Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Islamic Resurgence and the Ethnicization of the Malaysian State: The Case of Lina Joy

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Islamic Resurgence and the Ethnicization of the Malaysian State: The Case of Lina Joy

Article excerpt

"I admit it is not easy for a multi-racial population to live in peace and harmony. Look around us. Not many are successful; more have failed. We must maintain this precious unity to the best we can."

--Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, 13th King of Malaysia, at his installation ceremony on 26 April 2007; quoted in

New Straits Times, 2 June 2007.

Lina Joy, born Azlina Jailani, a Malaysian convert from Islam to Christianity, managed to change her name in her Malaysian identity card (MyKad) but her religion remained listed there as Islam. She made several applications between 1998 and 2000 to remove the word 'Islam' from her identity card but these were rejected. After losing both the High Court (2001) and Court of Appeal (2005), the matter finally came to the Federal Court. The case hinged on a decision by the National Registration Department (NRD) not to remove the word 'Islam' from Lina's MyKad. According to the interpretation of the department, it needed a syariah court order certifying her renouncement from Islam before it could make the change. On 30 May 2007, the Federal Court ruled, by a majority decision 2-1 (as in the Court of Appeal in 2005), that Lina Joy remain a Muslim and her religious status will not be removed from her identity card. Jurisdiction in this matter, according to the Court decision, remains with the syariah court (see Appendix I for a summary of standpoints of Federal Court's judges). The twists and turns of the process have been covered in the national media and the issue is well known in Malaysia. It has also drawn some international attention.

The reactions to the court's decision were as varied as could be expected. Several spokesmen of the Muslim community expressed satisfaction and interpreted the decision as ensuring the present status qua between the racial communities. On the other hand, voices championing universal human rights were raised in protest. Among others, Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) president Meera Samanther said that the court's decision "denied Lina Joy of her right to choose her religion, her right to choose her partner and her reproductive rights (in terms of bearing a legitimate child)". She also felt that the decision also denied Lina's right of living in Malaysia as her only option now in pursuing her rights to profess the religion of her choice was to leave the country.

These two opposing reactions to the court's judgement capture several issues that are central in understanding present-day Malaysian society. In this paper, an effort is made to use the Lina Joy case as a looking glass into Malaysian society particularly with regards to the construction of ethnic and religious identities, ethnicization of the state and the resurgence of the Islamist movement. (1) What does the case of Lina Joy case tell us about Malaysian society?

The issue may be studied from various angles. The one adopted here is to interpret it against the backdrop of the global resurgence of Islamic movement where the field is set by liberal and neofundamentalist modern interpretations of Islam as opposed to traditional, "pristine" Islam confined to traditional communities, societies and cultures. In the Malaysian case, the distinction between 'modern' and 'traditional' interpretations of Islam is reflected in the different positions taken to the Lina Joy issue. On the one hand, the feminist and women's movement, among other 'grass-root' movements, clearly finds its justification in the western discourse of human rights, for example, where "modern" western concepts are used to defend the rights of women as well as Muslims. On the other hand, the spokesmen of the Malay majority (together with the majority of the Federal Court judges) seem more comfortable with the rhetoric of traditional Islam mixed with political considerations. In addition, in Malaysia, where Malay identity is interwoven with Muslim identity, the resurgence of the Islamic movement holds implications for majority Malay rule, i. …

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