Tread with caution


History is replete with examples of the dangers of giving religious authorities too much power over society.

Martin Vengadesan, The Star

I HAVE just been reading an article in the Jakarta Globe. Apparently a woman in Aceh was caught having sex with a married man. She was then gang raped by eight men as punishment for her crime.

When the case came to light, she was ordered by the Syariah court judge to be publicly caned for the original crime of adultery.

Now does that offend your sense of natural justice?

It does mine, although I have sometimes been told to keep my mouth shut and mind my own business.

But that is exactly how “justice” imposes itself … when we turn a blind eye to it.

I was raised in the Christian faith and while I found the compassionate nature of Jesus to be comforting and mesmerising, there are other passages in the Bible (particularly in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) that advocate capital punishment for a variety of sexual “crimes” and blasphemy.

How does one make a decision as to what should be followed? By researching and making up your own mind, I think.

What is certain is the danger of giving too much clout to those crusading in the name of religion.

From the Spanish Inquisition which kicked off in 1478 to the work of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s and the notorious Salem Witch trials in 1692 and beyond. How many innocents have paid the price?

As a Roman Catholic, I was horrified when a spate of reports emerged about sexual abuse by priests starting in the 1980s.

We put our faith in the religion, but the problem is that human beings are so very flawed. Give people sweeping powers in the name of religion and there will be consequences!

Of late because of the passing of new laws in neighbouring Brunei and the re-introduction of the PAS hudud proposal, this sort of ideas are on everyone’s lips.

I think we really need to look at other examples of what can happen.

There is Saudi Arabian celebrity cleric Fayhan al-Ghamdi who killed his five-year-old daughter Lama in 2012 because he doubted her virginity and raped, beat and burnt her until her back broke and she eventually died after months of agony.

He was initially given just a light sentence and ordered to pay blood money. After protests, this was extended to eight years’ jail and 60 lashes.

Then there is the rape law in Pakistan. After the passing of the hudud ordinance of 1979, it became almost impossible to prosecute a rape because it requires the presence of four upstanding male citizens as witnesses.

But surely four decent men would never allow a rape to be committed. And yet we all know rape happens.

Iran’s hanging judge Sadegh Khalkhali was the first syariah Chief Justice appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Working feverishly to rid Iran of “corrupting Western influence”, he is believed to have sent over 8,000 people to their deaths, often for a “crime” as simple as their attire and educational background.

I was in Pakistan’s Suat Valley in 2006. A beautiful place with lovely people.

A year after that visit, the Taliban came down from the mountains and took over. Beards are compulsory, no education for women.

In October 2012, they tried to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, aged just 14, for speaking out on education rights for women.

Yes, all this sounds very drastic in cosmopolitan Malaysia, but without being able to understand the worst case scenarios, we could one day find ourselves sliding towards them.

Maybe it is true that in Malaysia my view is not that significant. This is a decision that is in the hands of the majority.

This is not a criticism of religion. This is about recognising that there is an immense danger in putting this sort of power in the hands of fallible human beings.

It seems to have become common practice to tell fellow Malaysians that if they don’t like the status quo they can leave. That is of course offensive, but I would like to encourage those who are so fascinated by PAS’ hudud to go and live in nations that practise it with justice.

I keep saying this … people with a secular, liberal outlook on life rarely do enough to defend that way of life and that laissez faire attitude plays right into the hands of zealots. One day it might be too late.