THE late Malcolm X did it, and he’s a hero. Amina Wadud did it, and people call her a freak. “It” being converting to Islam. And as African Americans, Malcolm and Amina did it in the belief that Islam offered them spiritual liberation and justice.
People convert to different religions all the time. Who can forget rock ‘n roll legend Tina Turner‘s conversion to Buddhism, which eventually empowered her to escape her abusive marriage to Ike Turner? In another highly publicised — and highly mocked — journey of spiritual discovery, pop music icon Madonna found inspiration in the mystical Kabbalah sect of Judaism in the late 1990s. The creator of the Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis, also wrote extensively about his conversion to Christianity.
But the search for spiritual authenticity does not seem to be the only reason for certain individuals to convert. Former Argentinian President Carlos Menem was born to a family of Syrian Muslim migrants. He realised, however, that if he ever wanted a shot at leading Argentina, he could not remain a Muslim. So he converted to Catholicism and had his marriage to his Muslim wife, Zulema, annulled.
In Malaysia, however, the laws give religious conversions another layer of controversy and urgency. Most recently, the High Court yet again gave jurisdiction to the syariah court to determine whether a non-Muslim, art director Mohan Singh a/l Janto Singh, was a Muslim at the time of his death, despite his Sikh family’s dispute of his conversion.
Earlier, in April 2009, M Indira Gandhi was in the spotlight when she protested her Muslim-convert husband’s unilateral conversion of their three young children to Islam without her consent.
But Mohan Singh and Indira Gandhi are only the tip of the iceberg of conversion controversies in Malaysia. Mohan Singh’s case seems to be yet another consequence from the unprecedented tussle in 2005 over Everest climber M Moorthy‘s religion at the time of his death. Moorthy’s family had insisted on giving him a Hindu funeral, but the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department eventually buried him as a Muslim, after the Syariah Court ruled that Moorthy had converted to Islam.
There was also the headline-grabbing six-month detention of M Revathi in 2007 at the Ulu Yam rehabilitation camp in Selangor, where she was forced to cover her hair and eat beef. Revathi, although born a Muslim, was raised by her Hindu grandmother and married a Hindu Malaysian, V Suresh, under Hindu rites in 2004. When she left the detention centre, Revathi famously asserted her Hindu faith by saying, “My name is Revathi. I want to hold on to that name — forever.”
And who could forget the Federal Court’s 2007 dismissal of Lina Joy‘s appeal to not identify officially as a Muslim anymore? It was a civil court decision hailed by numerous Muslim groups.
Even the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial, has been wielded in certain cases of religious conversions. For example, during Operasi Lalang in 1987, the ISA was used to detain Yeshua Jamaluddin, a Malay-Muslim Malaysian who had converted to Christianity. Jamaluddin’s detention was eventually declared unlawful by the Supreme Court in 1989, but he had to flee Malaysia and resettle overseas.
Indeed, the situation in Malaysia easily overshadows the more complex, diverse phenomenon of religious conversions as experienced by people in other parts of the world. There is even diversity among leading Islamic authorities on the issue of conversion.
In 2007, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, wrote: “The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam?
“The answer is yes, they can, because the Qur’an says, ‘Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,’ [Qur’an, 109:6], and, ‘Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve,’ [Qur’an, 18:29], and, ‘There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is distinct from error’ [Qur’an, 2:256].”
Gamal al-Banna, brother of the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, says “each and every individual has the right to change his [or her] religion without any conditions whatsoever.”
On the other side of the fence are scholars like Cairo University’s Dr Abdelsabour Shahin who uphold that Muslims who convert out of Islam should be killed. The Malaysian education system clearly adopts Shahin’s position: in the official Form Four Islamic Studies textbook, the authors state that the penalty for converting out of Islam should be death.
It is then no wonder that when organisations such as the Bar Council try to organise public forums on the impacts of religious conversions in Malaysia, some Muslims feel compelled to disrupt them coercively in the name of Islam.
But it is clear that when certain interpretations of Islam become the source of public policies, the issue of religious conversions into and out of Islam affects all Malaysians. And The Nut Graph believes that Malaysians are mature enough to critique, analyse, and argue the issue honestly and with civility. So, give us your Six Words on conversion. Here are some of the newsroom’s attempts:
Back off, let God judge apostates.
Plan to convert? Tell your family!
Conversions: For love or for God?
Senang nak masuk, mustahil nak keluar.
There is no compulsion in faith.
Imposed conversions give Islam bad name.
Kalau tak percaya, boleh paksa lagi?
Kalau bukan pengikut, nescaya tak percaya.
To convert, surely one must apostasise?
Anda cinta jejaka Islam? Jangan harap!
God grants free will. Malaysia doesn’t.
Being an unbeliever might be easier.
You gotta have faith: George Michael.
Some religions privileged over others. Why?
Should only be dictated by conscience.
Anda cinta gadis Islam? Snip, snip!
Inter-religious osmosis — a fact of history.
Creating God in our own image.
Leave body-snatching to sci-fi B-movies please.
Newsflash: Free will produces authentic believers.
The Nut Graph believes in choices.
