Do we really need to strengthen Malaysia’s Syariah courts?

Women shopping in a Kabul market


Do we really need to strengthen Malaysia’s Syariah courts?
By Zan Azlee

YEARS ago when I was 19-years-old and still in university, my parents paid me a visit in the Kuala Lumpur capital and we spent the night having dinner and because it was late, I slept in their hotel room.

In the wee hours of the morning, we heard a loud knocking on the door.

All three of us woke up and my father opened the door to see three men standing there claiming to be officers from Jawi, or the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department.

It was Valentine’s night and they were on a raiding mission all around town trying to catch unmarried couples who were feeling a little bit too amorous on the mother of all amorous nights. The hotel that we were staying in was on their list.

They asked each one of us who we were. My mother, always the feisty one, pointed to my father and said that is her husband. One of the officers pointed at me and asked who I was. My mother stared him in the face and said I am her son.

The officers then asked for our identity cards and recorded our names. They later politely apologised for the intrusion (which, in my opinion, shouldn’t even have happened), said they were just doing their job and left the room.

Unable to sleep after that, my father, mother and I decided to go for supper. When we went down to the lobby of the hotel, we saw a group of about half a dozen couples being rounded into a van by the officers.

They didn’t look too thrilled.

Recently, a Malay-Muslim couple sued Jawi for wrongfully detaining them for khalwat, or close proximity. In Islam, an unmarried Muslim is not allowed to be alone with a person of the opposite sex. Seven religious officers raided their hotel room in the middle of the night and allegedly forced their way in even, after the couple had told them they were married.

The couple, Mohd Riduan Giman and Siti Sarah Maulad Abdullah, claim that the officers, seven males and one female, did not allow them privacy even to dress up as they were dressed inappropriately at the time.

The officers also refused to accept their explanation, despite them explaining that they had been married for three years and even producing a photograph of their marriage certificate in their mobile phone. Mohd Riduan also claims that the forceful entry caused them injuries.

With moral policing on the rise in Malaysia, one cannot help but link it to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS), the Islamist opposition party whose leaders have been pushing to widen the scope and enforcement of Syariah law in Malaysia. During the last parliamentary sitting, they tabled a Bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 or Act 355, which would allow this to happen.

They also have the support of the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the Malay-based member of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. After all in Malaysia, all Malays are constitutionally categorised as Muslims.

Naturally, because Malaysia is also home to adherents of other religions – nearly 40 percent of the populace profess other faiths – the attempt to strengthen the powers of the Syariah court has drawn angry responses from non-Muslims.

Last weekend, PAS organised a rally to prove it has majority support for the Bill, and thousands turned up for it. This may well signal that the country is rapidly heading further down the road towards religious fundamentalism and maybe even extremism.

Aside from the raiding of hotel rooms, there have been other examples of extreme of moral policing too. Government offices have in the past denied entry to women who are deemed as being dressed inappropriately. And then there was the uproar over the banning of a food dish because of its name – pretzel dog (dogs are considered unclean in Islam).

There is also the fear that Islam is being politicised and that PAS and Umno are backing one another over the Bill in order to gain political traction among their supporters. The Malays make up over 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 30 million-strong population.

Some believe that the tactic is this – Proponents and supporters of the Bill are using religion to gain backing and votes for the Bill; they are saying – if you don’t support it, then you must be anti-Islam.

But then in Malaysia, state-sanctioned political Islam is not a new phenomenon.

Political parties constantly use religion to gain support among voters and the ruling government even has a hand in the operations of the Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), the federal body that handles Islamic affairs.

There is even a Cabinet minister (who is an elected representative from Umno) who oversees Jakim’s operations. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jamil Khir Baharom, even attended and spoke at the rally.

He sought to assure Malaysians that the Bill by PAS would not deprive other religions of their rights.

“Why is it so difficult for us, Muslims, to empower the Syariah Court that we have to gather in heavy rain like we do today,” he said, according to local news portal Malay Mail Online.

But is that really the point we should be making?

There are many other issues that needs to be looked at in Malaysia.

There is the widespread problem of corruption and governance, environmental issues, the oppression of minorities and even women.

Do we really need to have a national debate on whether we want to enforce amputations and lashings as punishment?

[This article was originally written for and published at]

Get Zan Azlee’s latest book ‘JOURNO-DAD: The chronicles of a journalist who just happens to be a dad!‘ today!


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