Moderate Muslims, women's groups, Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have all reacted with horror to plans by Muslim opposition party PAS to impose full Islamic Shari'ah law in
Malaysia's Terengganu State.
PAS, the largest opposition party in Malaysia, wants to see the country (traditionally one of the most moderate nations in the Muslim world) transformed into an Islamic state governed by Shari'ah law. PAS already controls Kelantan and Terengganu, two of Malaysia's thirteen states. An earlier attempt to impose full Islamic law in Kelantan was blocked by the federal government in 1993. Now PAS is pushing for Shari'ah law in Terengganu instead and has drafted a bill which will come before the State Assembly at its next meeting due to begin on 7 July. The move has been vigorously opposed by women's and minority groups as well as Malaysia's powerful Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose government, whilst often criticised on human rights grounds, is naturally opposed to PAS and is relatively moderate in religious matters. Zaid Ibrahim, president of the Muslim Lawyers Association of Malaysia and a division chief of UMNO, the country's ruling coalition, has taken the matter to court seeking a ruling that only the federal government (and not individual state governments) has the authority to pass criminal laws.
Christians and other non-Muslims are fearful that under Shari'ah law their rights and freedoms will be eroded and they will become second-class citizens. Shari'ah law, which prescribes harsh penalties such as amputation for theft, requires converts from Islam to another faith to be put to death and counts the evidence of non-Muslims and women as worth only half that of Muslim men in legal courts, in some cases discounting their testimonies altogether. Particularly controversial is Section 9 (2) of the new Shari'ah Bill which requires a female rape victim to provide four male Muslim witnesses to ensure a conviction. The victim could face 80 lashes for making slanderous allegations if her case cannot be proved, and if she is found to be pregnant she may even be charged with adultery, a crime punishable by stoning to death according to the Shari'ah.
Muslims in Malaysia account for only 60% of the overall population. Many Christians are fearful as they look at the example of Nigeria, a nation similarly divided between Muslims and non-Muslims, where attempts by Muslim-majority states in the north of the country to impose full Shari'ah law led to savage violence in which as many as 2,000 people have been killed and thousands more left homeless in the past two years. Despite repeated promises that Shari'ah
law would be applied to Muslims only, both Muslim and Christian men and women have been segregated on public transport; Islamic vigilantes are enforcing Shari'ah dress codes on Muslims and Christians alike; and churches have been intimidated and closed in Nigeria's Shari'ah States.
Tension and uncertainty in Malaysia has been further heightened by the death of Fadzil Noor, the relatively moderate head of PAS, on 23 June. His acting successor is Abdul Hadi Awang, an Islamic hardliner and the Chief Minister of Terengganu State, who is championing the proposed imposition of full Shari'ah law. On top of this development the nation has been stunned by the announcement that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been in power since 1981, will be standing down in favour of his deputy in sixteen months. Mahathir has done much to create a strong and moderate multicultural, multiracial state. Christians are deeply concerned about the power vacuum his departure will create and are fearful that Malaysia could emerge from the changes ahead as a repressive Islamic state.