Saturday, March 26, 2005

Malaysia shuns Taliban style

By Thomas Fuller International Herald Tribune

KUALA LUMPUR With its eclectic mix of skyscrapers and mosques, raucous nightclubs and head-scarf-covered women, Malaysia has long been considered a place that tests the limits of coexistence between traditional Islam and modernity.
But rarely has the question of Islam and its role in society been as openly debated as it is now. In the small club of Islamic democracies, Malaysia stands out for its willingness to embrace Western-style capitalism and combine it with Islamic precepts.
Liberal activists are questioning the right of Islamic vice squads to pry into the lives of Malaysian Muslims, who make up more than half of the country's 25 million people. And the government announced this week that it would curtail raids on bars and nightclubs by the religious affairs department and stop the practice of "snooping" by Muslim vigilante groups on unmarried Muslim couples.
"We do not want Malaysia to turn into Taliban rule," Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, a minister in the prime minister's department, was quoted as saying in the Friday edition of The Star, a newspaper. "If we don't stop it, it may happen."
The comparison with the harsh tactics of Afghanistan's defunct fundamentalist regime smacks of hyperbole for this relatively wealthy and multiracial country, but political analysts say it reflects the public's concern and anger over recent raids by religious officials.
In January they detained more than 100 young Muslim women who they said had been indecently dressed in a nightclub in the shadow of the futuristic Petronas Towers. In February a well-known actor, Eezaq Farrouq Harahap, and a female friend were detained for "close proximity" when an apartment they were in was raided. Eezaq said he was having dinner with friends.
These raids and others raise fundamental questions about the role of government in enforcing morality, Malaysian activists say. A group calling itself Malaysians Against Moral Policing, which includes several members of Parliament, submitted a petition to the government Thursday, calling for the repeal of some of Malaysia's religious laws.
Currently the religious affairs department has the right to prosecute Muslims for eating while the sun is still up during the holy month of Ramadan; they raid apartments when they suspect unmarried couples are getting too close; and they can detain any Muslim who "acts or behaves in an indecent manner in any public place."
Liberal Muslims say that their concerns reaching a wider audience.
"I feel that at the national level there is a growing liberalism and progressiveness," said Zainah Anwar, the executive director of Sisters in Islam, a group that promotes women's rights.
"The idea that you allow your 20-year-old kids to go out at night knowing that they might be arrested and locked up for indecent behavior is simply unacceptable."
Human rights groups report that government departments now consult them more frequently. They attribute this increased openness to the combination of the effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the policies of the new government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
But Zainah and others say the winds of change are more of a mild breeze: Many Muslims in Malaysia approve of the efforts of the religious affairs department to root out what it sees as indecency and immorality.
Malay-language newspapers, read mostly by Muslims, had a far more ambivalent reaction to the raids than the English-language press, which is read by the elite and by non-Muslims. And the raids are supported by Malaysia's Islamist opposition party, PAS.
Ivy Josiah, executive director of the Women's Aid Organization, a nonprofit group that lobbies on women's issues, said there was reticence to take the campaign further. "We feel more comfortable saying that we shouldn't be criminalizing people's attire," she said. "But the core issue is sexuality, and we're not addressing that yet."
The decision made Thursday requires the religion department to get police permission before conducting raids. A senior police officer must also be present during any future raids.
"For the first time there are clear rules governing how these raids should take place," said Chandra Muzaffar, a former professor who is an expert on Islam and politics. "It's in a sense curbing their wings, but I think we have to go beyond this to address the whole question of how moral values are nurtured in society."
"Should one leave this to government or to families and the individual?" he asked.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"