Why hudud law is everybody’s business

Every citizen of a modern state is entitled to voice a view whether or not that state should have the right to inflict dire physical punishment on any of its citizens, or even to enact hypothetically on a provisional basis laws of that kind whose effects are, to put the matter without euphemism, brutalising — either in fact, by their positive enforcement, or prospectively, by virtue of their intimidating inscription within formally codified law.

Clive Kessler, The Malaysian Insider

Once again the familiar argument has surfaced, or been desperately invoked, this time in the latest stand-off between the leading Pakatan Rakyat allies Karpal Singh and Anwar Ibrahim.

Hudud law, if implemented, will apply only to Muslims, Anwar Ibrahim again insists, so the question is one that concerns only Muslims, not Malaysian citizens of other faiths — or no conventional doctrinal allegiance at all. So non-Muslims have nothing to fear, no legitimate interest in the matter, and no right to express any opinion. The matter is for Muslims alone.

This is not the first time that we have heard this argument. It is standard debating “stock-in-trade”, not only from Anwar Ibrahim and the syariah-promoting elements in Parti Keadilan Rakyat but equally from the designated spokesmen of PAS and Umno as well as from the various associations of ulama and officially constituted religious authorities, state and federal.

Not just familiar, it is also, at best, inadequate and, more often than not, misleading. It is wrong for two basic reasons — reasons far more basic than any specific legal technicalities such as the issues raised over the interpretation of the 1988 court decision cited by Karpal Singh, or any similar individual legal judgment.

The first reason is this. Whether they are actually implemented and enforced or simply stand as symbolic signposts and “ambit claims” on the statute books, the formal authoritative assertion of the hudud laws — including such punishments as amputation and stoning and even death for apostasy — fundamentally changes the relation of the individual to the state and its legal order.

It substantially alters the balance between the state and the individual in the state’s favour. It thereby transforms the entire character of the state, arguably coarsening its laws and their impact upon public culture and social life.

When the state or any of its instrumentalities is suddenly empowered to hold, and potentially exercise, that awesome force — which it previously could not exert — over any of its citizens, or any section of them, the nature of citizenship itself is diminished and its meaning is reduced, not just for those directly “targeted” but for all citizens.

A state that declares itself ready to use such fearful measures, or even prepares to arm itself with them, is a state that announces its own capacity, both institutional and moral or psychological, for savage enforcement and retribution. It is not a state that any ethically enlightened, socially emancipated or truly thoughtful citizen who had lived in a state without such fear-inspiring powers would freely choose to call home. A free citizen would refuse to exchange what they had previously enjoyed for this debased and degraded citizenship under this kind of regressive and repressive regime.

Once the syariah law and its hudud punishments are authoritatively instituted, this degrading of the character of free citizenship is a general effect. It is one whose immediate human implications must soon affect all citizens, regardless of religion and social background, even if it is technically mandated only upon one section of the citizenry — in the Malaysian case the numerically preponderant and politically dominant section of the population.

This basic underlying change in the nature of the state, and in the character and extent of its power over its citizens, will inevitably transform the tenor of social life in general. So it will affect all the state’s citizens, not only those who are Muslims. Because it must affect the entire citizenry, all the state’s citizens without exception are entitled to have, and express, a view on the subject of hudud law implementation.

Every citizen of a modern state is entitled to voice a view whether or not that state should have the right to inflict dire physical punishment on any of its citizens, or even to enact hypothetically on a provisional basis laws of that kind whose effects are, to put the matter without euphemism, brutalising — either in fact, by their positive enforcement, or prospectively, by virtue of their intimidating inscription within formally codified law.

Even if still unenforced, their presence on the statute books cannot but have a clear, immediate and chilling effect upon all citizens by reshaping, in fact diminishing, the very meaning of citizenship itself. Even if it is only hypothetical or symbolic in intent, an assertion of the state’s right to mutilate and maim any citizen, even the least worthy and most criminally debased of them, can only demean everyone. It demeans, too, the citizenship that they share and the law under which they live and through which their citizenship is created and sustained.

