In The Mass Media

The screw tightens on Malaysia’s religious minorities

A group of children watch a demonstration organised on 18 February 2017 in Kuala Lumpur in support of the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS -the group pressing for a stronger role for the Islamic courts in Malaysia) and of bill 355, or RUU355.

They were “too close” to each other. That was why, last January, several religious officials raided the home of Mohd Ridhuan Giman and Siti Sarah Maulad Abdullah. It was 2.00am and the couple were staying in a cheap hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. The man and the woman, aged 34 and 26 respectively, had been married for over three years. Despite this, a team of eight agents from the morality police forced their way into the bedroom to find the (supposedly) clandestine lovers in flagrante and took them to court.

According to section 27 of the Law on Crimes Against Sharia (Islamic law), Muslims may not be with a member of the opposite sex – who is not the spouse or a family member – in an isolated place, a house or a bedroom (as it is considered an offence known as khalwat). Anyone found in an ‘immoral’ situation or suspected of ‘immoral acts’ faces a fine of 3,000 ringgits (about €630 or US$690), two years in prison, or both.

In Malaysia, about 60 per cent of the population is Muslim, and the majority are ethnic Malaysians. The minorities in the country, including the ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian communities, have criticised the growing ‘Islamisation’ of the country, which is jeopardising the secular nature of the state and putting civil liberties at risk.

In theory, the 1957 Constitution guarantees religious freedom for members of other faiths, but at the same time states that Islam is the “religion of the Federation” – including for ceremonial matters. Muslims are subject to a dual legal system and moral and religious offences are judged by Islamic law courts, which are different from those of the ordinary legal system.

The couple detained in January insisted to the police officers who arrested them that they were married. They even showed them a copy of their wedding certificate on their mobile phone, but the agents refused to leave the hotel room. The couple were taken to the offices of the religious authorities, accused of committing khalwat, and were only released when Mohd Ridhuan Giman’s mother produced the original copy of the wedding certificate.

Mohd Ridhuan and Siti Sarah are now seeking compensation for damages to their reputation and dignity, and for the hospital treatment they required for injuries received during their scuffle with the religious police.

“If this can happen to my clients, it can happen to anyone,” their lawyer Yussoff said to journalists after submitting the couple’s claim for damages. “We are taking this [legal] action to rectify an abuse of power and to seek justice.”
A key moment for hardliners in Malaysia

Activists interviewed by Equal Times explained that the power of the hard line religious authorities is steadily growing in Malaysia. The fatwas (religious edicts) have become Islamic jurisprudence. Crimes that are against Sharia law, in addition to pre-marital or extra-marital sex, include the consumption of alcohol, not fasting during Ramadan or not attending the mosque on Fridays.

Since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, Malaysia has been governed without interruption by the Barisan Nasional coalition. This includes parties representing the major ethnic groups, and is led by the Malayan UMNO party, which holds key posts such as the head of government.

Over the last two decades, the coalition has blocked proposals – by the opposition Islamic party PAS and other Islamic groups – to adopt hudud punishments in Malaysia, such as amputations and stoning, some of the most extreme forms of punishment under the Islamic penal code.

The political make up of the coalition has changed however since the popularity of Prime Minister Najib Razak suffered a blow after a scandal concerning the state investment fund 1MDB, together with electoral losses for his party among the Indian and Chinese population, which would explain his tactical decision to move closer to the PAS position.

Last April the PAS succeeded in extremis in presenting its bill no.355 to parliament, which seeks to introduce tougher sentences for offences against Islamic law (although the leader of the lower chamber prevented a subsequent debate). At present the Islamic courts impose maximum penalties of three years’ imprisonment, fines of about 5,000 ringgits (about €1060 or US€1150) and six lashes. The bill, proposed by PAS chairman Abdul Hadi Awang, seeks to increase those limits to 30 years, 100,000 riggits (€21,000 or US$23,000) and 100 lashes.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division told Equal Times of the proposal: “It is cruel and unusual treatment, imposing disproportionate prison sentences for acts that should not be considered crimes”.

The bill, which has not been stalled, has met with virulent opposition from numerous leaders of the country’s different states – from Sabah and Sarawa principally – who signed an open letter published by various media in the country, in which they insisted that religious freedom is what made it possible to found modern day Malaysia. The signatories of the letter state that the general legal system – which PAS accuses of being a relic of colonial times, in contrast to Sharia law which is ‘truly’ Malayan – should be applied to the whole population, while religious legislation or customs can only be applied to members of a specific community for “personal and family matters”.

Chin Huat, head of the social and political analysis department of the Penang Institute of Malaysia, warned Equal Times that the approval of the bill would bring with it the approval of hudud punishments.

“Two states in Malaysia, Kelantan and Terengganu, have published a list of seven hudud punishments in their Sharia laws,” explains Huat. “If bill 355 is approved, it will immediately allow the application of hudud punishments, such as: 100 lashes for fornication, 80 lashes for unfounded accusations of adultery or sodomy and 40-80 lashes for the consumption of alcohol.”

Bill 355, the expert continues, does not apply to non-Muslims, but “only if it is read in a restrictive way, ignoring the context”. Huat gives examples such as the difficulty of renouncing Islam and the disputes whereby non-Muslims may have been involuntarily converted to the religion.

One of the most prominent cases is that of Indira Gandhi, a Hindu woman. Her ex-husband converted to Islam, and at the same time converted their children to the faith (without the consent of either his wife or the children) using their birth certificates, before fleeing in 2009, taking his 11-month-old daughter with him.

The case is still pending in the courts owing to the collision between the civil courts and the Sharia courts. Non-Muslims face a legal disadvantage when an Islamic court hears their cases, as they are not allowed to appear even to argue their own case. Consequently, in custody cases between couples with different religions, a Muslim father has a better chance of winning custody, even more so if the children have been converted to Islam.

In March 2010 Indira was granted custody of three children, but her ex-husband has not given her daughter back, nor has he faced any charges for the kidnapping of a minor. The conversion of the children was annulled in 2013.

Renowned lawyer Fahri Azzat told Equal Times that the success of the bill to impose stricter Sharia law was secondary. “For me, the question is not whether it succeeds or not, but why it exists in the first place: to influence the voting of the Malayan Islamist so that they vote in favour of UMNO”.

“The bill was created to keep both non-Malayans and the Malayan electorate on their side” continues the lawyer, in other words, to keep their multi-cultural electorate, and furthermore to add to it the votes of the Muslims. “This is crucial because the general elections are expected some time this year. The election machine has already been set in motion.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.