Issue cover-dated August 22, 2002

A MALAYSIAN DUEL OVER ISLAM

By S. Jayasankaran

In Malaysia, religious issues have been left to religious teachers, known as ulema. But Islamic discourse has also been coloured by politics and the country's complex ethnic equation, and the ulema are leaning more and more towards the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas.
Pas has appropriated Islam as a political asset, steadily pushing the ruling United Malays National Organization to the defensive. The result, according to Lim Kit Siang, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, is "unhealthy competition where both parties try to out-Islam one another."
That's apparent in the debate over hudud, the Islamic criminal code. Pas cannot enforce the laws because they are unconstitutional. And Umno won't amend the constitution to oblige Pas.
But Pas is the ruling party in Terengganu and Kelantan states, and by passing legislation introducing hudud at the state level and then highlighting Umno's reluctance to enforce it, Pas has painted the ruling party into a corner and set the stage for a vicious cycle of religious one-upmanship.
On July 14, Terengganu's Pas-led legislative assembly passed a bill replacing the northeastern state's secular criminal laws with Islamic strictures. Four assemblymen from Umno, which had vowed to oppose the bill, simply abstained from voting. "We didn't want Pas to capitalize on this," Umno lawmaker Rosol Wahid sheepishly told reporters later.
As in Indonesia, there is also a more benign face of sharia in Malaysia, which has always played a part in the country's justice system. Malaysia's laws are largely based on secular laws inherited from Britain, the former colonial power. But the personal lives of Muslims--from divorce and inheritance to moral matters--are administered judicially by sharia courts that uphold Islamic law. These courts can prescribe punishments for everything--from drinking alcohol and not attending Friday prayers to being caught in compromising circumstances with an unrelated member of the opposite sex. Even so, the punishments are mild--a fine, usually--and the main deterrent is simply the embarrassment a case brings.
In the Pas-ruled states of Kelantan and Terengganu, hudud could change all that. So far, however, Kuala Lumpur has ordered the police not to cooperate in enforcing hudud there. And a prominent lawyer and Umno member has sought a declaration from the Federal Court to declare the hudud laws unconstitutional.
Whether that is enough remains to be seen. Unlike Pas-ruled Kelantan, which passed the hudud laws 11 years ago but didn't do anything about enforcing them, Hadi Awang, Pas's president and Terengganu's fiery chief minister, seems bent on enforcing it, vowing to implement the laws "within a year."
It isn't clear what Kuala Lumpur can do if Terengganu really goes ahead and finds a way to enforce the laws on its own. "No one wants to think about that," says a senior Malay lawyer in Kuala Lumpur. "They're hoping it's just politics."
That doesn't seem to be how Hadi sees it. Telling reporters that hudud would deter crime significantly, Hadi described the laws as "amazing" because "people become terrified."