A religious officer canes an Acehnese youth onstage as punishment for dating outside of marriage, which is against Shariah law, in the grounds of a mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia on Aug. 1, 2016. There are moves in neighbouring Malaysia to increase punishments met out under Shariah law. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)
Multicultural Malaysia is bracing for the passage of a bill next month that will allow Islamic courts to impose more severe punishments.
"This is not a daydream. This is our struggle for the success of Muslims," a Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) leader warned on Feb. 18 as thousands of Muslims gathered for a rally in support of the proposed law.
Nik Mohamad Abduh Nik Aziz said this after a rally in support of the bill, which drew an estimated 50,000 Muslims, mostly PAS supporters from neighboring states in the peninsula according to reports.
PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang says the changes are necessary to enhance the status of the Islamic courts in the country and deter wrongdoing.
Proposed amendments to the Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act (Act 355) increase penalties for offenders such as theft, robbery, adultery and sex outside of marriage.
Non-Muslims in the multi-ethnic country are alarmed that the coalition government is ignoring agreements made at the formation of Malaysia that the nation would be secular albeit with Islam as the religion of the Federation.
Critics of the amendments say they are unjust, disproportionate and unconstitutional.
They say the bill will sow further mistrust between ethnic groups in the country. Religious minorities say that their rights have already dwindled with the imposition of several pro-Islamic policies by the government.
Christians have been barred by a court from using the word ‘Allah' to refer to God, with the result that Malay-language Bibles have been confiscated.
While non-Muslim religious organizations have generally been quiet about last weekend's rally, they have made their concerns clear.
A Christian group linked to Barisan Nasional government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak declined to comment on the rally.
The Rev. Wong Kim Kong, chairman of Christians for Peace and Harmony in Malaysia told local media that: "This is beyond us. It is very political."
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism condemned the plan to amend the law last year as Muslim and non-Muslim government ministers quarreled over the issue.
The Rev. Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches Malaysia, said the proposed amendment is clearly an attempt to rewrite the Constitution in a radical way.
"Federal lawmakers must not treat Hadi's attempt to alter our country's justice system set in place by our founding fathers and consistently sustained for over 55 years, lightly. They should view it with great concern, even alarm," said Shastri.
In the statement in October just before the last parliamentary session, Shastri said that if approved, the bill would remove the present limitations on the civil courts' sentencing powers.
So far Islamic laws allowing for stoning and amputation cannot be enforced because they against the federal Constitution. Shariah courts are limited to the imposition of fines not exceeding around US$1,000, three years jail and six strokes of the cane.
The amendments to Act 355, expected to be discussed in parliament when it sits next month, will allow the Islamic courts, which rule on religious matters and family law for Muslims, to impose a jail sentence of as long as 30 years, as many as 100 strokes of the cane and a fine of more than $22,000.
Muslims account for roughly 60 percent of the population in a country that has a dual legal system, with secular courts responsible for all civil and criminal matters.
United Malays National Organisation, the party of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, which is giving tacit support to the PAS bill, governs in coalition with a number of race-based non-Muslim parties who have expressed their concern about the amendments.