News

Man applies for wife’s body
KUALA LUMPUR: A husband filed an interim injunction application at the High Court yesterday to stop the Federal Territory Islamic Council from claiming the body of his late wife who he claimed was a practising Christian at the time of her death.

Ngiam Tee Kong, 53, filed the ex-parte application, which also named the director of Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (HUKM) as the first defendant.

The application filed through Messrs Karpal Singh & Co yesterday is expected to be heard today.

The body of Wong Sau Lan, 54, who died on Dec 30, is at the HUKM mortuary.

In his affidavit, Ngiam said when he went to HUKM to claim his wife’s body, he was informed that it would only be released to him if he confirmed that she was a Muslim at the time of her death.

He was also told that the body would be released to him only for having Christian rites to be performed, after which it was to be returned to the hospital for it to be buried according to Muslim rites.

Ngiam claimed that on Dec 31, a day after Wong died, he received a declaration of conversion dated the same day signed by the Federal Territory Religious Department director, stating that Wong converted to a Muslim on Dec 24 at a flat in Jalan Siakap, Cheras.

Ngiam, a manager of an entertainment outlet, said the letter given to him did not state his wife’s Muslim name. He said she was a practising Christian at the time of her death.

He said the letter of conversion was not in compliance with the provisions of Section 90(1) of the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act, 1993, as it was not given to Wong before her death.

Ngiam is seeking, among others, declarations that:

– Wong was a Christian at the time of her death;

– she did not fully embrace Islam before she died;

– she was not a Muslim at the time of her death.

He also wants the court to issue an order that he had the right to his wife’s body and for the hospital director to release it to him immediately.


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