While in London in 2000, I met an Afghan man, in full Pasthun Afghan attire, who proudly told me that he was a Taliban. During the cold war, the Taliban were, for the UK and US, the heroic mujahidin who fought the Red Devil, the atheist communist USSR. Some, during the 1980s, were welcomed to the west to escape persecution or recruit volunteers for their training camps, which were US and UK supported.The man in London claimed to be among those who reached the UK in the 1980s. When we met, the Taliban had established their Islamic republic and, following their own version of Shariah, implemented one of the most (albeit contradictory and corrupt) brutal regimes that Muslim countries had ever known.
During the conversation we had about Afghanistan, the self-defined Taliban proudly praised the success of his people in implementing God’s Law and Order, and then, while straightening his long beard with both hands, resolutely informed me that ‘Allah is merciful, the Taliban are not!’
These words came to my mind when I recently read that the chief Shariah judge of Pahang state ruled that a Shariah High Court’s verdict against Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was correct and should stay.
Ms Shukarno, a mother of two, was arrested for drinking beer at a beach resort. In July, the Islamic court (which can only sentence Muslims) condemned her to a 5000 Malay Ringgit ($1.500) fine and six strokes of a rattan cane. There are only three states in Malaysia — Pahang, Perlis and Kelantan — that impose caning for Muslims who drink alcohol as the others issue a fine. While the cane was rarely used with men, it has never once been used on a woman.
This, if the sentence is carried out, will be the first instance of a woman being caned in Malaysia. To the criticism that the judge has picked on a woman while many men’s shoulders escaped the cane, the same Pahang judge sentenced a destitute permanent resident to the same fate.
I have, however, the impression that we cannot expect to see very soon a similar sentence for one of the rich Gulf Arab sheiks who patronise the same beach resort Ms Shukarno did, and do not always extinguish their thirst with solely a nice green, fresh coconut (see Gilsenan for an interesting anecdote, but in the Middle East). Even less is the chance that an influential Malaysian, or his relative, would meet the cane (or even the fine).
Although some of my Malay (and Indonesian, where in Ache a similar punishment is implemented even with the hope of attracting tourists!) friends have rightly stressed that the punishment is more symbolic and aimed to shame rather than to hurt (many blogs have confused the Islamic court’s caning with the criminal one), the issue is not whether she has accepted the caning so as not to be punished in the afterlife, nor that the cane is thin, the force minimum and the stroke on the back instead of the buttocks.
Whether caning is an inhuman form of torture or a good form of discipline, as some have ended up debating, is again not the main problem. The central question for the world and, particularly for Singapore, is where Malaysia is aiming and how the country will be in the next ten years.
During these years we have witnessed an increasing number of religious controversies, of which only the most publicised have gained international mass media attention. From the attempt to legally ban yoga for Muslims, to protests and cow-heads being thrown against the construction site of a Hindu temple, to the increase of corporal punishment for otherwise negligible breaches of the Malay Islamic code, there has been an escalation of events marked by a contradiction between the traditional representation of Malaysia as a moderate and tolerant Muslim country, and the Wahabi temptations of some Islamic courts and fatwa councils.
This, in my opinion, should be read in consideration of the so called Islam Hadhari project, which has recently failed. Portrayed as the roadmap to combine a dynamic, modern and tolerant Muslim society with strong Islamic values, Islam Hadhari has been unable to provide that ideological, and partially utopian, outcome in total. Yet it is the Malay Muslim clerics who remained in the majority, though often unofficially, opposed to the idea.
Malaysia is divided into states that have, also from the viewpoint of Islamic courts and Islamic legislation, some considerable autonomy. Recently the main political party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation, which has ruled since independence, has faced strong challenges from the opposition coalition. The internal and external battle for political power has been long and debilitating. During this process, which is still very much unclear, the religious authorities have been able to increase their influence, requests and push boundaries that would have been difficult before.
Furthermore, in the last few years, the direct (but even more indirect— through funding and various platforms and connections) influence of the most intransigent Saudi Wahhabi movements has infiltrated Malaysia more than some commentators may have expected.
The weakening of the political system and the, sometimes dirty, battle between the government and the opposition may look propitious to some elements within the Islamic courts and religious councils for extending their influence and taking a slice of power should the fifty-year-old government finally collapse. The question is what kind of, unseen and hidden, influences some of the clerics call upon to serve as judges may be and also what system should be in place today in Malaysia to avoid a slow, but for this reason deepening, descent towards a legalistic Islam aimed solely at providing power to a clergy, which, otherwise, traditionally, is notoriously weak in Islam.
Beyond cases such the yoga fatwa, or the increasing, sometimes organised and directed, expression of intolerance, as well as the case of Ms Shukarno, is a test to verify of how Malaysian society, and neighbouring countries, may react to a future Malaysia that may be moderate – yes, but in extremism.