Malaysia Inches Closer to 7th-Century Islamic Law

If events play out as planned, tomorrow Malaysia’s fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia appears certain to set in motion events that have the potential to wreck the opposition coalition that for the first time in 45 years won more votes in the 2013 general election than the ruling Barisan Nasional.

PAS expects to introduce legislation in the Kelantan state Assembly to ultimately enable implementation of hudud, the 7th-Century sharia law that provides penalties such as amputation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for adultery. That would pave the way to engineer a parliamentary vote to amend the federal constitution to extend it to the nation, heretofore regarded in western capitals as a moderate Muslim-dominated country at peace with its ethnic minorities. The measure, set for debate, appears certain to pass. It has been endorsed by Muhamad V, the Kelantan sultan.

The tenuous opposition coalition includes the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party as well as now-jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party, which is comprised mostly of relatively liberal urban Malays. To them, PAS’s ambition to implement a law most regard as barbaric is simply unacceptable. Although PAS leaders have repeatedly said the Islamic criminal penalty package would not be applied to those of other ethnic backgrounds, opposition leaders believe it is inevitable that it would be extended to cover all.

From the time Anwar put together the Pakatan Rakyat coalition prior to the 2008 election, it has been shaky, composed of groups going in different directions – a Chinese party that wants nothing to do with religious law and considers pork a staple, a fundamentalist Islamic party that considers eating pork a pathway to hell, and a third party, Anwar’s that appears to stand for very little except seeking national power.

It appears UMNO will support the measure and that it will pass. Once it passes, Kelantan officials would then have to engineer the introduction of a bill to amend the federal constitution to allow for the practice. What happens then is unclear.

Lim Kit Siang, the party leader of the DAP, accused UMNO of “trying their utmost in the past seven years to use the bait of “UG” (unity government between UMNO and PAS) and in the past year the additional bait of ‘hudud implementation in Kelantan’ to achieve their objective to divide, destabilize and destroy the most formidable coalition challenge ever to be faced by (the Barisan Nasional).

With Anwar in prison on charges of sodomy, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition is basically leaderless and has been unable to thwart PAS’s intentions in the rural, impoverished east coast state. The biggest concern is that other states in the ethnic Malay-dominated tier across the top of the country would follow Kelantan with their own measures despite the fact that they are controlled by UMNO. That includes the states of Terengannu, Perak, Perlis and Kedah.

Dzulkefly Ahmad, executive director of the PAS research center, said in an interview that hudud policy has always been enshrined in the party’s constitution and has always been a crucial goal, and insisted it would apply only to Muslims in Kelantan. He denied that implementation would wreck the coalition and said UMNO would stop short of pushing it through at the federal level because in addition to wrecking the opposition coalition it would probably wreck the Barisan as well, which in addition to the dominant UMNO also has two component Chinese parties and one Indian one plus Christian parties in East Malaysia.

“They would support [hudud] insofar as to break us, but I do not think they have any intention to see this law,” Dzulkefly said. “It would break up the Barisan as well. They know their game time, they want to beat us, they are down but not yet out.”

UMNO’s strategy in Kelantan and threatening national passage, he said, is thus aimed at triggering the centripetal forces that would destroy the opposition coalition.

Others aren’t so sure. One nervous and embittered moderate Malay lawyer and stalwart UMNO member – and beer drinker – told Asia Sentinel that hudud is a juggernaut that once started is not going to be stopped. With Malaysia facing high crime rates and deep corruption, he said, 70 percent of ethnic Malays would favor implementation of the Islamic criminal code. UMNO party rank and file, he said, could face a tidal wave of criticism from their constituencies if it were to come up for a vote in the federal parliament and they were to vote it down.

If PAS goes through with the threat, as Lim warns, it is almost certain to drive the DAP — or PAS — out of the coalition, and to alienate many of the moderate Malay Muslims who make up the bulk of Anwar’s own urban-oriented Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party. It is also certain to damage the country’s international standing as one of the most moderate of Muslim nations.

Despite those concerns, PAS leaders appear to be ignoring the potential political carnage. The DAP argues that hudud was never part of the pact cobbled together to create the coalition in the first place. The DAP has repeatedly demanded vainly that the PAS drop the issue, warning that it could mean the end of the coalition.

Prime Minister Najib, who seems determined to present a moderate face to the west while at the same time catering to the Malay nationalists in UMNO, has refused to put his foot down and force his party members back into line. Among party stalwarts, only former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has spoken out, saying "There is no justice if hudud is implemented because the hands of a Muslim thief are cut while a non-Muslim spends two months in prison. Is that justice? If it is not justice, then it is not Islamic."

In the meantime, PAS is being wracked with its own leadership crisis, long simmering but exacerbated by the death of PAS leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat in February. The contest to replace him is crucial in determining the party’s future. One faction would break away to join UMNO while another, the so-called “Erdogans” – named for the moderate Muslim leader of Turkey – with deputy president Mohamad Sabu and elections director Mohamad Sabu – ar seeking to adhere more to liberal urban values.

They are leading an attempt to overthrow Abdul Hadi Awang, the president. The internecine battle has grown so heated that Dzulkefli, who lined up with the moderates, was assaulted at his home by unnamed assailants who were believed to have connections to the fundamentalists. Seventeen PAS division leaders have resigned from the party in protest of what they say is Abdul Hadi’s failure to quell internal dissention.