ON 9 Feb 2010, history was made in Malaysia when three Muslim women were caned at Kajang prison for “illicit sex”, a syariah offence. Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said the caning was done according to the law, and claimed it “did not result in any wound on [the women's] bodies”.
Hishammuddin must have thought this a trivial matter because he only bothered to inform Malaysians about it nine days after the women were caned. He also insinuated that it was all “systems go” for beer-drinking model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno to be caned, and that Malaysians should not “misunderstand” or “play up” the issue.
Therefore, according to Hishammuddin, the following rules now govern Malaysian citizens:
People can and will be punished secretly; the government can choose to inform citizens later when it pleases.
Muslims can expect their private lives and personal morals to be subjected to endless scrutiny from now on. Non-Muslims need not worry. Yet.
A particular interpretation of Islamic laws is increasingly part of Malaysia’s political terrain. If citizens question why this is so, then they “misunderstand” and want to “play up” the issue.
Here’s the rub. The international community, including Muslim scholars, regards caning as a form of cruel and degrading punishment. Additionally, research shows that caning is not an effective deterrent, not even for violent or sexual crimes. Yet Hishammuddin’s argument is that it is acceptable and even Islamic for the state to use it as a form of punishment.
If it were acceptable and Islamic, why did he take so long to inform Malaysians about this historic round of caning? It is important to remember this is not the first time Hishammuddin has opined that the government’s secrecy on its human rights violations is justified.
KartikaThe larger question then is, how are Malaysians going to respond to these human rights violations in the name of Islam? How exactly do we want the practise and politics of Islam to evolve in Malaysia?
How indeed have large sectors of Malaysians been responding to issues relating to Islamic crime and punishment?
According to them, PAS-led Kelantan has been whipping people for syariah offences since 1997. PAS Youth then went on to accuse the parties who questioned Kartika’s whipping as “slandering Malaysia’s religious institutions”.
Lest we dismiss this as the default response of an Islamist party, it must be noted that Johor Baru Umno Youth and Wanita Umno also lodged police reports against those who questioned the sentence. It thus seems that in syariah-related matters, the line between Umno and PAS is blurred, no matter what their respective leaders claim.
In fact, even Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), with Malay-Muslim Malaysians as its core constituency, is coy when it comes to syariah-related matters.
It would be easy to dismiss these positions held by PAS, Umno and PKR as mere political party rhetoric. But in Malaysia, political Islam is reinforced time and again through the Umno-controlled media and PAS party organ, and unelected institutions such as the monarchy, the courts, religious enforcers and even the police.
Imagine, in November 2009, it was the Kuantan Syariah Court Registrar — not even a cabinet minister or the attorney-general — who asserted that there were no legal impediments to caning Kartika.
It seems not to matter to these Malaysians that other Islamic scholars disagree with this focus on “Islamic” punishments. Advocates of syariah punishments in Malaysia now justify their positions by pointing towards the perpetrators’ willingness to be punished.
But this is unconvincing, given the larger political climate now in Malaysia, where those who disagree with official policies on Islam are threatened and censured.
The country we deserve
What would a snapshot of political Islam in Malaysia today show us? That our biggest political parties are vying to see who can most effectively push for a particular interpretation of an Islam-compliant — if not entirely “Islamic” — state.
It would also show that syariah-based punishments are being meted out in secret, condoned by the government of the day. And it would show religious bodies — both official and vigilantes — stepping up their efforts to clamp down on syariah-related offences, as interpreted by the state.
These layers of political Islam are mutually enforcing, and could soon pose a threat to Malaysia’s democratisation. Just look at theocratic Iran. It has comprehensive legislation focusing on private morality. For example, adultery is punishable by flogging, hanging or stoning. The state-appointed religious leaders uphold these laws mercilessly and brook no dissent. They recruit paramilitary officers, the Basij, to police the morals of Iranians. As armed recruits, the Basij are also called upon to use unthinkable violence to break up pro-democracy movements and anti-government demonstrations.
A police officer and Basij (plainclothes, right) arresting a young man in front
of Iranian parliament, 2009 (Pic by Hamed Saber / Wiki commons)
Of course, Malaysia is not Iran. Not yet. In Iran, the Islamic revolution’s heirs are now feeling the effects of having their private lives scrutinised and then punished in the most brutal ways. They are risking their lives and taking to the streets to protest what they see as a corrupt religious dictatorship.
In Malaysia, there are virtually no mass protests when Islam is politicised to violate citizens’ rights. In fact, even when certain civil rights groups protest, they are quickly threatened by the state and other “Islamic” organisations, and do not seem to gain much public support.
So in Malaysia at least, Islamist advocates of syariah punishments are truly getting the country they deserve. The question is, what about the rest of Malaysia?
For related stories, see In the Spotlight: Political Islam