Malaysia's Islamic leader calls furore over syariah law misguided

Opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic party (PAS) president Hadi Awang, who is spearheading a campaign for severe syariah punishments, has dismissed the firestorm that has ensued, saying visions of thousands of law-breakers with amputated limbs are wa
Opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic party (PAS) president Hadi Awang, who is spearheading a campaign for severe syariah punishments, has dismissed the firestorm that has ensued, saying visions of thousands of law-breakers with amputated limbs are way off the mark. -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - The Malaysian Islamic leader spearheading a campaign for severe syariah punishments chuckles as he dismisses the firestorm that has ensued, saying visions of thousands of law-breakers with amputated limbs are way off the mark.

Hadi Awang's party has passed a law in its northern stronghold permitting amputation for thieves and stoning for adulterers, heightening fears about growing Islamisation in the moderate-Muslim country and threatening to break apart a successful three-party opposition coalition.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (PAS)'s law in conservative Kelantan is unlikely to be implemented due to federal constraints, but has sparked debate in the Muslim-majority nation and riled PAS's ethnic Chinese and multi-racial party allies.

Hadi, the PAS president, told AFP in an interview that the "hudud" penalties were largely symbolic and would be "almost impossible" to impose on law-breakers, even if implemented, due to strict limits on their use under Islamic law.

He added the move was meant largely as a gesture to his party's Islamic base.

"Hudud itself, though it seems strict, is almost impossible to implement because the requirements are very strict to come to the eventual punishment," Hadi told AFP in a rare interview with a foreign media organisation.

"It is not that 70,000 people are going to have their hands cut off," he said, chuckling.

PAS's passage of the law - which would only apply to Muslims - on March 18 angered their coalition friends, the Democratic Action Party, representing the large Chinese minority, and the multi-racial People's Justice Party.

The country has large numbers of Christians, Hindus and other faiths, who already complain of shrinking space to practice their religions as Malaysia's Muslim ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), increasingly caters to its Islamic base as voter support dwindles.

The tiny neighbouring sultanate of Brunei began implementing hudud penalties last year, fanning fears in Malaysia of accelerated Islamisation.

But Hadi noted hudud's high proof threshold - multiple direct witnesses are required in adultery cases, for example - as making it unlikely severe action would be taken in the vast majority of cases.

Hudud's value is more as a symbolic deterrent, he added.

"The harshness of the law creates fear and will deter crime," Hadi, speaking Malay, said at PAS's Kuala Lumpur headquarters, dressed in his trademark white turban, a dark business jacket over his white robes.

Hadi's uncompromising push for hudud has prompted PAS's two partners in the multi-faith coalition to accuse him of violating a pledge not to pursue it.

The alliance, which came close to winning power in 2013 polls, now teeters on the brink of collapse.

But Hadi said PAS's hudud campaign was partly a reaction to the ruling regime's courtship of Muslim voters, which has included a high-profile campaign to limit use of the word "Allah" to Muslims, though Malay-speaking Christians also use it for their creator.

PAS has submitted a bill in parliament to change the constitution to allow hudud to actually be implemented. Hadi hopes to have it tabled next week.

It is considered unlikely to pass even with the support of Umno, which has been coy on the issue to protect its own base, but is not expected to support it.

"If Umno does not support us we will win over the Malay votes," Hadi said with a smile.

Many analysts view the episode as a game of "chicken" between PAS and Umno, allowing them to posture on Islam while knowing hudud will never pass.

But James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania and an expert on Malaysian politics, said it reflects a worrying Islamisation trend.

"The demographics are clear. Survey after survey shows that Malaysian Muslims, especially youths, are getting more conservative," he said.

"The only product PAS has to sell is Islam. Whether they start chopping hands or not, they are serious about a theocratic state." The diverse opposition alliance is in disarray now over hudud and the February jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for five years on contested sodomy charges.

Speculation has arisen of a possible future alliance between PAS and Umno that would lead to a deeply Islamic regime.

Hadi declined to comment on that or on whether he was ready soon to mend fences with PAS's allies.