By: Our Correspondent

Malaysia appears dangerously close to instituting seventh-century religious law that would require amputation of hands or feet for theft, beheading or stoning for adultery and other crimes, and flogging for drinking or other offenses.

The issue of Islamic punishment has been kicking around for years, with little effect. But Hadi Awang, the head of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS is expected to table a private member’s bill in June when the Dewan Rakyat, or national parliament, reconvenes.

The bill would make Islamic law supreme in the eastern Malaysian state of Kelantan. However, the Malay-majority states of Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan appear ready to go ahead with or without parliamentary approval, political analysts say. Other Malay-majority states along the northern tier next to Thailand could follow.

Normally, an opposition bill would have no chance of passage in Malaysia’s parliamentary system. However, according to a source within the leading United Malays National Organization, UMNO members are facing a rising tide of demand for the feudal punishment.

That isn’t to say the bill will pass. Malaysia, for all of the religious fervor stirred up by both the opposition and the government over the past decade, remains a modern state in a region where such punishments would be met with disgust. Indonesia, the biggest Islamic state in the world, remains free of this kind of primitive retribution.

“PAS has captured the imagination of Malay Muslims generally and nobody wants to appear irreligious,” the source said. “Many UMNO members will vote for it for fear of being labeled bad Muslims. They are being taunted by PAS to support the bill.”

Hudud describes the punishments applicable under shariah, or Islamic law, usually referring to punishments that are considered to be “claims of God.” They include theft, fornication (zina) and adultery or extramarital sex, drinking alcohol or other intoxicants, and apostasy. They do not include embezzlement, bribery, kickbacks or other corporate corruption, which is rife in Malaysia.

“Malay Muslims have never tried hudud so regardless of crime rate statistics they want to give it a try because crime is already high,” the source said. “Eventually it will cover dress codes, everything.”

On the island of Borneo, the independent Sultanate of Brunei announced had introduced hudud on May 1, with most of the punishments applicable to non-Muslims as well, who make up about a third of the sultanate’s 450,000 people, an irony since the law likely will be applied only to common citizens in a principality where spectacular scandals have taken place in previous years in the palace itself and corruption is believed to be rife.

Women have testified in US and UK courts to having been virtually kidnapped and forced to act as sex slaves in the palace, said to be the biggest one on the planet, larger than the Vatican. A disco in the Empire Hotel regularly throbs with license reportedly including sex, drugs and rock n roll for the myriad children of the royal family. Nonetheless, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has called the introduction of the law “not for fun but to obey Allah’s command” and called it a “great achievement” for Brunei.

The prospect of the medieval punishment has been met in Malaysia with horror by the Malaysian Medical Association, which issued a statement saying it would kick out doctors who performed surgical amputations. However, a rival group of Muslim surgeons said they would cut off limbs.

Although the law would apply only to Muslims, it sets up the specter of a dual class of punishments, with a Chinese, Indian or other minority facing perhaps two months in jail for theft, for instance, and a Malay facing the prospect of losing his hand. Adultery in Malaysia is rarely punished today for any of the races. Under hudud, ethnic Malay would face death by stoning.

The decision by PAS to push for the punishment system holds the very real danger of splitting the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, whose other two members want no part of it. They are Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the moderate urban Malay party headed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and the Democratic Action Party, made up largely of Chinese voters.

The Malaysian Chinese Association, a component of the ruling Barisan Nasional, has also spoken out against ratification, an indication that if it were to pass it would also split the ruling Barisan Nasional, further fracturing the country across racial lines, with the 60 percent Malays on one side and the min.11mority Chinese, Indians and others in the other camp. Gerakan Youth, also a component of a second Barisan Chinese party, also rejected implementation.

So far, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, having stood in the presence of President Barack Obama while Obama praised the country as a modern, moderate Malay society, has sent weak signals. He has said there would be no hudud in Malaysia but at a meeting of a religious group last week, Najib only said the federal government has never rejected implementation of hudud although there are “loopholes and shortcomings” that must be addressed. He called for a meeting of Islamic scholars to interpret shariah law to ”scrutinize and to exercise ijtihad (an Islamic term for independent reasoning) so that justice can be served.”

One of the puzzling aspects is the absence of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and other Malay moderates, who have not taken a stance on the issue. Khairy Jamaluddin, one of UMNO’s brightest new lights, and also a moderate, has also been silent.

Ironically, both the opposition and the ruling coalition are privately hoping for former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to step into the fray. During his 23-year- reign, Mahathir allowed the implementation of Islamic religious law, or Shariah, on a federal level in 1988, elevating the power of the Shariah court over Muslim family mattersand adding a clause to the Constitution that “Civil courts shall have no jurisdiction with respect of any matter within the jurisdiction of the Shariah Courts.”

Despite that, he kept a tight rein on Islamic fundamentalists, jailing them under the draconian Internal Security Act which allowed indefinite detention without trial when they got out of line. Two days ago, he accused the government of being weak, telling reporters that PAS had never played up the hudud issue when he was in office.

“Maybe PAS thinks the current government needs support, because during my time, we held absolute power with the two-thirds majority,” Mahathir told reporters, saying PAS is attempting to implement hudud in Kelantan because they want to be popular and win votes.

“PAS is doing this just to gain political mileage, it is not about Islam,” he said.

Mahathir still maintains considerable clout within UMNO. It remains to be seen how he would use his influence to defuse the issue. But many are hoping he does.