Growing Lists of Don'ts

I read the article below from Malaysia Today and while I am almost apolitical, something about what was written in the article struck a chord with me. Is this what we expect from our country?

By Zainah Anwar, The Star

Unless we truly want to turn Malaysia into a police state as in Iran and Afghanistan under Taliban rule, laws that turn every perceived sin into a crime against the state will only result in selective persecution and victimisation.

KAREN Armstrong says any belief that makes you compassionate, kind and respectful of others is good religion. If your belief makes you intolerant, unkind and belligerent, this is bad religion, no matter how orthodox it is.

This seems like great common sense to me. It puzzles me why those who insist that Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno be caned because that is what Islam demands fail to see the many injustices of her case.

She was a first-time offender; she showed remorse and pleaded guilty; and there was no violence in the commission of the offence. Under normal sentencing guidelines, she would have received an automatic one-third remission of the sentence.

But Kartika was sentenced with the maximum fine of RM5,000 and six strokes of the rotan for drinking a glass of beer.

And the Mufti of Perak, Datuk Seri Harussani Zakaria, questions why all the fuss for just six strokes of the rotan when Kartika should have been punished with the full “Islamic” 80 lashes.

And there was Datuk Rosman Ridzuan, the chairman of U Mobile, who was fined only RM700 when he pleaded guilty for assaulting his now ex-wife. Under Section 323 of the Penal Code, this domestic violence offence carries a maximum fine of RM2,000 or one-year imprisonment.

But I am sure those who feel Kartika should be caned are shaking their head and wondering why Datuk Rosman should in the first place be charged and fined for beating his wife, and why indeed should the state intervene in what they deem to be a family matter.

A person who causes harm to another he is supposed to love, cherish and protect is fined a few hundred ringgit, while a young woman trying to make it in life gets the maximum sentence for drinking a glass of beer – which she did not even finish, she said.

And just recently in the same Kuantan Syariah Court, an odd-job Indonesian man who spent RM3.20 for a bottle of samsu which he shared with two other friends in a moment of respite was jailed for a year with six strokes of the rotan. He is in prison because he could not afford to pay the RM5,000 fine.

And yet, we all know that every day, thousands of Muslims commit what are deemed to be offences under the all-encompassing Syariah Criminal Offences (SCO) laws and get away with it. I know of a certain Tan Sri who leaves his collection of expensive bottles of wine in the wine cooler of his favourite restaurant. His bottles are labelled, just like the expensive shampoo and conditioner bottles left by regular clients at their favourite hairdressing salon.

What riles me up every time the Syariah Criminal Offences law is enforced is the injustice of it all. It is often always the disadvantaged and powerless in society who are targeted. While those in powerful places are free to lead the lifestyle they choose, ordinary Muslims feel suffocated and oppressed that what they wear, do, drink, and where they hang out with their friends render them to arbitrary arrest and surveillance by the religious police.

Thousands of young men and women are caught and charged for khalwat, for which they meekly plead guilty in order to avoid further embarrassment. And for what great crimes against the state? The offence of “sitting together on a bench in a shopping complex with the man having his arm on the woman’s back; holding the woman’s waist while walking in a shopping complex; sitting closely and holding hands; sitting on a bench with the woman leaning on the man’s shoulder; sitting in the dark under a tree in a park; sitting on a bench in the dark by a lake”.

Why are Syariah Court resources, which are already stretched out, spent on prosecuting such offences, but women’s right to divorce, to maintenance, to compensation, to a share of the matrimonial assets are denied or delayed?

And how come these enforcement officers have all the resources and time in the world to go after young Muslims doing what young people usually do, and to barge into homes and hotel rooms in pursuit of amorous couples which have led to death and injury to those running away in panic, and to detain even those found in innocent circumstances?

Shouldn’t their resources and time be better spent going after the thousands of errant fathers who fail to pay child support? Why are the religious zealots impervious to the harm these men cause to their children and the family they left behind, and the impact of such gross neglect on society as a whole?

And how come Kajang Prison can execute the caning of Kartika who was sentenced in Pahang under state law, and yet a mother cannot enforce a maintenance order issued by the Kuala Lumpur Syariah Court against a father who has moved to Petaling Jaya?

