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The dilemma of moral policing

IT was a Saturday night, and the band NRG was just wrapping up the last number at The Pub in Holiday Inn Glenmarie in Shah Alam when they heard shouts. Suddenly, the smoky and half-lit pub interior was splashed with bright lights before a troop of officers from the Jabatan Agama Islam (JAIS) stormed in and ended their performance.

Patrons were warned not to leave the premise. Before long, everyone, including the workers at the pub, were told to surrender their MyKad to the religious officers.

“We were treated like criminals, but they were like gangsters,” NRG manager K Selvaraj remembers. “The officers were quite rude and unprofessional.”

The band’s lead vocalist, Jasminor Jamil, recalls that at one point, a JAIS officer yelled at patrons with the microphone: “I don’t want to see your face here anymore!”

Patrons were flabbergasted, many wondering what they had done wrong.

The crime was one of alcohol consumption, considered haram in Islam. JAIS had received a tip-off from the public that the pub condoned alcohol consumption by Muslims on its premise.

 
NRG
Subsequently, 55 Muslims — including band members, patrons and pub workers — were detained for an hour. Forty-eight among the detained were summoned on suspicion of alcohol consumption under the Selangor Syariah Criminal Enactment 1995. Seven others were charged for consuming alcohol.

“I know for a fact that my boys were clean, and yet they were treated like criminals and were arrested,” Selvaraj tells The Nut Graph.

Two weeks after, because of the outcry in the local music fraternity about the raid, JAIS publicly apologised to NRG for abruptly ending their performance. Although the band openly accepted the apology, Selvaraj asks: “Is this the kind of act we should expect from religious people?”

Abusive enforcements

Moral policing is not new in Malaysia. The infamous 2005 raid of Zouk nightclub, where Muslims and non-Muslims were segregated so that action could be taken on the Muslims, sickened even Muslim parents.

Despite these incidents, not enough has been done to prevent abusive enforcements in the name of Islam, including through the use of snoop squads comprising volunteers. Despite objections to such methods of maintaining Muslim morals, it seems that religious departments are intent on enforcing morality.

And while Muslims are the main target of such activities by the authorities, non-Muslims are not spared, either. Such was the case with the Chinese couple who were caught dating in Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) Park in April 2006, and charged under park by-laws.

In yet another memorable incident, an American couple who had a service apartment in Langkawi were also raided in the dead of night by religious officers who were misinformed that they were a Muslim couple committing khalwat (close proximity).

Moral policing in the name of Islam is a religious imperative for some quarters in Malaysia, especially in an environment where the official religion increasingly influences decision- and policymaking at many levels of society; and where politicians have no qualms declaring a secular democracy an “Islamic state”.

In a plural society such as Malaysia, what happens then is a confrontation between different streams of thought. In one corner are those who endorse the need for strict codes of religious governance to curb moral decadence among Muslims. In the other are those who oppose the use of state power to violate people’s privacy and human rights.

24-hour hotline

But even before this debate has had a chance to be fully and intelligently discussed, the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) has launched a 24-hour enforcement hotline.

Jawi director Datuk Che Mat Che Ali said during the 21 Aug 2008 launch that the department would also be expanding its strength from its current 30 enforcement officers to another 100 after Hari Raya Aidilfitri (celebrated in early October 2008). The expansion is meant to cater to the new hotline’s operation hours.

Jawi’s public relations officer Tuan Asmawi Tuan Umar says letting the public be the eyes and ears of religious departments to report syariah-related offences is an excellent and effective measure.


(© Onemannbrand/Dreamstime)
He says Jawi had received complaints that its existing general phone line was insufficient and improperly managed. With the 24-hour hotline, it would be easier for the public to lodge reports at any time of the day, especially since many khalwat and other cases happened mostly at night.

“[The majority of] society feels responsible. Not all members of society will condone behaviours and acts that can be categorised as syariah offences. This [hotline] practically allows society to act as public inspectors,” Tuan Asmawi tells The Nut Graph.

The question, though, is whether it is a religious imperative in Islam to snoop on one’s neighbours and report them? Should mere mortals be the judge of other mortals?

Religion or power

Sisters in Islam (SIS) programme manager Norhayati Kaprawi is opposed to public snitching and state enforcement of a particular standard of morality, citing a hadith that reads: “Do not harm Muslims, and do not revile them, nor pursue their imperfections.”

She adds that even the Prophet Muhammad didn’t condone intrusions in the name of moral policing.

She says the Quran also frowns upon moral policing, citing Surah An-Nur (24:27, 28), which says: “Do not enter other houses except yours without first asking permission and saluting the inmates. If you are asked to go away, turn back. That is proper for you.”

“Privacy is an important matter in Islam. It goes back to the fundamentals: that it is unIslamic to be snooping around to reveal other people’s wrongdoings,” Norhayati argues.

In a 17 Dec 2006 interview with The Star, Perlis Mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin also expressed disagreement with the concept of moral policing in Malaysia.

Norhayati explains that SIS and other Islamic groups have asked for syariah laws that allow for moral policing to be reviewed, especially the Syariah Criminal Offences Act (SCOA) 1997.

However, nothing has been done so far, even though the sometimes excessive exercise of power by the state may tarnish the image of Islam, instead of endearing Muslims and non-Muslims to one of the world’s greatest religions.

Apart from the embarassing raid of the American couple in Langkawi, for which the religious authority apologised and made a goodwill payment, the other most glaring case of abuse of power happened on 21 March 2003.

On that night, former guest relations officer Maslinda Ishak had her picture taken by a Rela volunteer when she was forced to pee in the truck she was detained in after a Jawi raid.

On 11 Sept 2008, the court granted Maslinda RM100,000 in damages in her suit against the Rela volunteer, Mohamad Tahir Osman.

Enforcements will continue

Tuan Asmawi says that as a result of the Maslinda case, Jawi has ceased cooperation with Rela and has no future plans for collaboration. He also dismisses public perception that Jawi was to be held accountable.

“[As of now], no other squad [except the religious department] is given any sort of power to act under the SCOA 1997,” he says. He explains, however, that the power to arrest still lies with the police and mosque officials.

However, Tuan Asmawi says it is the responsibility of Muslims to prevent other Muslims from immoral practices.

He cites the Quranic verse: “The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication — flog each of them with a hundred stripes: Let not compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if ye believe in Allah and the Last Day: and let a party of the Believers witness their punishment” (Surah An-Nur 24:2).

Tuan Asmawi stresses that Jawi, for example, “would always be fair in exercising its power in the interest of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar (practising good, rejecting evil)”.

He says despite objections from various quarters, Jawi will resume enforcements related to moral policing. These relate to offences spelt out under the SCOA, including indecent public behaviour, khalwat, gambling and alcohol consumption.

“Jawi’s enforcement division is open to any complaint pertaining to misuse of power by our enforcement unit. If the public has any information, they should report it directly to Jawi’s director or to the respective department head,” he says.

However, he would not reveal the number of complaints received, and added that “Jawi has its own mechanism in taking action against misconduct of power.”

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2 Responses to “The dilemma of moral policing”

  1. Raja says:

    The perverted occupation of voyeurism enjoys legitimacy in this country; how sad for the decent followers of the religion. Which is why, nowadays, those who have the means and the inclination for freedom in personal behaviour, choose to live in upmarket condos where these roving moralists have to clear security and permission to visit any resident.

  2. Aston says:

    Any institution that fills its followers or members with guilt, shame and fear isn’t an institution worth believing, affirming or adhering to.

    It will now be the task of its followers to stand against it and to remove its presence from their lives without fear or fright.

    Like it or not, civil disobedience is the only way oppression can be removed.


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