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In Malaysia, a mom is contesting her kids' conversion to Islam. It's a landmark case

Loh Siew Hong, in a pink shirt, arrives with her three children at Kuala Lumpur High Court for a hearing on May 11.
Arif Kartono
AFP via Getty Images
Loh Siew Hong, in a pink shirt, arrives with her three children at Kuala Lumpur High Court for a hearing on May 11.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — After divorcing her abusive husband, Loh Siew Hong spent three years searching for their three children. Once the couple split up, her former husband took the kids with him and refused to tell her their whereabouts.

Last year, Loh finally located her children — twin daughters and son, who range in age now from 11 to 15. But she also discovered that their father had converted from Hinduism to Islam — and he'd had the kids converted to Islam as well, to ensure he'd keep custody.

Loh is now contesting the children's conversions in a closely watched case that has thrown into sharp relief the stark ethnic and religious identity markers that make up the bedrock of Malaysian state policy.

The landmark legal case has divided Malaysia, a constitutionally Muslim country bisected by identity group politics. The country's laws forbid non-Muslims like Loh from marrying Muslims or raising Muslim children without first converting herself.

"The religious authorities feel that by giving in to Madam Loh, we are sacrificing our might of Islam. It's just a battle of egos," says Srimurugan Alagan, a lawyer on Loh's legal team.

Loh's case cuts across normally rigid ethnic and religious lines

Since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1957, Malaysia has prioritized economic and educational protections for its dominant Muslim Malay population and Indigenous citizens,at the expense of ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens, whose ancestors were brought to the country by the British as cheap labor.

The government says that only by channeling resources to explicitly delineated ethnic and religious groups can Malaysia's multilingual and multiethnic society exist peacefully.

Loh has gained custody of her three young children for now, but wants their conversion to be overturned. In May, a judge ruled against her, but she is appealing. Malaysia has a dual secular-Shariah legal system, and secular courts have been hearing her cases.

Rozana Isa, director of the nonprofit Sisters in Islam, which reinterprets Islamic scripture from the lens of gender equality.
/ Emily Feng/NPR
Emily Feng/NPR
Rozana Isa, director of the nonprofit Sisters in Islam, which reinterprets Islamic scripture from the lens of gender equality.

Her appeal to overturn the children's conversion comes as rhetoric about protecting Malay Muslim rights is reaching a fever pitch, with the country heading into state elections in August.

"People respond to this issue in a very emotional way because it's not just about the children," says Rozana Isa, the director of Sisters in Islam, a gender equality advocacy group in Malaysia that reinterprets Islamic teachings from a feminist perspective. "What comes into play is about how then Islam must be protected at all costs."

The fevered identity politics have turned what is essentially a private custody dispute into a national spectacle. Loh, who is Hindu and of Chinese and Indian descent, says she is now the subject of sustained harassment and intimidation from pro-Islam and pro-Malay people who falsely accuse her of trying to take Muslim children away from their faith.

"My children cannot even go to playground. People take pictures of them and post them on Facebook, saying children go to playground wearing shorts and never wearing the tudung [a headscarf]," she laments.

The case plays into Malaysian politics, which tend to favor Malay Muslims

The public furor around Loh's case traces back to the long period of colonialism Malaysia endured under multiple rulers, the longest being under British rule. After independence, the nation made pro-Malay and Islamic tenets explicit in its constitution.

"The Malays reclaiming their religious identity is a byproduct of them trying to decolonize themselves," says Nadia Lukman, a researcher on migration and identity at Iman Research in Kuala Lumpur. "It is the anger towards the Western influence, and the Western influence that has been given to us for the past 300 years."

But power-sharing with the country's non-Malay groups, notably ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens, can be fragile. In 1969, after pro-ethnic Chinese opposition politicians made unexpected gains in elections, pro-Malay activists instigated violent riots that resulted in the killings of hundreds of ethnically Chinese Malaysians.

Since then, Malaysian politics have become even more pro-Malay and Muslim-focused. Like the United States, Malaysia today is a medley of diverse ethnicities, religions and languages. But unlike the U.S., where race-based policies are being contested and there is separation between church and state, Malaysia makes race and religion key deciders in how public resources are accessed.

Ethnic Malays — defined by the country's constitution as being Muslim and following Malay cultural customs — as well as various Indigenous groups are part of the "Bumiputera," a demographic category that translates literally to "prince of the soil." Bumiputera groups receive preferential bank loan interest rates and a discount on housing prices. Ninety percent of public university spots are reserved for them.

Authorities argue this is to address the historical income disparity favoring Chinese and Indian Malaysians over ethnic Malays. Although many ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians were brought over as indentured laborers by British colonial authorities, they concentrated in urban areas and quickly ventured into their own commercial activities, building up wealth in the 20th century that ethnic Malays, who were mostly rural, could not access.