It is tough being Muslim in this country as the list of the forbidden grows longer. And it’s a double whammy if you are young, and triple whammy if you are a woman. Just for being Muslim, you run the risk of being arrested and hauled into a lorry should the pub or club you are in be raided by the moral police. God forbid if there is alcohol on your breath or your dress is deemed too short, too revealing, too tight.

As with those caught for demonstrating, most of those detained for being Muslim in the wrong place are eventually released because they are in the pub or club to just listen to music or to hang out with their friends over a glass of coke. But the experience in the hands of the religious authorities is enough for a mountain of resistance and defiance to build up.

Since the public furor over Maslinda Ishak, where a Rela officer took a picture of her while she was relieving herself in the lorry used for these raids, the Zouk raid where 100 young Muslims were arrested, the raid on an elderly American couple on holiday in Langkawi and the spate of state attempts to establish citizens’ snoop squads to spy on courting couples and other errant Muslims in Terengganu, Malacca and Selangor, things have largely been quiet for a while on the moral policing front.

The former Prime Minister, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had taken a clear stand that his Cabinet disapproved of such moral policing raids and intrusion into private lives. The Minister for Law, Datuk Nazri Aziz, had also warned against the “Talibanisation” of Malaysia following the Zouk raid.

Then came the appointment of the new Minister for Religion, Maj-Gen (R) Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom, in March. And a seminar on caning for syariah crimes was held in April, and the minister said he was most unhappy that the Syariah Courts hardly ever impose the caning sentence. He said the light sentences meted out contributed to the rise in syariah crimes every year. And now a sudden wave of caning sentences by the Syariah Courts and the determination to uphold such sentences no matter the national and international implications and cries of injustice.

In Selangor, where the PAS Commissioner Hassan Ali is the state Exco member in charge of religion, mosque officials were to be empowered to arrest Muslims for drinking alcohol. But his unilateral act incurred not just the ire of his colleagues in the Pakatan-led state government, but also the Sultan of Selangor.

Reading through the list of offences under the Syariah criminal laws of the various states, you wonder how in the world those responsible for these laws think they could be enforced. Well, the Federal Territories Reli­gious Department (JAWI) has set up a 24-hour hotline, and PAS Youth in Terengganu wants to set up a vigilante squad to advise courting couples to desist.

All those legal drafters and Islamic scholars who created the long list of offences and punishment, the Cabinet and state excos who approved them, and Parliament and the legislative assemblies that enacted them … wasn’t anyone thinking through the implications of such violations of privacy and personal rights, and to the kind of society and citizenship this will create?

And still there are those who are demanding that the list of syariah offences be expanded to include all actions deemed against the teachings of Islam and the court’s powers to punish be enhanced beyond the current maximum of three years imprisonment, RM5,000 fine and six strokes of the rotan.

Unless we truly want to turn Malaysia into a police state as in Iran and Afghanistan under Taliban rule – where moral police are at every street corner, every office, every campus – such laws that turn every perceived sin into a crime against the state will only result in selective persecution and victimisation. It is also simply unenforceable because there is no public consensus on what constitutes indecent behaviour that merits regulation and punitive action.

In the end, such moral policing laws will erode the credibility and survival of both the law and the law-making process, says Prof Hashim Kamali who now heads the International Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies, in a study on the SCO legislation.

That this is already the case in Malaysia is obvious. The continual public outrage, the abuses that occur, the need for the federal government or the Sultan to intervene, the release of most of those detained, the apologies that the religious departments have had to extend to those victimised and abused, the damages (Maslinda was recently awarded RM100,000) and compensation (to the Langkawi couple) that the Government has had to pay, the international damage it does to Malaysia’s effort to promote itself as a model moderate and progressive Muslim country.

So the question before the Government is this: Review the Government’s coercive and punitive position on Islam for a more nurturing and compassionate approach; or enhance further the powers of the religious authorities to control the lives of Muslims and punish them ever more harshly, and consequently bring Islam, Islamic law and the religious authorities into further disrepute. Just look at Iran.


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