During the recent U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman painted a picture of Malaysia that many like to see — a multiethnic mosaic of religions, races and beliefs. “The Malaysian government has introduced the One Malaysia concept,” Aman said. “It aims at fostering appreciation and respect for all races, seeing diversity as a source of strength. It envisages unity that arises from true acceptance instead of mere tolerance.”
Yet the same day that Aman extolled the virtues of one Malaysia for all, a judge’s ruling back home conveyed an image of the Southeast Asian nation with a two-track justice system that unfairly punishes Muslims.
The chief Islamic law judge of the eastern state of Pahang upheld a religious court’s verdict to cane a Muslim woman for drinking beer. There is debate here over whether the state law under which Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was convicted and sentenced violates provisions of federal law. The question underscores the challenge that individual state governments — which have sole authority over Islamic issues — pose to the federal government, and the fairness of a legal system that applies only to Muslims, whose personal offenses are tried under “sharia,” or religious, law.
After Kartika, 32, pleaded guilty to drinking, the sentencing judge threatened to jail her for three years if she didn’t pay a fine of $1,400. Kartika paid the fine and came close to being caned in August before an uproar in the media and among rights activists earned her a temporary reprieve. She would be the first Muslim woman to be caned in Malaysia if the sentence is carried out.
Kartika’s case is just one example of the increasing harshness of Malaysia’s separate justice system for Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of the population. Last month an Islamic court sentenced an unmarried couple to caning for trying to have sex in a car. An Islamic court in another state ordered an Indonesian Muslim man to be whipped six times and jailed a year for drinking liquor at a restaurant.
Ten of Malaysia’s 13 states impose fines on Muslims who are caught drinking alcohol — though the Muslim holy book, the Koran, does not stipulate a punishment for this transgression — while three states have recently ordered caning. Such punishments apply only to Muslims; non-Muslims must abide only by civil laws, so they are free to drink or engage in other behavior forbidden under Islam.
This dual system of justice amounts to state interference in Muslims’ private lives. State efforts to “protect” Muslims from sin include a government attempt to ban Muslims from a rock concert because it was sponsored by a beer company. (The government eventually backed down.)
Although Malaysia has long prided itself on being a role model of a “moderate” majority-Muslim nation, politicians have taken to brandishing their conservative and punishment-focused Islamic credentials to attract the votes of Muslims drawn to “purer” leaders. Many Muslims are afraid to challenge the Islamists for fear of being labeled as anti-Islamic or ignorant of Islamic tenets. “This is definitely not the Malaysia I grew up in, which was far more relaxed and tolerant. This has really been a political development over the last decade or so where political parties have used Islam in order to win the Muslim vote,” Marina Mahathir, a writer and a blogger, told me by e-mail.
And contrary to the One Malaysia theme, the politicization of religion has even led to hostility against non-Muslims. In late August, for example, a group of Muslims paraded the severed head of a cow, the most sacred animal in Hinduism, to protest the construction of a Hindu temple. A Malaysian civil court charged 12 protesters with criminal offenses.
Hamidah Marican, executive director of the group Sisters in Islam, whose request for a review of Kartika’s sentencing was recently rejected, seeks to challenge the image Malaysian officials present of a tolerant country. Harsh punishments such as caning, she says, actually violate Islamic principles.
“Islam is compassionate. There are 107 verses in the Quran that talk of forgiveness,” Marican said. “Personal sins are between you and God, not for man to judge. Sharia laws are in fact often the result of juristic activity involving human beings; hence they’re fallible.”
Malaysia plans to again seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council next year, but members of the council should know that caning is a humiliating punishment that violates international conventions against torture, to which Malaysia is a signatory.
The Malaysian government must acknowledge that interfering in people’s private lives and sentences such as caning are the antithesis of a “moderate” Muslim state. Malaysia must make clear what kind of country it wants to be. Is it the nation of the splendid Kuala Lumpur skyline, blending the traditions of its mosques and temples with the modernity of the dazzling Petronas Towers? Or is it a judgmental, moralistic nation that obsesses over the private lives of its citizens?
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.