By Stanley Koh
October 21, 2011 | Free Malaysia Today
Few will disagree that politicians are often trapped in history and history in them. MCA politicians should take heed. Unfortunately, when they throw stones at their rivals, they often forget that they live in a house of glass.
When in 1993 the Kelantan government proposed the law allowing hudud punishments, the two Umno representatives in the state assembly supported it. The law, formally called the Syariah Criminal Code (11) Enactment 1993, was passed in November of that year.
There was no public outcry and the MCA leadership did not threaten to leave Barisan Nasional. The only justification for the silence was that the then prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, had already objected to the passing of the bill.
Fast forward to the present. MCA President Dr Chua Soi Lek recently said he would pull his party out of BN if its political master, Umno, ever decided to impose hudud. Is he in fact trying to rehash the anti-hudud position that his party took during the campaign for the 1999 general election? The results showed that the ruse worked.
Five years earlier, the MCA publication Guardian featured an article by Dr Ling Liong Sik, in which the then party president remarked: “The MCA has always chosen partners who are moderates and are willing to discuss. Malaysia has no room for extremists and religious fanatics.”
Was he referring to PAS and hudud? The answer lies somewhere in a subsequent sentence: “The DAP, being a party of opportunistic bankrupt politicians who are constantly criticising for the sake of criticism, are a threat to the wellbeing of all Malaysians. I am grateful the hudud law issue has exposed the DAP.”
At the MCA-organised forum in 2001, held soon after Mahathir declared Malaysia an Islamic state, Abdul Hamid Othman of the Prime Minister’s Department suggested that MCA should watch out for “Taliban-type” Malays. “We must tell our people that we are already an Islamic state,” said the prime minister’s religious adviser.
He acknowledged that Mahathir’s announcement might frighten the non-Muslims but explained that the idea was to prevent the emergence of the Taliban types.
Hamid in fact tried to teach MCA how to explain the issue to its constituents. He said they should be told that the Malaysian-style Islamic state would be based on locally established traditions and practices as well as universal practices suitable for Malaysians. These would be unlike the practices associated with such countries as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which were, according to him, based on local traditions and not necessarily Islamic.
He noted that while men and women were segregated at Saudi airports, for instance, there was no such segregation inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Zainah Anwar, the executive director of Sisters in Islam, spoke at length on the impact of Islam on legal and political systems and the concerns it raises.
Among other things, she said: “Islam 1,400 years ago granted women equal rights unheard of in other religions and societies—the right to divorce, rights of ownership and disposal of property, dowries and the banning of female infanticide.
“We believe that our fellow Malaysians who are non-Muslims have the right to seek clarification, understanding and to express their concerns, their confusion in these uncertain and difficult times as to what is going on in the Muslim world in general.”
She said one of the main concerns of her movement was the “injustice and discrimination” against Muslim women at the hands of religious authorities.
“The challenge for us today, and in many Muslim countries, is the main political conflict—not so much between Muslims and others, but rather among Muslims with contending visions of Islam and the shape of the nation state. And in this battle on what is Islam and who practices the right Islam, it is the status of women that is the first casualty.
“Hence, it is not surprising that in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Eqypt, Iran, Morocco and many others, Muslim women and women groups are at the forefront in challenging traditional religious authorities and governments in the use of Islam and interpretation of Islam that discriminate against women.
“For most Muslim women, rejecting religion is not an option. We are believers. As believers, we want to find liberation, truth and justice within our own faith. We feel strongly we have the right to reclaim our religion, redefine it, to participate and contribute to an understanding of Islam—how to codify and implement in ways that take into consideration the realities and experiences of our lives today.”
Zainah’s view was that the hudud provisions were discriminatory because women could not qualify as witnesses.
“The issue arises at a time when the Malaysian government, at least at the leadership level, recognises equality between men and women in this country and are responsive to calls by women groups to amend all laws discriminative against women.”
She said all Malaysians, regardless of religious persuasion, had the right to enjoy the constitutional guarantees of equality.
Zainah also expressed concern that religious authorities wielded too much power.
“The process of lawmaking on matters of religion reflects the fear and ignorance of many officials and politicians on Islam,” she said.
“They seem so ready and willing to abdicate their responsibilities and refuse to challenge any drafted legislation by the religious authorities no matter what the effect is. No matter if it violates the constitution, that it discriminates against women.
“In effect, many people, many Muslims equate the opinions of those in religious authority to the word of God. Therefore, they should not be challenged or questioned.
“This trend in law making—and policy making—is a reflection to me of the increasingly obscurantist trend of Islam that is taking root in Malaysia.”
She argued that the continuous demand for an Islamic social order could lead to conflicts at the political, social and government levels on what should constitute “true Islam”.
“We live in a country where people historically have been open to change and outside influences and fertilisation of cultures and religions, and who today can confidently embrace the challenges of change, diversity and pluralism,” she said.
“We have a government that at policy level believes in equality. Therefore, the kind of Islam that evolves in Malaysia must necessarily take into consideration the rights of other citizens in a democratic state. There are realities that do not exist in many other Muslim countries.
“We are in a privileged position and in a strong position to provide a model Islamic country.”