Six months after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stood before the United Nations and urged Muslims worldwide to be moderate in their religion, members of his own party are supporting a law that punishes adulterers with death and thieves with amputation.
Lawmakers from Najib’s United Malays National Organisation joined the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia to pass Islamic criminal law, or hudud, in the opposition-held state of Kelantan. The move has drawn criticism from other parties in their respective coalitions, while human rights groups say it’s an unconstitutional step for secular Malaysia.
UMNO officials are burnishing their Islamic credentials to safeguard support among the ethnic Malay majority after the coalition retained power in 2013 by the narrowest margin since independence. The swing by Najib’s party to the right risks worsening race relations at a time economic growth is forecast to slow.
“What UMNO and PAS are doing on hudud is not about Islam, it is about politics and staying in power,” said Noraini Othman, a retired sociology professor who co-founded a group promoting progressive views of Islam. “Religious indoctrination has created extremist voices in these parties, in these governments, that have succeeded in becoming louder while the so-called moderates are now a silent majority.”
Najib, 61, has seen his approval rating slide to around 40 percent as he seeks to undertake unpopular economic measures to plug a budget gap, and has been publicly criticized by ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed over his stewardship. His predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi stepped down in 2009 after Mahathir led calls for his resignation.
In November, Najib dropped a pledge to repeal sedition laws because the act is said to have broad support within the Malay community, which accounts for more than half of voters.
The parties in the ruling coalition, known as Barisan Nasional, have made public shows of support for Najib, even as some condemned the passing of the hudud law. BN party leaders gathered in parliament on Thursday and declared their “full and undivided” backing of Najib. No reason was given for the impromptu vote of confidence, and Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai wouldn’t say if it was related to criticisms of Najib’s leadership.
Najib hasn’t commented about the passing of hudud in Kelantan even as UMNO ministers in his Cabinet said Friday they agree with their assemblymen in the northern state because it’s “Allah’s law which we must support.” The implementation must be improved, Bernama news service reported, citing Rural and Regional Development Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal.
“There will be a lot of double speak within UMNO because I think by and large, they don’t want hudud but they can’t say it openly,” said Fui K. Soong, a director at the Centre for Strategic Engagement in Kuala Lumpur. “The conservatives and radicals within his party are the ones who’ll make some noise but Najib will still need to take a firmer stance and say the country is not ready for that.”
Islam is recognized as the official religion of Malaysia, which Najib describes as a “moderate” Islamic nation, and non-Muslims have the right to choose and practice their own faith. The country has a dual legal system with a British-style civil court system and a Shariah legal system that governs marriage, inheritance and other family matters for Muslims.
Signs of rising religious intolerance in the Southeast Asian nation include Malaysia’s top court in January dismissing a final bid by the Catholic church to use the word “Allah” in its newspaper, and the investigation of a social activist who organized a dog-touching event for Muslims.
While the bill was approved in the Kelantan assembly and would apply only to Muslims, it needs to be tabled at the national parliament before it can be enforced, as criminal law lies under the jurisdiction of the federal government. It is expected to fail there as UMNO and PAS won’t have enough votes between them to get the simple majority of 112 that’s needed.
The bill may also have damaged the opposition coalition, known as the Pakatan Rakyat alliance. The group’s biggest shared goal has been to unseat a coalition in office since independence in 1957, even as members disagree among themselves on everything from its agenda to municipal elections.
A weakened opposition would benefit Najib and his coalition after it missed out on a majority of the popular vote in 2013 for the first time since 1969. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is serving a five-year prison sentence for sodomy.
Members of the mostly ethnic-Chinese Democratic Action Party said the hudud move could lead to a breakup of the disparate opposition group. DAP’s top officials will hold an emergency meeting this week to discuss what they called a “betrayal” by the PAS faction in Kelantan.
“DAP firmly opposes the implementation of hudud laws not because it is Islamic, but because hudud is unconstitutional and contrary to our federal constitution,” Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng said. “The federal constitution clearly spells out that even though Islam is the religion of Malaysia, Malaysia is not an Islamic state.”
PAS has sought to enforce the Muslim justice system in Kelantan for decades, having earlier banned nightclubs and snooker parlors. When it first tabled and passed hudud laws in 1993, then-premier Mahathir threatened the state government with legal action if the laws were enforced.
“Some people say ‘Oh if we implement this, investors will run away,’” Mohd Amar Abdullah, deputy chief minister of Kelantan state, said in an interview. “I say to you -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Emirates -- all these three countries implement the Shariah but investors flock to their countries. So what’s the problem?”
The politicization of Islam will be a mainstay in the run-up to the next general election due by 2018, said Clive Kessler, sociology professor at the University of New South Wales.
“The champions of hudud law will say God wants it, the constitution permits and assumes it, but there is political resistance and obstruction,” said Kessler, who has studied the politics of Islam in Malaysia for five decades. To them, “that resistance must be defeated, removed. That is the scenario of politics in the next three years.”