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Torture by any other fashion

IF we were to believe everything we read, one would think that torture or degrading behaviour, if done differently, would no longer constitute torture or degrading behaviour. Indeed, this is what Pahang’s Mufti Department would want Muslims and non-Muslims to believe.

News clipping
Scan of New Straits Times report on syariah caning

On 26 Oct 2009, the New Straits Times ran a story espousing how syariah caning was different from caning under civil law. At a day-long seminar organised by 14 Muslim non-governmental organisations, a demonstration of syariah caning was conducted to presumably show just how humane syariah caning could be.

A staff from the department explained that only a syariah-compliant rotan could be used, the woman had to be fully dressed and seated, and the caning would have to be moderate so as not to break the skin. “You cannot raise your hand above your head [while caning the woman],” the officer said.

But is it actually humane, or even effective, to whip a woman — or for that matter, a man — whether according to syariah or any other convention? Does the state religious authority, and all the other proponents of the whipping of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, actually believe that torture or degrading and humiliating behaviour by any other fashion can be made just, humane and compassionate?

How is it better?

If anything, the syariah caning demonstration in Kuantan was a ploy. A public relations exercise. A way to pull the wool over our eyes about what actually the whipping, as punishment for a Muslim drinking alcohol in public, is about.

A Frame
Mannequin display of caning procedure
under criminal law in Malaysia
(public domain / Wiki commons)
Are we expected to believe that because a syariah-complaint cane is less than 1.22m long and 1.25cm thick, it will not hurt the person who is struck by it? Are we to believe that if the cane is only raised to a certain height that it will not hurt when it comes down? Are we also expected to believe that if no skin is broken during the caning, that the person has not been treated in a degrading and humiliating manner for a personal sin that the state has no business criminalising?

Let’s be honest. The whole purpose of having syariah laws that allow for caning to be meted out for, in this instance, drinking alcohol is to ensure that Muslims can be punished if they don’t do what the state tells them to. It’s to give power to the state to whip (pun intended) the ummah into shape according to a particular interpretation of Islam.

So, if punishment is really what this is all about, isn’t it obvious that how that punishment is meted out isn’t going to change the fact that the state is still punishing Kartika? That would mean that even if her skin is unbroken from the syariah-compliant cane, what the state is saying is that it has a right to punish, humiliate and degrade a Muslim for a personal sin.

Respecting syariah

The seminar in Kuantan ended with the 500 or so participants adopting a five-point resolution which among others urged all parties to respect syariah and the decisions made by the syariah courts.

glenmorangie whiskeys
Some scholars say whipping Muslims for alcohol consumption is inconsistent with the Quran’s teachings

But here’s what curious about such a resolution. According to several different Muslim scholars, whipping for alcohol consumption is inconsistent with the Quran and with the spirit of Islamic teaching. These scholars include Dr Chandra Muzaffar, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Professor Dr Mohammad Hashim Kamali, and Professor Abdullah Saeed. Other Muslims such as activist Norhayati Kaprawi and women’s rights group Sisters in Islam have also argued that Islam is a religion of compassion, not punishment which should be left in God’s good hands.

How then can any Muslim, what more an Islamic state agency, describe the caning of Kartika as judgement according to syariah that cannot be challenged? Truth is, Islam upholds justice, peace and compassion, and syariah laws can be compliant with human rights principles.

It is only when some Muslim groups and Islamic state agencies don’t respect the true spirit of Islam and of syariah that human rights are violated in the name of Islam, and public relations exercises, such as the one in Kuantan, need to be conducted.

Not alone

To be fair, the groups clamouring for Kartika to be whipped according to syariah are not the only ones guilty of trying to call a spade a cuddly teddy bear. The Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government is doing exactly the same thing with the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for indefinite state detention without trial.

Violence minuman kotak with reduced torture content — same great taste!
Detention without trial, or whipping, by any other name is still torture

Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has announced all kinds of proposals to reform the ISA including reviewing the definition of “threats to national security and public peace”. He has also talked about re-examining the length of detention and the appointment of independent investigators.

But as I have argued before in my column, this is a whitewash. Presumably, these reforms are meant to make the ISA less draconian. But will it still be draconian? You bet. For so long as the law allows for detention without trial, no amount of changes to the execution of that detention will make it less a violation of human rights.

All about power

What is it then that underpins the actions of the Islamic state authorities and the BN government? It’s that dizzying, addictive substance called power. More potent than alcohol, power is what is motivating the Islamic state authorities to insist on caning Kartika and the government on detaining people without trial. For the Islamic authorities in Pahang and other states with similar syariah punishments for personal sins such as alcohol consumption, it’s about having the power to force Muslims to live and act according to a particular definition of Islam. For the federal government, it’s about having the power to silence dissent.

