Saturday, 4 April 2015

Malaysia faces rising Islamic conservatism

By Amy Chew, Regional Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 3 Apr 2015

AS A student in Cairo, 25-year-old Mohamad pays the equivalent of RM23 (S$8.50) in monthly rent for accommodation at the government-subsidised Malaysian Hall.

Despite the facilities extended to him, the Islamic studies undergraduate does not support the Umno-led government.

"I am anti-Umno because it does not rule the country with syariah law," Mohamad says, adding that there are many more like-minded Malaysians.

He reckons that 95 per cent of Malaysians taking Islamic studies there are against Umno, while it is around 50 per cent for those doing medicine.

Malaysia bills itself as a moderate and progressive Muslim-majority country. But the events of recent years have seen this nation of 30 million move towards Islamic conservatism.

A combination of domestic factors, Islamic revivalism on local university campuses and the Middle East influence brought back by thousands of returning students all play a major role in the shift.

According to the Malaysian Embassy in Cairo, there are currently 11,000 Malaysians studying in Egypt, making them the largest foreign student population in the country.

Corruption allegations against the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has ruled since independence in 1957, are secondary to Mohamad.

"Yes, corruption is an issue but it is not the main reason why I don't support the government. The main reason is that the country's Constitution is secular," he says.

Not all Malaysian students in Egypt agree, however. But those who choose to remain politically neutral find themselves coming under pressure from the anti-government students.

Dentistry undergraduate Mimi, 21, says: "I am neutral. I am not anti-Umno because, at the end of the day, I am grateful to the government for giving me this chance to further my education.

"But I have to say many Malaysian students here are anti-government and they try to get me to go along with their views."

The growing conservatism and desire for religion-based rule in Malaysia came to the fore a fortnight ago, when the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) put forward a Bill to implement hudud, or the Islamic penal code, in the state of Kelantan.

The proposal was supported by state assemblymen from Umno and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the party of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Under hudud law, the penalty for adulterers and apostates is death, while thieves will have their hands amputated.

PAS, founded in 1951, is the country's oldest and largest opposition party, drawing inspiration from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. PAS and PKR formed the Pakatan Rakyat alliance together with the secular, Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is fiercely opposed to the hudud Bill.

"The Constitution as it currently stands, to my mind, is one which preserves Malaysia as a secular state," says DAP MP Gobind Singh Deo. "So it's really a question of whether one believes in secularism, which is supported by the current constitutional framework."

Mr Gobind adds: "Prime Minister Najib Razak seems afraid of dealing with this issue and has not taken a stand on it."

A survey conducted by independent pollster Merdeka Centre published last July found that 71 per cent of Malay voters expressed support for hudud law. It was a high 83 per cent for Malays aged between 21 and 30.

For Malays with access to alternative media and those with a monthly household income of more than RM5,000, the proportion who support hudud rose to a whopping 90 per cent and 86 per cent respectively.

Politicians and analysts see the efforts to introduce hudud in Kelantan as both a reflection of the conservative mood and a political ploy to court Muslim voters.

They say that the Islamisation of Malaysia's education system since the 1980s has helped to shape the conservative outlook among many Muslims, who make up 61 per cent of the nation's population.

"Decades of Islamisation of the education system, increased use of Islam in identity politics as well as the lack of space for freedom of speech mean that other discourses affecting the welfare of Muslims in the country have been retarded," says Mr Ibrahim Suffian, director of Merdeka Centre.

"Younger Muslims in Malaysia are displaying a more overt social conservatism and a more 'Islamic' outlook. In part, this is due to the Islamisation policies of the government in the past… It probably also reflects the growing use of Islam as an identity tag, both culturally and politically, in Malaysia," adds Mr Ibrahim.

A 29-year Malay-Muslim woman educated in Kuala Lumpur agrees, saying her religious classes were highly conservative.

"When I was 15, I was taught in school, for example, that it was haram, or forbidden, to say 'rest in peace' to a non-Muslim friend's loved one who had died," says the public relations executive who declined to be named. I was also taught in my religious class that it is wrong and sinful to question anything to do with my religion."

Former law minister Zaid Ibrahim says Anwar played a big role in the Islamisation of the education system when he was education minister in the 1980s. "Anwar is an Islamist. He helped Islamise the whole government system when he joined the government," he adds.

Mr Zaid, who hails from Kelantan, warns that the introduction of hudud is a threat to the whole system of government.

"As Malaysia becomes more developed and advanced, it throws up more economic, social, racial and religious issues," he says.

"The government and PAS just try to find a simple solution and the easiest solution is to choose an Islamic state a la the Iran model. I call this a cop-out by the government."

