LETTER TO THE EDITOR
“Moral Policing Violates Qur’anic Spirit and Fundamental Rights”
Sisters in Islam calls on the Government to suspend the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment until a comprehensive review is conducted on constitutional and Islamic grounds. Numerous provisions in the law, one of which was used to arrest some 100 Muslims in a nightclub for “indecent behaviour” recently, have no basis in Islamic legal theory and practice and violate fundamental guarantees in the Federal Constitution.
The Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment is an example of a punitive law which regulates a person’s conscience, faith and private lifestyle. Such measures support the pursuit of a “moral” society in a literal and shallow way – by policing what people can wear; and where, how and with whom they socialise in their leisure time.
The practice of moral policing goes against the injuctions laid out in various verses in the Qur’an, such as “…do not pry into others’ secrets…” (Surah Al-Hujurat 49:12); “Do not enter other houses except yours without first asking permission and saluting the inmates… If you are asked to go away, turn back. That is proper for you” (Surah An-Nur 24:27, 28); and “…when you judge among the people, do so equitably” (Surah An-Nisa 4:58). A hadith of the Prophet (saw) in Sunan al-Tarmidhi also states “Do not harm Muslims, and do not revile them, nor pursue their imperfections…”
In addition, the selective punishment by JAWI officers on the women who were arrested violates Article 8(2) in our Federal Constitution that reads “there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender in any law…”
The Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment is vaguely drafted that their “catch all” provisions provide wide discretion for interpretation and abuse by enforcement officers. Over the years, the enforcement of this law has created a climate that runs counter to the spirit of justice, equality, freedom and dignity as promoted in the Qur’an. The zealousness of religious officials in “promoting good and preventing evil” has often led to public outrage because those arrested, especially women, were shamed and humiliated.
In 2000, over 30 NGOs called on the Government to review this law after the arrest and charging of a female pub singer for “insulting Islam” by being in a premise that served alcohol.
In 1997, then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed ordered the Attorney-General’s Office to suspend and review the Syariah Criminal Offences law following the public outrage over the arrest of three Muslim women who took part in a beauty contest.
In 1997, Sisters in Islam submitted a memorandum to the Government on the Syariah Criminal Offence Act and Fundamental Liberties. Some of the concerns expressed included: any violation of a fatwa in force, any effort to dispute or to give an opinion contrary to the fatwa constitute a criminal offence; The three beauty contestants were charged under this provision for violating a fatwa that forbade Muslim women from taking part in beauty contests. (They were also charged and found guilty for “indecent dressing” by wearing, among others, “sports attire with the body exposed”.) to insult Islam or the religious authorities constitute an offence. What constitutes an “insult to Islam” is not defined. In the case of the pub singer, being in a place that served alcohol constituted an insult to Islam; to act or behave in an indecent manner in any public place is an offence. What constitutes “indecent manner” is not defined. It has included “holding a woman’s waist in a shopping complex” and “sitting closely together and holding hands”. Hundreds of Muslim women and men, mostly young, have been arrested and charged under this provision.
The Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment and its record of enforcement has brought to question if laws and their implementation in the name of Islam can indeed be just and humane. Many of those charged have chosen to plead guilty without legal representation for fear of shame and discrimination in a prolonged public trial.
Is it the duty of the state – in order to bring about a moral society – to turn what it considers “sins” into “crimes against the state”? Should the state extend the long arm of the law to what should be best left to the religious conscience of the individual? There are disagreements among Muslim jurists over the extent to which efforts should be made to protect public morality and the scope of legal protection to the tenets of religion.
What is the effect of such laws on nation-building and the relationship between the communities in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Malaysia? What role do evolving societal norms and behaviour play? Should taxpayers’ money and Government resources be utilised to police the conduct of Muslims? How does this law build a progressive Muslim society as envisaged by the Prime Minister’s Islam Hadhari concept?
What is the impact of such laws and the abuse in enforcement on the image of Islam and Malaysia worldwide?
In a country that embraces modernity like Malaysia, it is imperative that the Government examines these concerns and take due consideration in enacting and implementing its laws so that it does not bring about injustice to society as a whole.
Failure in appreciating and addressing this would engender the perfect climate for a closed and intolerant society in which the threat of militancy can thrive, where morality is imposed by law and where cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is condoned.
The Government has to ensure that the rights of its citizens to justice, equality, freedom and dignity be upheld at all times and not be trampled upon in the state’s overzealousness in carrying out its duties and responsibilities.
Sisters in Islam supports the recent Cabinet decision that criminal matters be strictly dealt with by the Police under the Penal Code and that morality matters be dealt by the individual and their family.
In this light, a comprehensive review of the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment and the record of its enforcement is needed. We urge the government to form a committee which includes representation from women’s groups, human rights groups, progressive Islamic scholars and constitutional experts.
Where to strike the balance between law and morality must be decided by society in a democratic manner and not through legislation driven from above with no public support nor public discussion.
Sisters in Islam
February 1, 2005