June 16, 2002

Stoning, amputation on Malaysia political agenda

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Reuters) -- The Muslim holy men who rule Malaysia's northeast corner call it "God's Law" and they want to use it, but Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government is standing in the way.
Next month, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) plans to pass laws specifying stoning to death for adulterers and amputation of limbs for thieves in Terengganu state, just as it did in neighboring Kelantan a decade ago.
"This is the law of Allah. These are the laws of Muslims," said Dr. Lo' Lo' Haj Mohamad Ghazali, one of the few women sitting on PAS's central committee.
Nowhere else in Southeast Asia, home to one-sixth of the world's Muslims, has a democratic party sought to impose the Islamic hudud penal code.
Mahathir, regarded as progressive and tolerant on religious issues, stopped the opposition PAS implementing the laws in Kelantan and will probably do the same in Terengganu as the federal government has jurisdiction over criminal law.
During his 21 years in power, Mahathir has been quick to smother any threat to peace between the races in a country where just under half the 23 million people are non-Muslims.
PAS's campaign to bring the hudud in Malaysia's sleepy rural backwaters coincided with the worldwide rise of political Islam, ringing alarm bells among moderate Muslims as well the large Chinese and Indian minorities in the country. "What we are seeing now is a 20th century phenomenon of political revivalism, inspired very much by the neo-Wahabbi ideas from Saudi Arabia," said Farish Noor, political scientist at Leiden's Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in the Netherlands.
Farish, a Malaysian, was referring to an austere strain of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula.
"To base your laws on jurisprudence written centuries ago looks like taking a step back in time," he said.
The Koran, the Islamic holy book, is the principal source of sharia law, containing the rules by which Muslims govern their lives. The sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad are complementary sources, supported by the consensus and disciplined interpretation of the ulamas, the Islamic jurists or scholars.
PAS wants to turn Malaysia into a conservative Islamic state and has made the hudud a cause celebre in the Muslim Malay dominated northeast.
"The Terengganu government is trying to fulfil its responsibility to the people and to Allah," says Dr. Lo' Lo'.
Women's groups are angered by the plans, notably the laws on rape, which require a woman to have four male witnesses and risk 100 lashes if they cannot prove sex was forced on them.
Terengganu's Chief Minister Abdul Hadi Awang is listening to their criticism and may well amend the clauses on rape.
Professor Mohammad Hashim Kamali, of the law faculty of the International Islamic University Malaysia, believes the ulama who lead PAS and champion the hudud, are hardliners who have overridden the party's intelligentsia.
"I suspect that within PAS, professionals and intellectuals place more emphasis on principles of justice, equality, rights, welfare and benefits for the people," said Kamali, author of a critique of Kelantan's version of the hudud.
Mahathir's religious adviser Abdul Hamid Othman derided PAS's hudud campaign as a "political gimmick" ahead of elections either next year or in 2004.
PAS emerged as the main opposition in 1999, winning 27 of 193 parliamentary seats, but its image has suffered after the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Washington blamed Saudi-born Islamic militant Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network for the attack, which focused the world on the threat from radical Muslim militants and their organizations.
Mahathir often courts controversy in the Muslim world, but his government is careful not to reject the hudud outright, saying its wisdom and ideas on deterrence would need careful adaptation to a modern, plural society like Malaysia's.
And Malaysia already has Islamic sharia courts which look into sexual misconduct and divorce among Muslims. But the penalties are moderate fines and jail terms at the most.
In recent times Afghanistan's vanquished Taliban rulers invoked the hudud, and Pakistan's military dictator General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced it there in 1979.
Islam generally has a softer face in Southeast Asia, where the religion started to flourish in the 14th century.
These days the only other groups to have embraced the hudud in the region are militant outfits, like the Laskar Jihad and Aceh rebels fighting in Indonesia, and the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Southern Philippines.
While PAS has a democratic mandate, some analysts doubt whether Malay Muslims from traditional feudal societies feel free to question the wisdom of the PAS ulama, led by Abdul Hadi and Kelantan Chief Minister Nik Aziz Nik Mat.
"The problem is that most ordinary Muslims will not be able to speak up against what they are told is God's law, even though much of the jurisprudence is historically specific and developed by Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages," Farish said.
- Reuters.