The introduction, even the mere hinted suggestion, of any proposal for the official infliction of pain on people’s bodies and souls — for outright crimes against their fellow human beings, or even for the exercise of independent intellectual and spiritual conscience — must markedly shift society away from the gentle end, and decidedly towards the crude and brutalizing end, of the ethical scale. That seems indisputable.

Any such legally mandated assault upon the citizen — any citizen or subject of the state — with its mutilation of bodies, maiming of souls, shaming and extreme humiliation of persons and its violation of personal conscience and human dignity will discredit the state, its laws, and those who uphold them. This is not a direction that a modern progressive state can take or its citizens, if they are thoughtful, condone. Those who endorse such measures must have a different agenda.

Every citizen of a modern state has the right to say that the national political community of which they are a member should not be in the business of chopping off hands and feet or even talking about, or hypothetically considering, the introduction of such measures — nor in the business of criminalising beliefs, including those of personal and spiritual principle, that are held in good conscience.

Regardless of their religion or faith affiliation, a citizen is entitled to say to the ruling authority, “You cannot maim and painfully shame my fellow citizens — some of my fellow citizens, any of them — well, not in my name you don’t! Because if you do, you not only enlist me as one of the perpetrators of this dire, extreme and callous act, you also make me one of its objects and victims. As both implicated joint author and as implied target of this or any such action, I say no!”

Any contention that a citizen or any group of them should remain silent, and may be told to do so, because they have no legitimate say in such matters is unsustainable. It is a claim that fundamentally misunderstands the nature and meaning of modern citizenship as morally autonomous membership in the national political community.

Any citizen of a modern state, regardless of religion, is entitled to hold, voice and promote the view that the national political community of which they have long been a member — and long regarded in Malaysia, ever since its inception, as humane in its aspirations and progressive in its direction of development — should not suddenly assume, or (perhaps rhetorically to embarrass its political adversaries), even flirt with the previously unimagined power and right to cut off hands and feet or to criminalize individual beliefs held in good conscience.

Any such citizen would be entitled to take the view that such a dire innovation, when introduced or even officially considered — or merely intimated via some tactical political gesture — must unilaterally abrogate the fundamental contract that holds between a modern state and its citizens as its political stakeholders and moral shareholders.

Such a citizen has the right to the view that the state of which they are a member should not have, or suddenly grasp towards, any such recourse since — should it choose, especially as in Malaysia, to do so against its own history — the state and all its members stand to be demeaned by that action.

What the state does, it does in the name of its citizens — all its citizens — in general. All are implicated in its actions, and everybody is entitled, indeed obligated, to concern themselves with the moral meaning of actions for which they are in any measure responsible.

Every citizen is accordingly entitled to argue openly whether the state in which they hold citizenship should be permitted to impose such punishments on any of its citizens — and, as a citizen, to hold in good conscience that all stand to be demeaned if any one of them is so treated.

Every citizen has a right to hold and express a view whether he/she wishes his or her state to be such a state, a state that claims the right of recourse to such dire and extreme methods in the treatment of any of its citizens. Dire and extreme — let there be no mistake — these measures undeniably are since they involve the intimidatory “criminalisation” of behaviour and also thinking, on issues of legitimate personal moral and spiritual conscience.

They humiliate and punish in demeaning and savage ways that entail both terrible physical cruelty and extreme psychological degradation, the fearful violation and stigmatizing, at once and alike, of both bodies and souls.

Such legal provisions, even if they stand only “in reserve”, are statements about the kind of regime that the state is prepared, or earnestly aspires, to be and the kinds of measures to which it is prepared to have recourse.

Every citizen is, by definition, a stakeholder in the state, and all of them — not just one specially designated segment of the citizenry — are entitled to hold, voice and also promote politically a view whether the state of which they are all “part-owners-in-trust” should evolve towards or away from such a coarsening brutalisation of tone and character.