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway‘s genius, the Six Words On… section challenges readers to give us their comments about a current issue, contemporary personality or significant event in just six words. The idea is to get readers engaged in an issue that The Nut Graph identifies, while having fun and being creatively disciplined.
Please release me, let me go…
Bila hidup, biarkan; bila mati, ambil!
True Muslims, defend Islam from politics!
The government controls your love life.
David Anthony says
Why was MJ’s body not snatched?
Love kin? Don’t become a Muslim!
Religion indeed opium of the people.
Andrew Loh says
Nak kahwin Melayu? Tak — takut sunatlah.
Azizi Khan says
God created genes, man invented genocide.
God created faiths, man kills faiths.
Believe in God or in JAIS?
Religious conversions lead to material greed.
Apostate in life, believer in death.
Burying the dead is very profitable.
Malaysia Special: Conversion damns future generations.
Lasting legacy: A religion they hate.
Conversion’s a familial affair: lasts forever.
Once you convert, there’s no escape.
In God we believe. No compulsion.
Once in, no out. No way!
God judges, not man. Back off!
Don’t play God. God judges you.
tj wong says
Have faith in your own faith.
A true believer is not coerced.
Check in, yes Check out? Noooooo.
You’ve got a subscription for life.
There shouldn’t be compulsion in religion.
Masuk ugama Islam, semua harta hangus.
How I pray is my business.
Unfortunate expression: over my dead body.
Do not rob my mourning family!
Atheist’s worry: Girlfriend’s disapproving, Muslim father.
Religion is between me and God.
Rajesh Taluar says
Malaysian government: the real snatch thieves.
Must convert, or face rape charge.
Once in. Want out. Body snatch.
Nobody compelled [Mohan] Sing to embrace.
siew eng says
Even Tun Mohamed Suffian was helpless.
Mais not reflecting Prophet’s compassionate religion.
So much ill-will is Allah’s will?
Sivin Kit says
Conversion of the heart is unstoppable.
Start with differentiating “conversion” and “proselytisation”.
My own faith, my own business.
Wrong choice may cost your estate.
Convert in possible but not out!
Choosing wrongly brings immeasurable family pain.
Love others better than any religion.
Freedom of religion, freedom off religion.
Unable to disbelieve, unable to believe.
(Paraphrased from Abdullahi Ahmed An Na’im, Chandler Professor of Law, Emory University)
Alert! Here comes the body snatchers!
Free burial for converting to Islam!
No way out even if dead.
Kalau masuk, terus masuk, hingga mati.
I thought MJ was a MUSLIM!
Farouq Omaro says
Live and let live, God decides.
Take the body, leave the property.
It’s really about the harta, no?
God judges your life, not burial.
Strange obsession: safety in dead numbers.
God reveals truth; [people] unravel it.
Nothing remains, even your corpse’s snatched!
Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run,
Only way out, leave the country.
No injustice without prejudice in Malaysia.
Melayu itu bangsa. Islam itu ugama.
My soul is my own business.
Quantity needed here but not quality.
No Malay girls for me, ever.
Conversion for life – only in Malaysia.
Thomas Lee says
What I believe is my business.
Compulsion in faith is compulsory fate.
Dying in peace no easy matter.
The return of the body snatchers.
There is no peace in death.
Love is gone , conversion stayed on!
Why do we fight over God?
Love thy neighbour, unless she’s Muslim!
K S Ong says
Why can’t family decide on this?
K.F. Chow says
The right to choose is God-given.
Even God will not violate that.
All religions are like political parties.
Conversions: Malaysia better than the Arabs.
Alan Tan says
Man proposes. God disposes. Malaysia supposes.
Man proposes, it’s God who disposes.
Kenny Loh says
Who is the real G-d here?!?
Love forced upon is love rejected.
Faith is G-d’s gift, not religions.
Religion is man-made, hence, it’s flawed.
Don’t play G-d, do things right.
Doing right is harder than praying.
Heaven is for mothers, not soothsayers.
Don’t convert to Islam – family suffers.
Religion is obsolete. Install ‘atheism’ upgrade.
hanana bt abdullah says
Islam is about embracing the teachings …
Philip Selvaraj says
People who enter Yakuza cannot exit …
Philip Selvaraj says
Why run religion like secret society?
Philip Selvaraj says
Can Islam really survive without coercions?
Kenny Loh says
Got something else better to do? …
Ineffective way to curb unemployment rate!
In Malaysia conversion into Islam is an open-door, while the judiciary’s role in protecting non-Muslim rights is increasingly threatened.
Awan Gebu says
You’re being manipulated, God. Do something.
Philip Selvaraj says
Can check in, cannot check out?
I’m a Muslim who wants out.
Might need to seek asylum overseas.
Because apostates are persecuted in Malaysia.
Religious authorities do not respect individuality.
How to change their backward mentality?
peter wku says
Why can’t we leave GOD alone?
Speak not when one knows nought.
It is depressing; it is madness.
Philip Selvaraj says
One Malaysia, two laws for Malaysians.
Hello, welcome to the Hotel California.
An insecure religion demands absolute allegiance.
munirah hayati says
Kalau nak keluar bagi aje lah 🙂
Kalau nak dakwah, pinda perlembagaan dulu.
To amend constitution, get political power.
How I wish corpses could talk.