Religious intolerance, here and abroad

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Two examples of religious bigotry today, which helps illustrate the difference between individual and government discrimination.

First, in New Hampshire, an idiot confronted Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney’s visit to New Hampshire started on a sour note Tuesday when a restaurant patron declared he would not vote for the Republican presidential contender because of his faith.

“I’m one person who will not vote for a Mormon,” Al Michaud of Dover shouted at Romney when the former Massachusetts governor approached him inside Harvey’s Bakery.

The kicker? This wasn’t someone from the religious right; it was a self-described “liberal” who said he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton.

There are plenty of questions about Mr. Michaud. If he disagreed with Romney’s politics, why make a point of criticizing his faith? Why shout it out in a small, crowded room? It’s enough to make one wonder if his goal was actually to embarass Romney. And then there’s the classic question of whether he’s really a liberal — and if he actually understands what that word means.

Regardless, I hope we can agree that his moment of fame was classless, rude, illiberal and violative of American values, even if it is in accord with much of American political history. And be glad that in this country a member of a minority faith is only subjected to such individual actions and not (generally) government persecution.

Now let’s go to the other side of the globe, where that sadly is not the case.

Malaysia’s best known Christian convert, Lina Joy, lost a six-year battle on Wednesday to have the word “Islam” removed from her identity card, after the country’s highest court rejected the change.

The ruling threatens to further polarize Malaysian society between non-Muslims who feel that their constitutional right to religious freedom is being eroded, and Muslims who believe that civil courts have no right to meddle in Islamic affairs.

On the one hand, this is a fairly minor matter: words on an ID card. She was not actually prevented from converting, and is not in danger of being killed for doing so. And the legal point is minor, too: whether the secular courts have jurisdiction over such matters. They decided not, that only the country’s Sharia courts can allow the removal of the words from Joy’s card.

Let’s put aside, too, the problem of having parallel legal systems. Listen instead to the words of the judge:

“You can’t at whim and fancy convert from one religion to another,” Federal Court Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim said in delivering judgment in the case.

Or consider the reaction of the crowd outside:

About 200 mostly young Muslims welcomed the ruling outside the domed courthouse with shouts of “Allah-o-Akbar” (God is great).

And what fate awaits Joy in the sharia courts, if she goes that route?

In practice, sharia courts do not allow Muslims to formally renounce Islam, preferring to send apostates to counseling and, ultimately, fining or jailing them if they do not desist.

They often end up in legal limbo, unable to register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Many keep silent about their choice or emigrate.

Fines and jailing, never mind the related legal prohibitions against marrying nonMuslims.

It always astonishes me that believers can justify coerced membership in religion, any religion, failing to understand that doing so not only grossly violates individual rights, but it undermines that religion’s legitimacy. It’s pure power politics, nothing more.

The world should continue to support Joy and express outrage not just at her treatment, but a legal system that allows such religious-based discrimination and disallows freedom of conscience. This is what true persecution looks like, and Malaysia should be pressured to change its laws to respect individual belief.

And for those of you inclined to ask “where are the moderate Muslims?”, consider this very balanced article from Al-Jazeera. Or Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian Muslim women’s group that is one of several that has sided with Joy in this case.