Apr 4th 2015 | KOTA BHARU
A floundering government indulges calls to toughen Islamic law
SEVERING a thief’s hand is the work of seconds, but a campaign to introduce strict Islamic punishments in Kelantan, a state in northern Malaysia, has ground on for 50 years. It could now be reaching a climax. In March state politicians in Kelantan’s capital, Kota Bharu, took a big step towards forcing a vote in the federal parliament that they hope will lead to local judges being allowed to sentence miscreants to whipping, amputations and even death by stoning.
It is hard to imagine hudud, corporal and capital punishments laid down in traditional Islamic law, actually being implemented in Kelantan. But the renewed discussion is harming Malaysia’s reputation as a bastion of moderate Islam. It is worrying Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indians, who make up more than one-third of the population, not to mention a great many ethnic-Malay Muslims. It risks tearing apart the country’s opposition coalition. And it should concern America, which has made Malaysia a key ally.
For decades Malaysia has allowed Islamic courts to operate in parallel with secular ones, handing down rulings on civil matters to Muslims. Federal law limits the sentences such courts may deliver to three years in jail, a moderate fine or six strokes of the cane. But that is not enough for some members of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has run Kelantan since 1990. At the very least they want fiercer lashings—up to 100 strokes for drinkers and adulterers. But they are also pushing for courts to have the power to order adulterers to be stoned to death. They want national lawmakers to vote on the issue. A private-members’ bill may force them to do so in May.
This is an old debate. What distinguishes the latest row is the ambiguous position of Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). It has governed the country in coalition since independence but nearly lost at the most recent general election (the opposition won the popular vote but not a majority of seats, thanks to gerrymandering). UMNO has long opposed hudud, but behind the scenes it has lately been encouraging PAS, even though that party forms part of the opposition. Najib Razak, UMNO’s leader and Malaysia’s prime minister, has yet to clarify his stance. If a vote goes ahead he may tell his MPs to decide as they wish.
The UMNO leadership has reason to appear sympathetic to PAS’s hudud demands. It will exacerbate divisions in the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, a fractious alliance that binds PAS with two larger and more mainstream parties: the People’s Justice Party, a liberal, multi-ethnic outfit, and the Democratic Action Party, a secular, ethnic-Chinese one. Both complain that PAS is reneging on an earlier promise to suspend its quest for hudud. Meanwhile, the jailing in February of Pakatan’s charismatic leader, Anwar Ibrahim, on a sodomy charge looks politically motivated. Spinning out a debate about Islamic punishments is one way to widen rifts in Pakatan, which is struggling without Mr Anwar.
The second reason is the terrible performance of UMNO’s coalition at the 2013 election, the result of big defections of ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian voters. It has convinced UMNO to refurbish its former identity as a fierce defender of ethnic Malays and of Islam, the religion to which all Malays are assumed to adhere. The party looks ever less inclined to rein in Malay supremacists and Islamist firebrands incubating on its fringes. Creeping social conservatism has brought more frequent rows over such shockers as pop concerts and dog-petting events.
Compounding all this is the relentless use of the Sedition Act, a vague and noxious law left over from the British colonial era, to harry growing numbers of activists and opposition leaders. Mr Najib’s supporters paint him as a reformer restraining his party’s authoritarian impulses. Yet last year he reversed a promise to do away with the Sedition Act and instead vowed to strengthen it with clauses prohibiting speech that denigrates Islam and other religions. This week five members of a news website were arrested for reports on opposition to hudud.
These dark clouds explain why Malaysia’s ethnic-Chinese and Indian citizens—and many moderate Muslims—are not reassured that hudud is promoted by its advocates only in the conservative north. Some clashes caused by Malaysia’s existing dual-track legal system are still unresolved, such as who should rule in divorces and custody battles when only one spouse is Muslim. Meanwhile, introducing stricter punishments for a particular ethnicity is unlikely to improve Malaysia’s already fraught racial politics.
It remains uncertain whether Parliament will vote on the bills that PAS has introduced. The government could decide its interests are best served by stringing out the public debate. Certainly, the chances of PAS gaining the simple parliamentary majority needed to implement hudud—not to mention the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution, which many experts reckon would be necessary—seem small. PAS may end up asking Parliament to sanction a greatly diluted version of the judicial code that it appears to want.
The longest-lasting consequence of the controversy may be to encourage a redrawing of the two coalitions which will do battle at the next general election. PAS is itself torn by squabbling between liberal and conservative factions over the direction the party should take. Some speculate that the hardliners hope the latest push for hudud will cut short the bickering by encouraging PAS’s coalition partners to kick it out of Pakatan. On March 24th the Democratic Action Party warned that it was no longer willing to work with the PAS leader, Hadi Awang. Tensions within PAS will come to a head in a party leadership election in June. Analysts warn that without a compromise the party could split.
Some observers maintain that a split might be a big step towards reinvigorating Malaysia’s opposition. Shorn of their more extreme colleagues, PAS moderates could recommit themselves to a coalition that could survive even without Mr Anwar. But hiving off a rump of disaffected Islamist politicians could also bring UMNO closer to forming a majoritarian government comprised of ethnic Malays. It could then rule with a deaf ear to the interests of the country’s minorities. That would be a victory so far as UMNO strategists are concerned. But many Malaysians, moderate Malay Muslims among them, would find it a harsh punishment indeed.