This article was previously published in The Malaysian Insider.

Lord Bobo, I’m a Chinese man. 10 years ago, I married a Malay woman and converted to Islam. We have 2 kids but have now divorced. I have recently come to know the Christian faith, and want to know how to convert out of Islam. Also, can my kids convert out of Islam, and if so how? (Lord Help Me, via email)

Oh, my dear Lord Help Me. Love makes us do silly things. Fortunately, most of these silly things are reversible, or forgettable, and fade away with time. Unfortunately, in the Model Islamic Country that is Malaysia, converting to Islam is not one of those easily reversible things. There are great consequences.

The short answer is this: You can probably convert out of Islam. However, your kids will not be able to. And as a bonus, by opting to convert out of Islam, you are likely to lose the right to see or take care of your kids. Lord Bobo has great sympathy for those in your situation. It is quite difficult being on a dark desert highway, cool wind in your hair, with the warm smell of colitas rising up through the air.

Article 11 of Malaysia’s Federal Constitution allows for freedom of religion. Unfortunately, most members of Malaysia’s judiciary think that this freedom does not include the freedom of Muslims to choose their own religion.

A strange line of court cases has developed. At first, the position the government and the Courts took was that a Muslim could never change his or her religion. In time, this extreme position became a rule that a Muslim could only leave Islam if he or she were allowed to do so by the Islamic authorities — be they the Islamic department or the Syariah courts. Now, the accepted wisdom of our judges is that a Muslim can only leave Islam if he or she gets permission from the Syariah courts and follows the proper procedure.

The catch of course is that almost all States except Negeri Sembilan have no procedure to convert out of Islam. In fact, most States have criminal provisions to punish those who “insult Islam” — and trying to leave Islam is considered an insult to Islam. However, Malaysia’s Minister in the PM’s Department Senator Mejar Jeneral (B) Dato’ Seri Jamil Khir bin Haji Baharom did disclose in Parliamant on June 14, 2011 that from the years 2000–2010, there were 864 applications to the Syariah courts to leave Islam out of which 168 were granted.

We also need to point out that if you leave Islam, you may also lose custody or access rights to your kids, since they will still be considered Muslim still. It is against Syariah law in some States to leave your Muslim kids in the care of a non-Muslim, and in all States a parent who commits “apostasy” loses custodial and guardianship rights over his or her Muslim children.

The problem with all this is that Malaysia’s Article 11 is not restricted in its application only to non-Muslims. In fact, the terms “Muslim” and “non-Muslim” do not appear in the Constitution. State laws can be made to regulate Islamic personal and family laws amongst “persons professing the religion of Islam”. Lawyers (including some of His Supreme Eminenceness’ most loyal minions) argue that this means that a person must of his or her own free will “profess” the religion of Islam in order for Islamic law to apply, and that the fact that you had at some point in your life decided to embrace Islam does not mean that you must forever have Islamic law apply to you. But those arguments have thus far not found favour – see the continuing struggles of Balachandran, known to the authorities as Zaina Abiden, here.

The options open to you, dear Lord Help Me, are as follows:

  1. Emigrate from Malaysia. Go somewhere without roti canai or decent nasi lemak, but with religious freedom. To be free you must flee.
  2. Continue to live in Malaysia. Remain Muslim. Let your kids remain Muslim. They are now constitutionally Malay, and can now enrich themselves with the various economic benefits originally meant for poor Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak. Various discounts and benefits have been made available for them, and our lovely government has recently announced even more fantastic “Bumiputera empowerment policies”.
  3. Go to the civil courts. Take the principled high road, and go to the civil high courts for a declaration that the laws that treat you as a “Muslim” even though you now profess Christianity are unconstitutional. Be prepared for a long wait. And be prepared to lose. Even if you don’t succeed, you can still go to the Syariah courts.
  4. Go straight to the Syariah courts. Ask for permission for yourself to check out of Hotel Islam (your kids will never get permission, though if they file a case on their 18th birthday, they may have a slim chance). You will probably have to go for a few counselling sessions, but it is unlikely that any serious harm will be done to you. If the Syariah court says no, what you’re left with is an appeal to the Syariah Court of Appeal. You cannot then go to the civil courts.

Whatever option you choose, be sure to consult a lawyer and tell them exactly what the position is with you and your kids, and let them see a copy of the Syariah court divorce order before putting your decision into action.

Although Lord Bobo already knows your question before you even knew you had a question, as a practical display of your true desire to have your query answered, His Supreme Eminenceness has graciously allowed you to communicate your questions by either emailing [email protected] or tweeting your question, mentioning @LoyarBurok and using the hashtag #AskLordBobo. Now, what the hell are you waiting for? Hear This and Tremblingly Obey (although trembling is optional if you are somewhere very warm)!

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