Some non-Muslims convert to Islam to access Bumiputera rights — or to be able to marry a Muslim. Non-Muslim parents usually cannot have custody of Muslim children. Pro-Islam groups have also encouraged people to convert to boost Muslim numbers.

A young political party aims to center the discourse around class, not religion or race

"[Malays] always talk about the social contract, about Malays being the right, rightful owner of the land, and Chinese and Indians are coming from outside," says Amira Aisya Abd Aziz, a Malaysian politician who is ethnically Malay. "But slowly I am trying to introduce this idea that the social contract needs to be revisited because this social contract was done over 60 years ago. The world has changed, the country has changed, the people has changed. The social contract needs to be changed as well."

As the nation's politics have grown increasingly dominated by identity issues, political parties adhere largely along ethnic lines. Gerrymandered voting districts and a first-past-the-post voting system means political candidates must pander to ethnic group interests to win seats.

In 2020, Aziz and several young Malaysian activists, including Lim Wie Jet, a lawyer and politician who is ethnically Chinese, helped start MUDA, a multiracial party focused on bringing younger politicians into power and talking about economic outcomes by class, rather than ethnicity and religion.

"You adopt a mindset where you shouldn't rely on the authorities or the government to help you," says Lim. "That's been ingrained to almost all minority ethnic Chinese and Indian from a very young age, I believe."

Loh Siew Hong prays at a temple in Gombak, Malaysia, May 30, 2022.
Mohd Rasfan / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Loh Siew Hong prays at a temple in Gombak, Malaysia, May 30, 2022.

But his upstart party faces strong headwinds. In 2020, the multiracial coalition of parties ruling Malaysia collapsed, in part due to strong Malay Muslim pressure. A hard-line Islamist party — the Malaysia Islamic Party or PAS — made strong gains during general elections last year. Rattled by an economic slowdown and endemic corruption, its voters believe they must band more closely together to protect Malay Muslim interests.

"MUDA has always been labeled as liberals and I have always been labeled as a traitor, a Malay traitor of my own race. These are the usual setbacks," says Aziz.

The court will determine if Loh's kids are voluntarily Muslim

All this has made conversion to Islam a sensitive and highly intimate subject.

"There's no federal law that stops one parent from converting a child without the consent of the other, and there is no political will to do it because the moment they pass such law, it is viewed as anti-Islam and the government in power will not get the Malay Muslim majority support," says Alagan, Loh's lawyer.

Now, a state court in Kuala Lumpur must determine whether Loh's three children are genuinely, voluntarily Muslim. The case is in its first appeal and is expected to conclude this year.

Loh maintains her children were forced to take Islamic classes and wear Islamic dress such as the hijab while with their father, but she argues that does not mean they are truly religious.

Now that they are back under her care, she says they follow Hindu religious customs. But in May, a judge decided that the children were still practicing Islam. Earlier this year, another Malaysian court also ruled against another woman's request to overturn her own conversion as a child.

Loh's case has invited comparisons to a previous case, 14 years ago, of Indira Gandhi, a Malaysian woman who sued her ex-husband after he converted their three children to Islam without obtaining her permission. A court agreed to overturn their conversions — but did not grant Gandhi custody, and she has yet to see one of her daughters.

Loh's case is even more significant, experts say, because she is not suing her ex-husband but rather challenging any precedence Malaysia's Islamic courts may have over civil matters, including family law and custody.

Religious matters, such as conversion, are usually adjudicated by religious courts in Malaysia. But Loh's case — straddling civil law issues like custody — falls in a gray area between the two court systems. Should a civil court rule in her favor on appeal, the onus would then be on the Islamic courts to decide whether to heed that ruling.

"The issues here involve the scope of where the religious authority ends," says Bridget Welsh, a researcher at the University of Nottingham who studies Malaysia and is based there. "This case is about the level of political power and the lines where these things are being drawn, with political pressures expanding and pushing those lines further into the religious freedom and decisions of non-Muslims."

Loh's case is also taking place in a political environment that has become even more polarized between Muslims and non-Muslims. And unlike Gandhi, she lost her first case to overturn the unilateral conversion. Rhetoric about protecting Malay Muslim interests is heating up ahead of state elections in July. The country's Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups increasingly self-segregate their children into different schools. Each accuses the other of encroaching on their beliefs.

Ethnic Chinese advocates have accused Malay authorities of introducing too much Islamic teaching in schools, while Muslim groups have been embroiled in a 15-year legal fight over allegations of Christian proselytizing.

The suspicion and hostility have left their mark on Loh. A street food vendor, she says she spends most of her meager income paying rent for a gated community in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, in order to weed out the people who try to take pictures of her children or harass her. She is also fearful that her ex-husband, who lives nearby, may try again to take the children away from her.

If Loh wins her appeal, she is planning to celebrate by quietly fading back into obscurity in the company of her children.

"Just leave me alone," she says.

Liani MK contributed reporting from Kuala Lumpur.

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Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.