We have seen recently a re-emergence of the debate on whether hudud laws should be implemented in the opposition-held state of Kelantan. This is because a general election is imminent and we are witnessing another edition of the perennial battle in Malaysian politics between the ruling and dominant political party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), and its nemesis, PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party). Hudud is the part of Islamic sharia law that relates to prescribed punishments for assorted offences. There is a whole gamut of it provided for in Islamic jurisprudence. The goal is to ensure justice. Kelantan state, in the northeastern corner of peninsular Malaysia, occupies a unique niche in Malaysian politics. Its voters have often bucked the electoral trend of most of the rest of the nation by voting for governments that are at odds with the ruling coalition. The Kelantanese Muslims take great pride in projecting their state as “Serambi Mekah,” which means “Corridor to Mecca.” They have had in the last 21 years a chief minister who is truly a unique leader, Nik Aziz Nik Mat. He is the spiritual leader of PAS and has constantly espoused sharia for Muslims. Try as they might, UMNO cannot deflate him because after 21 years in power, there is not a taint of corruption to his name. His spotless record is a tour de force in Malaysian politics, in splendid contrast to the moral squalor that characterizes UMNO politicians. Since the general election is expected to be held soon, a dangerous battle is again playing out. The side that can say they are implementing sharia and its hudud aspects is assuredly the “holier” side because no Muslim can deny that it is ideal to live under a sharia-governed system. Nik Aziz is once again plumbing for sharia and hudud in Kelantan because it gives him tremendous stature in the run-up to the general election, but he also assures non-Muslims that it will not be implemented on them. My position is that hudud is not a good idea for Malaysia. Nevertheless, I support implementing sharia and the hudud aspects of it for Muslims in Kelantan. I say that because Catholic teaching says, in Pope Benedict XVI’s words, that “religious freedom is the most fundamental aspect of human freedom, which is built into the dignity of being human.” Therefore we are bound to respect the beliefs of others. We should not oppose sharia for Muslims in Kelantan as long as non-Muslims have iron-clad guarantees it will not be implemented on them. It is time for all Malaysians to see how shari’a operates in Kelantan and whether or not Muslims really like it. No amount of telling Malaysian Muslims that the way it has been implemented in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban would hold a neutral observer back from recommending it to others. But you cannot win the argument against an ideological mindset that substitutes theoretical constructs for descriptions of the real world. Therefore implementing hudud in Kelantan would be part of the whole exercise in self-discovery for Malaysians. As long as they have the unfettered right to vote in general elections, implementing hudud would ultimately be subject to the electoral verdict. And that is the ultimate assurance: that this system would not enjoy sustained tenure if it should be found gravely wanting. Let us all see what the practical effects of its implementation are and whether or not Kelantanese Muslims like what they would get, and whether the rest of Malaysia’s Muslims like what they see. Jesuit Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing of Melaka-Johor is president of the Catholic bishops’ conference in Malaysia.