Malaysia: Politics for God, for the People, or for the Party?

Partyforumseasia: During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Christian Democrats have been strong in several Western European countries. With over 40% they are still the dominant force in Germany, though the Christian element (the “C”) in its name does not play a big role in practical politics because under a secular constitution religion is considered to be private.
Hadi 2PAS president Hadi Awang has some reason for concern

In predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia religion plays a bigger role, and at least for the Friday prayers mosque attendance is much more subject to peer-group control, in rural communities more than in bigger cities. Religious credentials are important factors for political careers and open support for Islam is a must for Malay candidates in election campaigns. The competition for Malay Muslim votes between two big mainstream parties, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) has triggered even more importance on religious issues for a couple of decades. Both are targeting the same Malay constituencies, especially in the rural areas, because of the relatively small number of voters per precinct and the better chances to get elected.
With the “holier than thou”- competition the nation has changed from a more relaxed religious atmosphere only two or three decades ago to much more peer-group pressure on the Muslims with elements spilling over to the minority religions. Restaurants have to be halal, alcohol is no longer flowing so freely, and gender relations are getting more difficult. The world-wide Muslim resurgence including fundamentalist currents are finding a lot of open doors in the country.
In the last few months, but festering for much longer in the background, the introduction of Muslim criminal law elements (or hudud), especially corporal punishment, has highlighted the fault lines in Malaysia’s society, though the constitution is giving equal rights to the strong minorities and their religions, and the British-inherited legal system is basically secular.
The PAS-controlled federal state of Kelantan has passed a law on the implementation of HUDUD in the local parliament on 18 March, and UMNO had no choice but to support the motion. For its final implementation the law needs approval from the national parliament, and many politicians and lawyers think it is unconstitutional.
Though the requirements for male (!) witnesses are high, the punishments are harsh in the 21st century. For theft (2 witnesses) a hand or both have to be amputated. For extramarital sex (4 witnesses!!!??) it is 100 lashes for unmarried and stoning to death for married persons. Drinking of intoxication substances (2 witnesses) costs 40 to 80 lashes. If this sounds archaic for modern Muslims already, the reaction of non-Muslims is also strong, though hudud is supposed to apply only to Muslims. In a multi-religious society like the Malaysian there a many mixed families and many non-Muslims can be affected.

Strategy-wise:   In this complex situation there a rather different outcomes for the Malaysian political parties:

1. PAS is proud of higher religious standards than UMNO anyway. Stating it again is not providing much additional mileage. But they have a leadership problem after their spiritual leader Nik Aziz passed away. Party chairman Hadi Awang, also a Muslim scholar, is not uncontested internally. His dogmatic attitude and his alleged openness for cooperation with UMNO are criticized by the so called “Erdogan faction”. Hadi is heading the more conservative “ulama faction” and may face a grassroots revolt. More than half of the party’s committee in its Batu branch has resigned in protest a few days ago.

2. UMNO has been leading a coalition of 18 parties, maximizing its votes with the help of the Chinese, Indian and indigenous ethnic component parties. These allies are against the hudud implementation, though they know that UMNO cannot be seen to be against it in the Malay constituencies in more conservative rural areas on whose support UMNO’s survival depends. But the threat of being voted out is only there as long as the opposition coalition is united and strong. Its leader Anwar Ibrahim neutralized in prison for the next five years, dividing the opposition and maybe even splitting PAS would mean practically ending the threat. But strategies often backfire, and the hudud dilemma could add to the pressure on Prime Minister Najib by Dr. Mahathir and his friends.

3. Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition composed of PAS, Chinese dominated DAP, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is actually close to breaking up. All non-Muslim members are against hudud and have suspected PAS of secretly dealing with UMNO for quite some time already. With Anwar in prison the “coalition of strange bedfellows”, united only by its fight against the government, is more unstable than ever.

4. The greater public: Non-Muslims anyway, but also Muslims with doubts about the more than creeping religious intolerance in the country are not fully convinced that the hudud policies are only religiously motivated. Leadership struggles in PAS and UMNO make it rather obvious that the hudud drive is not totally for God or the people but all too visibly party politics. Like in countries like Iran, where the clerics in power are detrimental to the acceptance of Islam, the turmoil created by PAS may turn out to be negative for the political development and the religion alike.

5. The social climate: A presenter at business radio station BFM 89.9 who discussed the question whether the hudud implementation would help to fill the country’s rice bowls in a video published on YouTube received death and rape threats and is under police investigation. She has apologized publicly saying that she regretted her tone and demeanor in the video and that she would never mock or insult any religion, let alone her own. The incident shows the raw nerves in the domestic debate and cast doubts on Malaysia’s  image as a moderate Muslim country.

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