Hugh Fitzgerald: Good News From Sarawak: “If That Person Wishes to Leave (the Faith), Why Not Let Him Leave?”


Much of the news from Muslim lands is horrifying, but where there are signs of decency and hope, no matter how small, they ought to be noted and applauded. Just this March came surprising news from the Malaysian state of Sarawak, where the government announced it would amend state laws on conversion, following a court case involving three people seeking to have their conversion to Islam reversed. A fourth person who had never been Christian wanted to convert to Christianity.

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Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Openg [a Muslim] said on Saturday that amendments would be made to the state’s religious law, providing an administrative solution for apostates.

“We will amend any weaknesses in our syariah laws in dealing with apostasy cases. There must be an SOP because we cannot leave people hanging,” said Datuk Abang Johari, referring to the need for a standard operating procedure.

“If that person wishes to leave (the faith), why not let him leave?” he [Sarawak’s chief minister] added.

On Feb 27, the apex court dismissed the appeal by three Sarawakian Muslim converts and a Muslim by birth to have their case heard by the civil court. The applicants were seeking to have their identity cards and official records reflect that they are now Christians.

The country’s Islamic law is governed at the state level and Sarawak’s syariah [Sharia] court had earlier ruled that it did not have the jurisdiction to issue the Letter of Release from Islam, a document required by the National Registration Department to amend the religious status in official records. The deadlock had led to the applicants filing for their cases to be allowed a hearing in the civil court instead.

The Federal Court’s ruling last month stated that although there wasn’t a provision within the state’s syariah court ordinance related to renunciation of Islam, there are provisions under the state’s Islamic religious council which can be used by the Islamic court.

Malaysia requires non-Muslims marrying Muslims to convert to Islam if their marriage is to be recognised by local laws. The three Muslim converts in Sarawak had married Muslims but decided to return to Christianity upon divorcing or after the death of their spouse.

While Malaysia is a Muslim-majority nation, Sarawak has a higher number of Christians than Muslims, the only state with such statistics. In the last census in 2010, Sarawak recorded 1.04 million Christians, or 44.2 per cent of its population. There were 710,815 Muslims, accounting for 30.2 per cent.

“Promising to plug loopholes in state religious law, Mr Abang Johari said: “Give me six months to do this. Sarawak must have a liberal and practical policy.”

Sarawak leaders of opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan commended the move, saying that it’s “not a Muslim versus Christian issue, but merely honouring the rights of the people to freedom of religion”.

What does this small sign of decency — trying to change the state’s religious laws to allow a limited class of people (those who were required, when they married a non-Muslim, to convert to Islam) to convert back to Christianity once that marriage had ended through death or divorce? For while this would not be news anywhere in the advanced West, where conversions into and out of a faith are treated as matters of individual conscience, and not for the state to decide, in Muslim lands there has been a strict rule: no conversions out of Islam are permitted, and apostates can be severely punished, even killed. Muhammad says in a famous hadith: “If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him.” Sahih Bukhari (52:260)

But here we have the government of Sarawak making clear it wishes to allow people who converted to Islam because they had married Muslims, as according to Malaysian law they were forced to, to convert back to Christianity because their spouses — the reason for their conversion to Islam — had either died or divorced them. Their position on the fourth petitioner, who wants to convert to Christianity, never having been a Christian, has not been revealed.

The willingness of the Sarawak authorities to attempt to have the law changed (they’ve not done it yet, but expressed the desire and intention to do so) in order to allow such conversion is in direct contravention of Muhammad’s words in that hadith demanding that apostates from Islam be killed. It’s not yet a sign that in Sarawak the Qur’anic verse “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) will be followed in other cases. There is not, for example, any mention by the Sarawak authorities of ending altogether the requirement that non-Muslim spouses of Muslims must convert to Islam. But it does signify a recognition, at least, that those who were required to convert for that reason should not be forced to remain Muslims once they no longer, because of death or divorce, have that Muslim spouse.

If they are successful in changing the law for these three petitioners, is it possible that in the future in Sarawak state the original requirement that non-Muslim spouses must convert to Islam will be ended, and that we will see, for the first time anywhere in a Muslim land, the application of that verse so beloved of Muslim apologists, that “there is no compulsion in religion”?

Just as it is important to note the many misdeeds of Muslims who, in only following the commandments of the Qur’an and hadith, every day overwhelm us with their horror, it is important, when there are incipient signs of decency, anywhere in Dar al-Islam, in the treatment of non-Muslims, not to overlook them. This small step in Sarawak may be the first in a series of liberalizing measures, or it may end with just this one achievement, of ending the permanent imposition of Islam for a limited class of petitioners. There is reason to be hopeful, in any case, that the potential loosening of the straitjacket of Islam will allow the original requirement, that a spouse of a Muslim must convert to Islam, to be held up for inspection, discussion, and possible rejection. Most of the news from Muslim lands is so depressing, that when we see a brief crack of light in what appears to be an eternity of darkness, let’s point to it, celebrate it, and hope that it will widen still further.

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