BY DANIEL WAGNER
Muslims from around the world have long chosen Malaysia as a holiday destination, being widely viewed as a moderate Muslim country, where people of diverse ethnicity and religion live in harmony. Muslims account for approximately 60 percent of the population (most of them being ethnic Malay), with Chinese and Indian minorities accounting for most of the rest, practicing Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism as they please. That is part of what makes Malaysia unique. Its tranquility is now under threat, however, a combination of simmering ethnic tension and government action that is taking the country down a dangerous path.
For decades, Malaysia’s main opposition party – the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) – has promoted the adoption of Islamic law, and for decades the government has objected to such law, until now. Prime Minister Najib Razak has for many months been embroiled in a corruption scandal, in which he has admitted accepting nearly $700 million as a “donation” to him. Moreover, his government is in trouble, as urban voters are increasingly rejecting the ruling United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and it policies. Many Malaysians have had enough of Mr. Najib, UMNO, and the current government.
Mr. Najib and UMNO have therefore decided to court rural Malays, who tend to be more conservative and who support PAS in greater numbers than their urban counterparts. In May of this year, UMNO fast-tracked the reading of a bill drafted by PAS which sought to increase the punishment courts may impose on those Muslims convicted of religious offenses through existing Islamic courts. Opening that Pandora’s Box has naturally created an uproar among moderate Muslims in the country.
Islamic law is already enforced in some capacity in the more conservative parts of the country, where, for example, religious authorities already check patrons’ religion in hotels and bars. The authorities may already jail those who do not practice official interpretations of the law. Some PAS members want Muslims convicted of drinking alcohol to receive up to 80 lashes of the rattan cane, and for adulterers to receive up to 100 lashes of the cane, in ominous echoes of the punishment already dispensed in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Is the next step amputations for stealing and hangings for being gay? Moderate Muslims know that such a pivot toward the imposition of Islamic law usually only leads in one direction: more of the same.