Just as Iran appears to be a model for fundamentalists, the country's Nobel Peace laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi once said: "Radicals will use democracy to come into power. Once they come into power, they will never allow democracy."

PAS wants hudud laws for Kelantan: What you need to know about the laws
By Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 20 Mar  2015

Malaysia's opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) is pushing for approval from Parliament to implement strict hudud laws in the north-eastern state of Kelantan, which it has ruled since 1990.

The Kelantan assembly on Thursday (March 19, 2015) unanimously passed amendments to the Shariah Criminal Code approving hudud in the state. PAS now needs the support of other parties in Parliament before it can implement hudud.

Here's what you should know about the hudud laws:

What is hudud?

Hudud is a set of laws and punishments set out in the Quran that could allow for flogging and amputation, among other forms of punishment that are illegal under Malaysia's federal laws.

Hudud falls within the broader Shariah law, the Islamic criminal code that prescribes how Muslims should best conduct their lives. It was originally conceived to regulate all aspects of life in Muslim societies, from the behaviour and habits of individuals to the workings of the criminal justice system and financial institutions. It stipulates, for instance, that men and women must dress modestly, refrain from alcohol and pray five times per day. It also prohibits banks from collecting interest.

What are hudud offences?

1. Sariqah or theft - Two adult male witnesses are required to prove the offence. The punishment is to cut off the thief's hands.

2. Zina or extramarital sex - Four adult male witnesses are required.The penalty is 100 lashes if the person is unmarried and stoning to death if the person is married.

3 Al-Hirabah or robbery with violence: Two adult male witnesses are required. Punishment ranges from imprisonment and cutting off of limbs, to the death penalty if a victim is killed.

4. Qazaf or false accusation/slandering - Four adult male witnesses are needed. The punishment is 80 lashes.

5. Khamar or drinking intoxicating substances: Two adult male witnesses are needed. The penalty is between 40 and 80 lashes.

6. Irtidad or apostasy: Two adult male witnesses are needed to the act of renouncing Islam. The Quran does not explicitly state that apostasy is punishable by death.

Who does the law apply to?

Hudud would be applicable only to all Muslims of sound mind and who have attained puberty and thereby deemed to be able to discern right from wrong.

The laws will also apply to Muslim foreigners who commit a hudud offence in Kelantan.

Can hudud laws be applied to non-Muslims?

Hudud laws will not be applicable to non-Muslims because Malaysia has a dual justice system - civil courts for non-Muslims and Shariah courts for Muslims.

Which other countries practise hudud?

Hudud has been implemented in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia and northern Nigeria. Many predominantly Muslim countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, have not adopted the hudud penalties in their criminal justice systems.

What are the political implications of PAS' move?

PAS' move to implement hudud in Kelantan has threatened to split the fragile opposition coalition and could also strain relations in the multi-racial country.

With the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, jailed for five years on a sodomy charge, any hope that the alliance could hold together without Anwar looks doomed with PAS bent on implementing hudud. Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and the secular Democratic Action Party (DAP) both oppose the enforcement of hudud, saying it is against the common policy framework of the PR coalition. They warn the move by PAS could mean the end of PR.

PKR and DAP have also accused ruling party Umno of using the hudud issue to split the PR coalition, after all 12 Umno state assemblymen in Kelantan supported the amendment by PAS that was unanimously passed in the state assembly. PKR and DAP have demanded that Umno chairman Najib Razak clarify the party's stance on the issue.

Contrary to earlier media reports, Mr Najib did not release an official statement on Friday. This was confirmed by the Prime Minister's Office.

Will the Bill become law?

PAS will now need to find the numbers in the Federal Parliament to amend the Syariah Courts Act to allow the implementation of hudud in Kelantan through a private member's Bill - a Bill or proposed law introduced by a Member of Parliament who is not acting on behalf of the government.

The private member's Bill will need a simple majority of 112 Members of Parliament, out of the 222-member legislature, for it to be passed. There are 136 Muslim MPs in Parliament. PAS has 21 seats; its opposition allies PKR and DAP have 14 and two respectively; and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), 97.

However, it is very unlikely that the 10 Muslim MPs from Sarawak's Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu will vote in favour, especially with state elections due in 2016.

If all 87 Muslim MPs from the ruling Umno party together with PAS vote for the Bill, they will still be short of four votes.

Analysts believe that the DAP and PKR have been too quick in criticising the Islamist party. They also do not believe PAS has the numbers in Parliament.

"Hudud is not on the mind of the p eople in the state. It is not a key issue for the ordinary Kelantanese. It could be a matter of pride for PAS and what the grassroots demand," said law professor Azmi Sharom.

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