Brooke Storrs has traveled to Malaysia several times since 2001, communicated with minority citizens and expats living there, and kept a close eye on online news once she returned home. She wrote an essay about how their dual courts (civil and Sharia) impact non-Muslims who are given religious freedom in their constitution. The purpose of the essay below was to show how entangling Sharia and civil courts in society works itself out in the lives of non-Muslims and to make the case that allowing Sharia into our court system most assuredly has a deleterious effect.
What’s the Harm With a Little Sharia? By Brooke Storrs
The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia Law in the UK would help maintain social cohesion. Minneapolis, Minnesota, has adopted Sharia-friendly loan programs. Many desire to be tolerant and go along to get along with Muslims, especially when Muslims insist that Sharia Law will apply only to Muslims and can co-exist with our Civil system of laws. Is this true? Instead of arguing abstractly, perhaps some concrete examples of Sharia Law co-existing with Civil Law will help to point out their eventual entanglement. To understand how a little Sharia for Muslims impacts non-Muslims, read on as to what has happened in Malaysia in the last few years.
Malaysia is considered to be a “moderate” Muslim nation giving religious freedom to its citizen population of Chinese and Indian minorities. The country has a dual justice system, civil and Sharia. Civil laws apply to everyone, whereas Sharia laws apply only to Muslims – in theory. Sharia Courts in Malaysia have jurisdiction over Muslims in civil matters of marriage, inheritance, and apostasy. The complications of Sharia Courts ruling on the law in recent years have come when someone has converted to Islam, or when someone wishes to leave Islam.
In the last several years in Malaysia, the following story has played out a few times. A man married to a non-Muslim converts to Islam, then dies. Upon his death, the governing Sharia Court gets into a tussle with his wife over what will happen with his body, since Muslims have different burial rites than other faiths.
In a different situation that made international headlines, a man of Indian descent divorced his wife, later converted to Islam, and then tried to take custody of their children. Sharia holds that children of Muslims are also Muslims and must not be left in the custody of a non-Muslim. While the father did not ultimately win custody of the children, the mother is still fighting over their officially registered religion. The courts have ruled their children are Muslims. “Once a Muslim, always a Muslim,” is a tenet they very rarely overturn.
Arguably one of the most agregious cases involved Siti Fatimah Abdul Karim, or Revathi, as she wants to be called. She is of Indian descent, born to parents who converted to Islam, but whose Hindu grandmother raised her. She practiced Hinduism all her life and married a Hindu. After the birth of their little girl, Revathi went to the Sharia court to have her name changed and her official religious status changed from Muslim to Hindu. The court detained her in a “religious rehabilitation camp” for six months while at the same time taking custody of her little girl. After she was released, the court ordered her and her child to live with her Muslim parents. They would not allow her to leave Islam. Because Sharia does not allow a Muslim woman to marry outside the faith, she could not live with her husband.
The Lina Joy case also made international headlines. Born into a Muslim family, she petitioned the civil court to have her official religious status changed from Muslim to Christian. The courts fought her for years, ruling that she must have her hearing in a Sharia Court. Her reasoning was in effect, “You say I must have my case heard in a Sharia Court, because I am a Muslim. I’m telling you, I’m not a Muslim. I’m a Christian. The Civil Court should hear my case.” The case reached the Civil Supreme Court in 2006 and the justices agreed to hear her case, but they eventually ruled against her. Lina Joy’s official religion was recognized as Muslim in Malaysia which prohibited her from marrying her Christian fiancé or have children with him. She and her fiancé have since fled the country.
It is clear that even when Sharia is intended for Muslims only, it can greatly affect those outside of Islam. So, when the tolerant among us say, “What’s the harm? Let them govern themselves with Sharia,” let’s tell them about what has happened in the “moderate” Muslim nation of Malaysia.