Politicisation of the religion will be a mainstay in the run-up to the next general election, says don.
KUALA LUMPUR: Six months after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stood before the United Nations and urged Muslims worldwide to be moderate in their religion, members of his own party are supporting a law that punishes adulterers with death and thieves with amputation.
State assemblymen from Najib’s Umno joined their counterparts from PAS last week to pass hudud in the Kelantan state assembly.
The move has drawn criticism from other parties in their respective coalitions, while human rights groups say it’s an unconstitutional step for secular Malaysia, according to a Bloomberg report carried in the Sydney Morning Herald today.
Umno officials are flashing their Islamic credentials to safeguard support among the ethnic Malay majority after the coalition retained power in 2013 by the narrowest margin since independence. The swing by Najib’s party to the right risks worsening race relations at a time when economic growth is forecast to slow.
“What Umno and PAS are doing on hudud is not about Islam, it is about politics and staying in power,” said Noraini Othman, a retired sociology professor who co-founded a group promoting progressive views of Islam.
“Religious indoctrination has created extremist voices in these parties, in these governments, that have succeeded in becoming louder while the so-called moderates are now a silent majority.”
Najib, 61, has seen his approval rating slide to around 40 per cent as he seeks to undertake unpopular economic measures to plug a budget gap, and has been publicly criticised by ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed over his stewardship.
The parties in the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition have made public shows of support for Najib, even as some condemned the passing of the hudud law.
The politicisation of Islam will be a mainstay in the run-up to the next general election due by 2018, said Clive Kessler, sociology professor at the University of New South Wales.
“The champions of hudud law will say God wants it, the constitution permits and assumes it, but there is political resistance and obstruction,” said Professor Kessler, who has studied the politics of Islam in Malaysia for five decades.
To them, “that resistance must be defeated, removed. That is the scenario of politics in the next three years.”
Fui K. Soong, a director at the Centre for Strategic Engagement in Kuala Lumpur, said, “There will be a lot of double speak within Umno because I think by and large, they don’t want hudud but they can’t say it openly.”
“The conservatives and radicals within his party are the ones who’ll make some noise but Najib will still need to take a firmer stance and say the country is not ready for that.”
While the bill was approved in the Kelantan assembly and would apply only to Muslims, it needs to be tabled at the national parliament before it can be enforced, as criminal law lies under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government.
The bill may also have damaged the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition. The group’s biggest shared goal has been to unseat a coalition in office since independence in 1957, even as members disagree among themselves on everything from its agenda to municipal elections.
A weakened opposition would benefit Najib and his coalition after it missed out on a majority of the popular vote in 2013 for the first time since 1969. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is serving a five-year prison sentence for sodomy.