Ramadan in Malaysia: When politics invades the holy month

Previously, fasting was a matter of conscience but now Islamic authorities have the power to enforce its observance
Ramadan in Malaysia: When politics invades the holy month

A Malaysian Muslim family breaks their fast during the holy month of Ramadan in Putrajaya on June 13. (Photo by AFP)

ucanews.com correspondent, Kuala Lumpur
June 14, 2016
Over half of Malaysia is fasting from dawn to dusk this month. Ramadan began here on June 6 following the new moon.

This Islamic holy month shifts by 11 days a year in relation to the Gregorian calendar. Last year it began on June 18 and 10 years ago it started on Sept. 24.

Millions of Muslims worldwide will follow the fast until the first week of July when Ramadan ends and the Eid al-Fitr festival, or Hari Raya Aidilfitri as it is known here, is celebrated.

A week into the month, life has slowed. All seems quiet and tranquil. As dusk descends, side streets and parking lots turn festive: chairs and tables are arranged and colorful stalls appear to cater to the hungry.

Muslim restaurants and coffee shops that have been shut all day set up buffet tables. Civil servants are allowed home early to catch the feasts that follow the daylong fast.

Previously, going without food and drink from sunrise to sunset was a matter of conscience. But now Islamic authorities have the power to enforce its observance and they make a show of doing just that.

Government-controlled television channels broadcast round-the-clock religious programs interspersed with news of raids, fines and detentions of Muslims caught flouting their Ramadan duties.

Smoking and eating in public and selling food to Muslims during Ramadan can lead to arrest and prosecution. But non-observant Muslims circumvent the authorities by frequenting fast-food restaurants.

"They choose to buy and eat in fast food and 24-hour restaurants as nobody dares to question their actions," chief enforcement officer of the Federal Territory Islamic Department, Wan Jaafar Wan Ahmad told local press last year. "Some were brave enough to eat at roadside stalls without feeling embarrassed. They have no respect for Ramadan."

Muslims caught selling food during the fasting period tell authorities they are trying to meet the requests of regular customers or plead that they can’t afford to lose daytime trade.

Still, unlucky ones can be prosecuted under various Sharia laws that carry jail terms of six months or fines up to 1,000 ringgit (about US$250) or both.

Already, the government-controlled media have been press-ganged into setting the tone of the holy month. There has been increased coverage of spiritual subjects alongside the usual electioneering.

Many non-Muslims tuck into the halal delicacies offered at the pop-up evening bazaars. Stall holders and restaurant owners also use the opportunity to cash-in on hungry devotees.

In Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah State in Borneo, pub-owners set up halal buffet tables every evening. It seems idyllic but past Ramadans in this rapidly Islamizing Southeast Asian nation have had their controversial moments.

The civil service and Islamic authorities led by preachers who stoke divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims are known to coerce non-Muslims to abide by the strictures of Islam during the holy month.

In 2013, local media reported that non-Muslim school pupils were forced by school authorities to eat in a bathroom whilst their classmates fasted during Ramadan. Pictures of the ethnic Chinese and Indian (usually Christian or Hindu) children were posted on social media causing an uproar.

The widely reported incident shamed the nation. Jehan Bakar, a Muslim lawyer and mother of two, said she was "horrified" by the segregation of non-Muslim children. Our "religion does not dictate this," she said.

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin ordered an investigation.

Islamic authorities have been keen not to repeat such an incident and have so far been careful to keep non-Muslims onside. It helps that the coalition government of scandal-tainted Prime Minister, Najib Razak is facing two by-elections this month.

Even so, Datuk Mohamad Shukri Mohamad — a Muslim legal scholar or "mufti," told non-Muslims to dress appropriately last week to avoid distracting the faithful. He also recommended that people avoid "eating or drinking in front of Muslims during the fasting month."

It doesn’t help that non-Muslims are already in a state of anxiety due to the proposed introduction of hudud law. The hudud is an Islamic penal code that includes punishments such as amputation and stoning.

Voters in the Muslim-majority constituencies of Sungai Besar in Selangor and Kuala Kangsar in Perak will get the first chance to make a stand on the "Hudud Bill," as it is commonly referred to. Malaysians throughout the country are closely watching them.

Politicians have so far steered clear of addressing the clash between Islamic law and civil rights. But many are wary of Najib’s United Malay National Organization’s (UMNO) ties with Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) Islamist hardliners. PAS is the second-largest Malay party and non-Muslims fear an alliance with UMNO could lead to their concerns being ignored.

Analysts suspect that Najib’s government is trying to make religious concessions in order to build a relationship with PAS. If true, many fear that Ramadan in Malaysia could soon resemble the observances in Saudi Arabia where the strictest form of Sunni Islam is enforced.

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