Caning Kartika

(Asia Sentinel) The threat to whip a woman for drinking beer spotlights Malaysia's rising religious dilemma

It is starting to appear that Malaysia, characterized habitually in the world's press as a "moderate, majority Muslim nation," is beginning to reap the whirlwind of fundamentalist Islam.

It isn't just the caning of Kartika Sri Dewi Shukarnor, a divorced mother of two, for drinking beer in a resort bar two years ago, which has been on the front pages of newspapers across the world. That alone is giving the moderate government of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak fits and damaging both the investment and tourism climates. With the shariah court having deferred the caning until after the end of the Ramadan holy month, that gives Najib another month to endure criticism from human rights groups and western governments.

The bigger problem is that with the creation of the three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition from the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party, the moderate Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat and the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia or PAS, PAS's brand of fundamentalist Islam to cross the mountains that form the spine of the country and settle in the upscale, moderate capital of Kuala Lumpur and its environs. In order to keep PAS in the coalition, the other parties are finding they have to walk a fine line over PAS's religious demands.

In rapid fire over recent weeks, PAS has been exercising its muscle in Selangor, the state which surrounds Kuala Lumpur, with the opposition government's religious department raiding a 7-Eleven store for selling beer and confiscating the liquor. The government, at the insistence of the DAP, backtracked and said convenience stores could sell beer and liquor but had to put up signs saying Muslims were not allowed to purchase alcohol. That brought the ruling coalition's biggest ethnic party, the United Malays National Organisation into the fray, seeking to consolidate its base with Malays by accusing PAS of backing down on their religious ideals by giving in to the DAP. PAS then upped the ante with a new statement.

On Monday, apparently without consulting his allies in the other two components of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, Selangor State Executive Councilor Hassan Ali announced that mosque officials including imams and muezzins would be given the power to arrest any Muslims caught drinking in public and for storing or selling alcohol as well. The ruling, analysts said, could threaten Malays – all of whom are Muslim by law – who work in hotels and restaurants.

Most recently, PAS's youth chief demanded that a closed concert scheduled for September by the Danish soft-rock band Michael Learns to Rock at the Genting Highlands gambling enclave be cancelled because it is scheduled to take place during Ramadan.

These and other announcements and decisions have dismayed moderate Malays.

"I won't hide my disgust any longer with this party that insists on being the autocratic big brother with the right to voice out their authority using God's name," wrote Hafidz Baharom to The Star Online, one of Kuala Lumpur's two major English-language dailies. "This is just sick. Instead of focusing on social ills and crimes of higher caliber, it seems that this political party has taken it on itself to 'save the Muslims' of Malaysia from causing sin."

Said another Malay in Kuala Lumpur: "In reality it's a new world here — religious officials in the mosques will be policing The Curve Shopping Mall, arresting people at Laundry, an open space disco pub in the mall area near my house."

PAS's growing power presents a dilemma not only for the Pakatan Rakyat coalition but for leaders of the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, although Barisan leaders were unsuccessful in using the issue to reclaim Chinese voters in a by-election in Penang state Tuesday. Rohaizat Othman, the UMNO candidate, and his allies sought to use the beer sales ban in Selangor and the closure of a swine slaughterhouse in Kedah state by PAS to lure back the Chinese. Nonetheless, he lost to a PAS Penang commissioner by a healthy majority, at least partly, according to both sides, because he was a lousy candidate.

Other Muslims complain that while it is fair to accept that many would like to see the country turn more religiiously conservative, it’s possible to do that without even being condemned as a fundamentalist. But, said one, "I worry about this idea of vigilantism which I think even by shariah standards is illegal. Imams and bilals (muezzins) historically have no ability to enforce laws. Only the state can do that. Even in Saudi Arabia, the religious police are employees of the state hired to be religious police. Imams are hired to be imams and as such they can only preach and advise."

Now that the by-election is over, there is some feeling that both sides will start looking for compromise. Najib and other UMNO leaders have sought to defuse the Kartika issue, urging her to appeal the sentence, but she has said she has no intention of appealing because she wants the ordeal to be over. There are signs the shariah court is seeking ways to defer the punishment, with the Malaysian Bar Council pointing out that the law bars caning without imprisonment, and Kartika has never been imprisoned, giving them an out to free her.

PAS deputy president Nasharudin Mat Isa, however, threw cold water on that, issuing a statement Wednesday to say any suggestion of doing away with the caning wouldn't work. Nashruddin said he was willing to discuss the matter. But, he said, "We have to reject the Bar Council's move to urge the government to do eliminate whipping for any offence."

"Whether what PAS wants finally gets through is something else," said a Malay friend. "I think they will compromise and stick to the decision that anyone caught selling alcohol or beer to Muslims will be dealt with under a shariah enactment which the Barisan Nasional passed in 1995 and gazetted in 1996 but never enforced. It's all a game, if you ask me, but things are becoming more difficult for Muslims to enjoy a beer. I'm glad I have stopped drinking. Wouldn't want to be dragged to court in cuffs and have my picture splashed all over the Malay press."

Nonetheless, other sources say, PAS is turning into a formidable party with a real struggle.

"I think if PAS continues to show its colors, more and more Malays in Selangor will support the party," said one Malay. "Talking to people at the mosques, they kind of like PAS's new moves. Urban Malays must be defined as middle-class, but in fact over all they are few and far in between. A lot of Malays in KL or Selangor aren't well to do. Many have an inclination to PAS. I think it may be too late to undo PAS. They are entrenching themselves for the future."

Where that takes the rest of Malaysia's polyglot population is unclear. PAS officials have made it clear that their aim is to enforce shariah law on Muslims, not other races. The country has always struggled with a delicate racial balance since deadly riots in 1969. Ethnic Malays make up somewhere over half of the population, Chinese about 24 percent, Indians about 8 percent, Kadazans, Ibans and others around 10 percent. They are 60 percent Muslim, 30 percent Christian or Buddhist, the rest Hindu or other religions.

"To tell you the truth, I have never really thought of joining PAS," said one of the Malay sources. "But then again, when I think about it, since UMNO is rotten to the core, why not PAS? What's in it for me to lose? Just expect more moral policing, stay indoors."

He may well have to stay indoors.