What else could it be, right? After all, we know that there is no compulsion in Islam and that caning for alcohol consumption is not Quranic. We also know that detention without trial is a violation of one’s right to liberty and a fair trial. Hence, no matter how much less torturous the caning or detention is, the fact remains: we are being asked to hand over power to religious authorities and to our government to violate our rights. favicon


Jacqueline Ann Surin is convinced government will do anything, from cracking down to deaths in custody to public relations exercises to using Islam, to stay in power. She wonders if Malaysians will let our state get away with it.

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12 Responses to “Torture by any other fashion”

  1. MarinaM says:

    If the Muslim form of caning is more humane, why don’t these groups then advocate for the civil law canings/whipping to be made more Islamic and therefore more humane? If they want an Islamic state as they say, they can’t have it both ways. But I’d like to see them try to advocate for “gentle” caning for rapists, Mat Rempits and child abusers and see how far they’d get.

  2. lezzo says:

    You said it Jacqueline, you really said it. Thank you.

  3. Roxanna says:

    This is not a caning but just a symbolic gesture. Its not even that humiliating since the cane will be tapped across her back, not her buttocks as was reported earlier. To me, it is a much bigger miscarriage of justice that she was fined so much money for drinking a beer. But no one seems to raise an eyebrow about that. This little silly play pretend caning has drawn all the attention away from what should be the real issue, which is making a woman pay about $1400 for drinking a beer.

  4. Mohd says:

    I see, you wished to be caned for your alcoholic craving too, well, you should have said this in the beginning rather than going the round about way. You know what, Kartika herself has said that what was decided on her was a good lesson and that she wished to have the caning carried out. I know, the best way is to reward the alcoholics by giving them more alcohol. The funny thing is this, why on earth are you so interested to write on Islam and write it wrongly too? Perhaps you should try to be a Muslim for a week and see, if you are not happy then perhaps silence is better.

  5. davis says:

    Does the caning free the offender of his/her sin? Does it mean that he/she need not stand before the Creator to answer for his/her action anymore?

  6. Very well said. This is actually what it’s all about: The power to hold the Muslims in Malaysia [hostage] so that they will always remain subservient!

  7. Karcy says:

    [note to comments editor: I wrote a previous comment over the weekend. If you don't mind, I prefer this one to be posted instead, because I think the other one was really crappy and vague. No obligations though -- this one's a bit long]

    This issue actually touches a raw nerve in me. I’m a Christian whose theological beliefs are very conservative. I don’t believe that women should become priests, and if a gay man is to become a priest he must be celibate. This belief is easily understood as patriarchal and backwards/homophobic, but which I accept as part of my religion’s praxis, and as a religious practitioner I would really like to have my own space to practice my own beliefs and resent it when non-believers want to comment on them. You see for example, a lot of people with no stakes in the Christian religion telling Catholics or Anglo-Catholics to ‘modernise’ to accept women or gay men in a relationship as priests, and this only succeeds in making me irritated. (Likewise, I think it’s wrong to impose those beliefs on others, so I strongly believe in gay marriage conducted by the state, etc.)

    Many religions do have dangerous and even violent religious rituals or traditions. Certain Hindu, Buddhist and Catholic ascetic practices can sometimes invite death. The believer participates in it believing that it is good for her soul, and knows that it can risk in death or permanent injury. Even if I may disapprove of them, how much ‘right’ do I have to stop them from participating in them?

    It’s not like this is a state imposing punishment on an unwilling woman. Kartika is a Muslim woman who feels, in her religious praxis, that somehow the caning is good for her soul. She has been given multiple opportunities in the public sphere to appeal and she has continually rejected them. Is her consent questionable, like a victim of domestic violence ‘consenting’ to being beaten in a marriage? I cannot say. Is it a belief I can approve? I don’t, anymore than I approve of anyone undergoing dangerous ascetic practices. Should I respect the choice that women in religion make concerning their own lives, like donning a headscarf? I should. Should I respect Kartika’s choice? I don’t know, maybe.

    I believe that it is right for people like Marina Mahathir, Dina Zaman, Sisters in Islam et al to raise their objections, because they are Muslim and have the right to debate on issues that concern them. I also believe it is important for for women who no longer identify as Muslim but who were born to a Muslim family and are subject to its laws, to raise objections. The same applies to men. They are the true stakeholders in this issue because the law will affect them. But how much can non-Muslims comment on this issue? Can a Christian tell a Jew that they ought to reject polygamy? Can an atheist tell a Catholic that they should accept a woman priest? Can we force women into all-male monasteries, whether they are Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian, because we believe their practices are sexist?

