In an about turn from Malaysia's drift towards hard-line Islam, the new government is taking tentative steps to curb abusive and obtrusive so-called moral policing. For example, there have been complaints that 'religious police' in some Malaysian states have aggressively entered people's homes to enforce restrictions on unmarried men and women being physically close to each other. But amid attempts to curtail excessive behavior by religious police
, hard-line Islamic clerics, who had a freer hand under the previous government, are fighting back. Fresh from taking flak for waffling on the issues of child marriages and public whippings in the multicultural Muslim-majority country, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government is tackling problems in the administration of Islamic justice. Speaking on the sidelines of an Oct. 6 event marking the International Day for Older Persons, Mahathir, aged 93, said: "Islam does not ask us to find fault in people to the extent that you breach into other people's homes. That is not Islam."
Thank you. You are now
signed up to our Daily Full
He had been asked to comment on remarks by Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the minister overseeing Islamic affairs in the country, who told The Star
newspaper that it was time to end moral policing in the country. The Malaysian prime minister also reiterated his rejection of harsher punishments for Islamic criminal offenses sought by the Malaysian Islamic Party better known as PAS, which has been campaigning for the introduction of stricter forms of sharia that would result in whippings and even the amputations of limbs for crimes such as theft. Mahathir says such talk is abhorrent to Islam. "Islam is not about chopping off heads or hands. There are milder ways to punish people, but these people want to harass people, want to cut people's hands and heads. That is not Islamic." He added that it was a role of religion to promote the taking care of people's rights as human beings. "Cutting people's heads off is killing and Islam does not agree with killing because if you kill, you incur a sin," local media reported him as saying. Mahathir had pledged that the government would shun enforcement seen as moral policing in areas under its jurisdiction and would instead pursue a policy of "compassionate Islam". He said the government had no intention to interfere in Malaysians' private lives and would instead focus on matters that affect security. All agencies under the purview of the federal government, he said, have been told to avoid raids to catch people in compromising acts in the privacy of their homes. These include controversial enforcement of the close proximity prohibition known locally as "Khalwat," which the minister said was open to abuse and exploitation. The government's policy now, he said, was to stress the compassionate aspects of Islam as a progressive religion that was respectful of others' beliefs and freedoms. However, in an immediate push back, hard-line Islamic clerics declared that Islamic moral policing would continue. Islamic officers, they said, would continue pursuing moral offenders despite the federal minister's call to stop such raids. Such matters, they argued are not the responsibility of the federal government. The muftis contend that any decision to discontinue such policing must be presented to the various religious authorities, including the National Fatwa Committee Council on Islamic Affairs and then to the Conference of Malay Rulers. The Malaysian Constitution places Islamic affairs under the individual Malay Rulers as the heads of the religion in each state. Islamic enforcement officers, they say, are duty-bound to respond indiscriminately when reports are lodged just as all Muslims are obliged to defend the community's morality if they witness an offence. Harussani Zakaria
, a hard-line cleric from the northern state of Perak, in an interview with the local media, stressed that it was compulsory for Muslims to root out immoral acts in their community. While arrests, jail sentences, fines and forced re-education sentences are common punishments meted out by the country's sharia courts, Islamic justice in the country has again come under the spotlight after a series of cases targeting Muslim women and children. In June, the marriage between a 41-year-old Malaysian rubber tapper and a 11-year-old Thai Muslim girl — his daughter's friend — exposed the challenges facing Malaysia's dual legal system. The child was made his third wife against the wishes of his first and second wives. The marriage attracted international attention and created a media firestorm with critics lambasting the government for failing to protect and safeguard the rights of children. The following month, another child marriage, this one between a 15-year-old and a man 30 years her senior in the state of Kelantan, was exposed. Islamic authorities passed off the marriages as consensual and not unusual under sharia, which allows girls under 16 and boys under 18 to marry. The country's last census in 2010 showed that 82,282 married women were girls aged between 15 and 19 years. The government also revealed that that same year nearly 16,000 girls below 15 years were in a marriage. Islamic authorities have of late been imposing harsh punishments on women found guilty of sex offences. In September, two young women were spied on, arrested and found guilty for having a lesbian relationship. The shariah court ordered them to be publicly whipped. Around 100 people watched the punishment. Later the same month, a single mother was arrested in a hotel room by a team of religious enforcement officers, found guilty of prostitution and sentenced to jail and whipping. She had reportedly turned to prostitution to care for her child after her ex-husband failed to provide child support. The man said to be the woman's client was reportedly released without charge.