Islam, rather than Western culture’s focus on sexual freedom, shapes day-to-day reality for a third of the world’s Anglicans. Malay women who convert to Christianity are forced to live a double-life. KATRIN ARNHOLZ spoke to one of them.
Under Kamariah’s* photo on her Malaysian identification card is her ethnicity. Right under that her gender, and to the left: Islam. But the 28-year-old woman with the angular eyeglasses and the broad smile is Christian. She belongs to the largest ethnic group in Malaysia—the Malays. According to the official census, Malays number 65 per cent of the population. In Malaysia, Kamariah says, a Malay is a Muslim by definition. “A Malay is a Muslim. Full stop,” she says. Few dare to go public if they convert to Christianity.
One man who has publicly converted is the well-known yachtsman, Azhar Mansor, who in 1999 sailed around the world in 190 days without the aid of an engine. The main mast of his yacht broke around Cape Horn. He managed, nevertheless, to reach the Faulkland Islands to repair the mast. What happened on the way between the cape and the islands is subject to speculation. The internet is full of questions by Muslims as to whether Mansor – who no longer lives in Malaysia – is really converted. And there is much discussion among Christians as well. Kamariah’s version is that Mansor, about to drown in the sea, was saved by a dolphin, and that Jesus appeared to him soon after.
Lina Joy did not intend to become famous when she requested officially to leave Islam in 2001. She succeeded in changing her name, Azlina Jailani, to Lina Joy, but the government’s National Registration Department refused to delete ‘Islam’ from her identification card. For such decisions, it is not the government departments that are responsible, but the Syariah Court – the court in Malaysia which supervises Muslims’ adherence to Islam. To the disadvantage of Lina Joy, the judge ruled, ‘As the plaintiff is a Malay, she is subjected to the laws of Islam until she dies’.
She has appealed the decision several times, and her latest appeal will appear soon before the High Court in Kuala Lumpur. Then it will be determined whether the Syariah Court has jurisdiction over those people who want to convert out of Islam. Article 11 (of the Malaysian Constitution) promises freedom of religion. “It is true for all the other faiths, but not for Muslims who want to leave Islam”, says Kamariah.
She and the 34-year-old Natasha* are the only ethnic Malays in the international church they visit. “Many Malay Christians hide themselves and meet secretly”, explains Kamariah. They are still registered as Muslims. In two months, Kamariah will start a business which plans weddings. But the business intends to do much more: it will also offer free pre-marital counselling. The counselling will be based on the principles of the Bible. Kamariah had to negotiate this plan with the relevant authorities - and the plan was approved. The identification card of converted Muslims becomes a problem when they want to marry, because by Islamic law, a Muslim can only marry another Muslim.
“The only way to get legally married is to marry a Malay Christian who is also still on paper a Muslim”, says the young woman. “But then our children will also be Muslims on paper, and their children, and the circle is never broken. But if we want to change our identification cards, it won’t happen without problems.” The Syariah Court can decide to put me in prison”, explains Kamariah. Therefore she does not think now of marrying or of changing her identity card, and she lives – like most single adults in Malaysia – with her Muslim parents. They do not know that their daughter is a Christian. “Here I must be careful whom I confide in”, Kamariah says. “Some Malays are tolerant, but others would not hesitate to turn me in to the Syariah Court. If they didn’t turn me in, then others might think that they were cooperating to hide me – and that is not good at all in Islam.”
Kamariah became a Christian in 2000 after being in a two-year relationship with a Chinese Christian. “I was always envious; he had a relationship with his God. My God was far away, unattainable,” she remembers. “His prayers were answered. Mine were not.” So Kamariah decided one day to entrust her life to Jesus. Since then much has changed. Even though she does not speak with her parents about Christianity, she prays in her house. “Suddenly my mother took the Koran verses off the wall and instead hung up a picture of some flowers”, she says happily. One day, she hopes, she will not have to hide her faith any longer. “I wish that more Malay Christians would come out publicly and go to church and not meet secretly. That would be a break-through in our society.”