Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Malaysia slides towards a new dark age

"Islam’s war on sin dims bright lights in a nation torn between cultures"

By Nick Meo in Kota Bharu (for TimesOnline)

Over a drink of green coconut at what used to be called the Passionate Love Beach until his Islamist party came to power and scrapped the name, state minister Takiyuddin Hassan outlines the victories in the war on sin.

To the south, in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, celebrations are starting for Malaysia’s 50th year as an independent state. Its proud achievements are modern universities, a buoyant economy and a respected place in the world as a moderate Islamic nation.

Mr Hassan’s party boasts a different set of achievements: banning mini-skirts, chastising unmarried couples and renaming Kota Bharu’s favourite beauty spot. They also closed down nightclubs, banned nearly all bars except a few Chinese restaurants, where no Muslims are allowed, and refused to let a proposed cinema open unless there were separate sections for men and women.

In a sign of their clout, the American pop diva Gwen Stefani has agreed to wear traditional costumes in her Malaysian concert next week after conservative Muslim youths protested at the “indecent dressing and obscenity” of her skin-baring act. An Islamic opposition party demanded that her show next Tuesday should be cancelled.

The platinum blonde star has agreed to cover up in the hope of heading off further protests.

As it celebrates 50 years of independence on August 31, Malaysia is once again debating just how Islamic it should be. Older Malays bemoan a younger generation that has become puritanical, self-righteously declining to attend social functions where alcohol is served. Headscarves, rare 20 years ago, are worn by almost all Malay women now, although often in combination with tight jeans.

As for Mr Hassan, a moderate who was once a lawyer, he is proud of his party’s achievements in Kota Bharu. He says that it has kept the rustic capital of Kelantan state upright and clean-living. The biggest building in the city is a gigantic headquarters decorated with concrete Korans where the moral enforcement department is based. Its bearded officials spend much of their time prowling parks in Kota Bharu in search of amorous young sinners.

Mr Hassan is sensitive about the mocking nickname of “Taleban lite” sometimes levelled at his party from Kuala Lumpur, where bars do a roaring trade and the cinemas are full of dating couples. Yet he is sure that the moral example set in Kota Bharu will some day win over his lax compatriots to the south. “Malaysia is a Muslim state. We hope we can change the mindset of our people in Kuala Lumpur so they can live according to Islamic principles too,” he said. Not all parties agree.

Some fear that assertive Islam threatens to upset the delicate balance between the 60 per cent Malay Muslim majority and the nonMuslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, which have managed to coexist, sometimes uneasily, since the troubled birth of the country in 1957, at a time of civil war and ethnic tension.

At the time many feared that the new nation was doomed to failure. It has instead built a strong economy and an imperfect democracy, dominated for 50 years by the United Malays National Organisation, which has survived without the coups or upheavals that have plagued her neighbours.

Ronnie Liu, of the Democratic Action Party, said: “Socialising between Malays and the other ethnic groups is much rarer than it used to be. You go into coffee shops and restaurants now and they no longer cater to an ethnic mix of customers. It wasn’t like that before.” Some nonMuslim Chinese and Indians feel increasingly treated like second-class citizens. They complain, usually privately, that Islamic religious schools are much better funded than theirs and that a system of affirmative action favours Malays when it comes to university places.

Islam has always had a prominent place. It is the official religion of Malaysia and the Constitution states that anyone born Malay is Muslim.

The debate over the parameters of its role, an old argument in Malaysia, was given a new outing when Najib Razak, the Deputy Prime Minister, broke a taboo to declare that the nation was an Islamic one. He said: “We have never been secular because being secular by Western definition means separation of the Islamic principles in the way we govern the country.”

The Council of Churches of Malaysia afterwards accused him of stirring up racial tension.

Minority religions are particularly worried about a series of apostasy rulings. Chinese or Indians who want to marry a Malay must convert to Islam, causing great problems if they divorce or are widowed and want to return to the religion of their birth.

In a notorious case this year a Malay woman called Lina Joy attempted to have Malaysia’s courts recognise her conversion to Christianity, but failed and was hounded and fled into hiding. Some hardliners have even called for the execution of apostates.

Every state has a religious department with Saudi-style moral enforcers and nowhere are they more active than in Kota Bharu, a city of mosques along a muddy river that bustles during the day but falls silent at nightfall.

Unmarried couples found sharing hotel rooms are hunted down by the enforcers. Couples caught sitting too close together on park benches are fined 2,000 ringgit (£285) in the city’s shariah court under a provision called khalwat, loosely translated as “close proximity”. Couples have been forced into marriage after being caught together and moral enforcers sometimes pick on foreigners.

NonMuslims as well as Malays also sometimes fall foul of the enforcers in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere and there are claims that instead of being paragons of Islamic virtue the enforcers are prone to bribery and have recruited vigilantes into their ranks.

In Kota Bharu the enforcers declined to speak to The Times. Mr Hassan explained: “They are worried about being made to look like fools. It could damage the image of Islam if their work is portrayed in the wrong light.”

Nurhayati Kaprawi, of Sisters in Islam, a group that has spoken out against khalwat and the enforcers, said that many of their raids followed anonymous tip-offs. She said that they frequently terrorised people by barging into homes in the middle of the night.

Ms Kaprawi said: “They say they want to implement Islam but the truth is they are really smearing Islam. If they are not stopped they really could become like the Taleban.”


Mark said...

That "New Dark Age" certainly is dawning, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Islam. Being Melayu. Take it or leave it.

Anonymous said...

Slowly, insidiously, Malaysia is sliding into a theocratic state.
At the moment the considerable non moslim population is holding the slide but what happens when their percentage falls in the future? Its depressing to think about it.

Mark said...

I fear that it is not only Malaysia which is sliding into that 'new dark age'; but rather the whole Western world is. The tentacles of Islam are tightening their grip. That they are doing so is palpable. And who is there to stop the rot?

I smell rotten fruit said...

""Islam. Being Melayu. Take it or leave it."""

Hey anonymous... Once in, you can't leave it, that's the whole point. The prophet you revere is a politician through and through like the Mafia to expand his kingdom through Mafia-like tactics.

More than amply displayed in the Lina Joy's case, the religion is so full of hypocrisy & so obesessed with the minutia it loses sight of the forest. It keeps the outward appearance, but is rotten inside. While the outwardly so pious leaders scream hell and issue fines for couples holding hands in thee park. The same people then excuse politicians who fornicate with under aged girls and them imprison oppositions who brings up the issue. Their excuse?? Any girlold enough to menstruate is fair game for their lust....digusting!!

By their fruits you would judge them, and the christians are not impressed!!