    I think the only concern I have is not that this punishment is happening, but that dissenting voices within the faith are silenced through what I believe are unethical means. Honestly I think Muslims ought to be ashamed by all these dirty tactics used by their religious authorities to condemn some other group in their own religion because of some petty theological disagreement. But can a non-believer really talk about what the ‘true Islamic spirit’ is?

  8. racist 2 says:

    Bloody Inconsistent, [what] the govt is doing. Rotan kerana minum arak? Patut rotan orang yang terbabit rasuah, rasuah, rasuah.

  9. Su-Lyn says:

    Karcy: Although I agree that non-Muslims may have limited authority or knowledge on commenting about Islam, nonetheless, this does not automatically disqualify them from critiquing certain practices that are done in the name of that religion, especially if those practices touch on human rights.

    That is exactly the case with Kartika. Personally, I wouldn’t claim that the caning punishment is un-Islamic, as I don’t have the authority to make such a claim. BUT, I would still protest against such a practice because I believe that (1) caning is a derogatory punishment which violates the right to be free from torture, and hence should be abolished and (2) the State has no right to intervene in personal matters which are not considered crimes in the country’s criminal laws.

    Kartika drinking beer is her own business; if she has committed a sin, let her answer to God. People should not be forced to answer to the State for such personal matters, as the State is very liable to abuse the system, one example being the numerous uncalled-for khalwat raids. I am a Christian too. Though I believe that premarital sex is wrong in God’s eyes, I would certainly object to the State arresting unmarried couples having sex.

    Everyone has a right to critique on religious practices that affect human rights, because we are all humans. Being human is the main qualifier. How can we remain silent if gross violations are conducted in the name of religion, whether it was the Crusaders who tortured and killed for so-called God’s glory in the past, or the fundamentalist Muslim terrorists who do the same thing using the same excuse?

  10. Karcy says:

    Su-Lyn:

    I think we both know that the issue is not so clear-cut, if it were, this wouldn’t be an issue at all. The analogy of catching a couple having premarital sex isn’t a fitting analogy, because in Christian theology, there is nothing that states that the Church should act as a moral police. On the other hand, in Islamic theology, the debate between state and religion, and what constitutes as public or personal sin, is more heatedly contested. And in Malaysia, the institution of Islam is not divorced from the state — the basic structure has been around since pre-colonial days, only the legal opinions have changed.

    The question of a gross violation of human rights when syariah caning is employed is at least made slightly problematic because Kartika has repeatedly expressed her consent and rejected appeal.

    To me, this doesn’t just become an issue of the state imposing laws of control anymore, it also becomes an issue of how much freedom an individual has over her own body, particularly if she is momentarily surrendering it and subjecting it to religious discipline. It’s not just one party (the state) involved; there is also the decision of the devotee. To what extent is her opinion relevant, if at all?

  11. Merah Silu says:

    “Jacqueline Ann Surin is convinced government will do anything, from cracking down to deaths in custody to public relations exercises to using Islam, to stay in power. She wonders if Malaysians will let our state get away with it.”

    Well, I think the editor has the immigrant-syndrom attitute towards Malay [Malaysians] and will keep on promoting hatred anything what the government does. Even interfering in Islam where she knows next to nothing. I wonder if Malaysians [who love peace and harmony] will let her get away with it – poisoning the minds of people.

    Su-Lyn, just take the advice given by Karcy. Islam has been practiced in this country since the Malacca Sultanate, long before these economic-seeking-immigrants were granted citizenship 53 years ago. This government has never interfered in what these newly-granted-citizens practiced in their religion. Your religion is yours and my religion is mine. And Islam is the official religion.

    Stick with it so that we can live in peace and harmony.

  12. Karcy says:

    Merah Silu:

    If you think that what I wrote is meant to support your racist diatribe about people who are born Malaysians, then you are terribly mistaken.

    If you want to claim that the dominance of Islam as the official religion because it was around since the Malacca Sultanate, then you need to abandon all the Salafi-ish developments since the Kaum Muda reformed Islam in this country, and go back to the version of Islam that ‘tidak pakai tudung’. Or the Islam in Sejarah Melayu, where the author could declare that there was a kingdom that is ‘setengah Islam setengah kafir’ as if it were no big deal.

    After all, that version of Islam is gone, or is disappearing. Why can’t I call the recent development of Islam in this country, influenced by a strong Salafi-biased scholarship, to be another kind of ‘migrant’ or ‘imperialist’ mentality?

    No, we non-Muslims can’t really determine which theological interpretation of your religion is accurate. But if you are using Islam to support your prejudice against people of other ethnic groups in this country, then others have every right to speak out.


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