Malaysia: Image and Substance

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By: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

In the recent WEA Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin entitled "Malaysia: At the
Crossroads" it was noted: "Elections are due in Malaysia before early 2008.
Many people are disenchanted with the ruling party, UMNO, and PAS [Parti Islam
Semalaysia] is hoping to capitalise. PAS is modernising and softening its
image, replacing turbaned clerics with Western-educated, smartly-suited
so-called 'Young Turks', hoping the new image will attract Chinese and Indian
voters. This has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with marketing
- political Islam in a suit is still political Islam." (Link 1)

Indeed, PAS may be reforming its image but it is increasing the penalties for
non-Muslims found sharing their beliefs with Muslims in Kelantan. Yes the
new-breed Islamist might wear Armani but he still wields a whip. There can be
a big difference between image and substance.


A 10 June article by Associated Press reported that PAS is struggling for its
survival, even in Kelantan. (Link 2) The northern state is the party's
stronghold and the only state now ruled by PAS. PAS rose to power in 1990, but
its popularity has since waned "amid fears among moderate Muslims and
religious minorities over the party's ambitions of creating a style of
hard-line governance that prescribes punishments such as amputating thieves'
hands". (Link 3) However PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang believes that negative
government propaganda and fear mongering is responsible for much of the loss
in support.

PAS held it's Annual General Assembly in Kota Bahru, Kelantan, commencing 1
June. The main outcome of the Assembly was a commitment to image reform.
According to IslamOnline, PAS will "place more women in pivotal positions" to
counter accusations of discrimination, and seek to "shed the hard-line image
it gained due to some policies". (Link 4)

As Associated Press notes: "When PAS took over in 1990, it limited liquor
sales, prohibited lotteries and betting outlets, banned nightclubs and rock
concerts, fined Muslim women for not wearing headscarves in workplaces and
enforced public segregation of the sexes through measures such as separate
check-out lines for men and women in supermarkets." (Link 2)

IslamOnline reports: "During the past months, the party lifted a ban on pop
concerts in Kelantan, a 15-year ban on billiards and allowed cinemas to
operate. It has also launched a campaign to reason with prostitutes throughout
the country to seek another source of living." (Link 4)


But, as IslamOnline also notes, many are skeptical. "Analysts remain skeptic
of how far would PAS go with the new image initiative. 'I don't see how the
presence of these so-called "Young Turks" will make any change to the
fundamental policies of the party,' political analyst Chandra Muzaffar told

"Chandra believes that despite the new language, PAS will not likely abandon
its long-adopted policies. 'I do not think PAS will move away from its
commitment to an Islamic state. I don't think PAS will move away from hudud
law,' he said.

"PAS has enacted the hudud (prescribed Islamic penalties) laws in Kelantan, to
be imposed only on Muslims who represent about 90 per cent of the state's 1.5
million population. The laws introduced Shari'ah punishments for theft,
robbery, adultery, liquor consumption and apostasy." (Link 4)


Associated Press reports: "People who try to convert Muslims to other
religions could face a whipping, a fine and longer prison terms in a state
ruled by a conservative Islamic party [PAS] in north-east Malaysia, an
official said Wednesday [27 June].

"The Kelantan state legislature approved changes to the law Tuesday [26 June]
providing for a maximum punishment of six lashes with a rattan cane, five
years in prison and a fine of 10,000 ringgit (US$2,800; €2,080) for
non-Muslims who preach to Muslims, said Hassan Mohamood, who heads the state's
Islamic affairs government committee.

"Previously, the maximum penalty was two years in prison and a fine of 5,000
ringgit (US$1,400; €1,040), but state officials feel stiffer laws are useful
'as a form of deterrence,' Hassan told The Associated Press." (Link 5)

The interesting thing about these changes is that they have seemingly been
made with reference to Lina Joy's very public conversion. Lina Joy is a Malay
Muslim convert to Christianity. Ultimately the Supreme Court issued a ruling
concerning Lina Joy, the effect of which is that for Muslims the Sharia Courts
(which prohibit apostasy) have supremacy over the Constitution (Article 11 of
which guarantees religious liberty).

Al Jazeera reports: "Proselytising of Muslims is forbidden under federal laws,
but the recent case of Line Joy, a Malay-Muslim woman who sought legal
recognition of her right to pick her religion of choice, raised fears among
some in Malaysia over mass conversion." (Link 6)

Doug Bandow, writing for the National Review Online, quotes Yusri Mohammed as
saying, "We praise Allah for the decision taken by the court." Lina Joy "is
encouraging others to do the same [convert]. It may open the floodgates to
other Muslims". According to Bandow, "Some newspapers predicted mass
conversions if Joy triumphed."

As Bandow notes, "This argument suggests that even Islam's strongest adherents
have serious doubts about the credibility and appeal of their religion." Of
course the whole purpose of an apostasy law is to prevent attrition. It is a
law that is unnecessary if attrition is not perceived as a threat.

Bandow continues: "Many Malaysian Muslims do believe that only the law, backed
by the threat of punishment, can maintain the allegiance [to Islam] of their
fellow citizens. Freedom of conscience must be feared. Those answering the
call of faith must be suppressed." (Link 7)

Elizabeth Kendal
[email protected]

1) Malaysia: At the Crossroads
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | No. 433 | Wed 13 Jun 2007

2) Malaysia's Islamic party fighting for survival in its last political bastion

3) Malaysia's Islamic opposition gears up for elections with attack on prime
minister. 1 June 2007

4) Malaysia's PAS in Polls Facelift. 10 June 2007

5) Malaysian state stiffens penalties to stifle Muslim conversions
AP 27 June 2007

6) Tougher law for Malaysia converts. 27 June 2007
Whipping, prison and fines for anyone who tries to convert Muslims.

7) The Right Not to be a Muslim
In Malaysia, don’t try to convert if you're a Muslim.
By Doug Bandow. 8 June 2007

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