Thursday, October 29, 2009

Torture for beer drinkers

During the recent U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman painted a picture of Malaysia that many like to see -- a multiethnic mosaic of religions, races and beliefs. "The Malaysian government has introduced the One Malaysia concept," Aman said. "It aims at fostering appreciation and respect for all races, seeing diversity as a source of strength. It envisages unity that arises from true acceptance instead of mere tolerance."

Yet the same day that Aman extolled the virtues of one Malaysia for all, a judge's ruling back home conveyed an image of the Southeast Asian nation with a two-track justice system that unfairly punishes Muslims.

The chief Islamic law judge of the eastern state of Pahang upheld a religious court's verdict to cane a Muslim woman for drinking beer. There is debate here over whether the state law under which Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was convicted and sentenced violates provisions of federal law. The question underscores the challenge that individual state governments -- which have sole authority over Islamic issues -- pose to the federal government, and the fairness of a legal system that applies only to Muslims, whose personal offenses are tried under "sharia," or religious, law.

After Kartika, 32, pleaded guilty to drinking, the sentencing judge threatened to jail her for three years if she didn't pay a fine of $1,400. Kartika paid the fine and came close to being caned in August before an uproar in the media and among rights activists earned her a temporary reprieve. She would be the first Muslim woman to be caned in Malaysia if the sentence is carried out.

Kartika's case is just one example of the increasing harshness of Malaysia's separate justice system for Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of the population. Last month an Islamic court sentenced an unmarried couple to caning for trying to have sex in a car. An Islamic court in another state ordered an Indonesian Muslim man to be whipped six times and jailed a year for drinking liquor at a restaurant.

Ten of Malaysia's 13 states impose fines on Muslims who are caught drinking alcohol -- though the Muslim holy book, the Koran, does not stipulate a punishment for this transgression -- while three states have recently ordered caning. Such punishments apply only to Muslims; non-Muslims must abide only by civil laws, so they are free to drink or engage in other behavior forbidden under Islam.

This dual system of justice amounts to state interference in Muslims' private lives. State efforts to "protect" Muslims from sin include a government attempt to ban Muslims from a rock concert because it was sponsored by a beer company. (The government eventually backed down.)

Although Malaysia has long prided itself on being a role model of a "moderate" majority-Muslim nation, politicians have taken to brandishing their conservative and punishment-focused Islamic credentials to attract the votes of Muslims drawn to "purer" leaders. Many Muslims are afraid to challenge the Islamists for fear of being labeled as anti-Islamic or ignorant of Islamic tenets. "This is definitely not the Malaysia I grew up in, which was far more relaxed and tolerant. This has really been a political development over the last decade or so where political parties have used Islam in order to win the Muslim vote," Marina Mahathir, a writer and a blogger, told me by e-mail.

And contrary to the One Malaysia theme, the politicization of religion has even led to hostility against non-Muslims. In late August, for example, a group of Muslims paraded the severed head of a cow, the most sacred animal in Hinduism, to protest the construction of a Hindu temple. A Malaysian civil court charged 12 protesters with criminal offenses.

Hamidah Marican, executive director of the group Sisters in Islam, whose request for a review of Kartika's sentencing was recently rejected, seeks to challenge the image Malaysian officials present of a tolerant country. Harsh punishments such as caning, she says, actually violate Islamic principles.

"Islam is compassionate. There are 107 verses in the Quran that talk of forgiveness," Marican said. "Personal sins are between you and God, not for man to judge. Sharia laws are in fact often the result of juristic activity involving human beings; hence they're fallible."

Malaysia plans to again seek a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council next year, but members of the council should know that caning is a humiliating punishment that violates international conventions against torture, to which Malaysia is a signatory.

The Malaysian government must acknowledge that interfering in people's private lives and sentences such as caning are the antithesis of a "moderate" Muslim state. Malaysia must make clear what kind of country it wants to be. Is it the nation of the splendid Kuala Lumpur skyline, blending the traditions of its mosques and temples with the modernity of the dazzling Petronas Towers? Or is it a judgmental, moralistic nation that obsesses over the private lives of its citizens?

[Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. ]

While on the beer topic, here is a letter from a Malaysiakini reader, "Chanting Yes", rationalising the issue why it is impossible for a ban to be imposed.

I refer to the letter Hasan Ali 'a beacon of light for Islam'. Politics aside, I would like to express my concerns 'openly and uninhibitedly' - as the writer suggested, on a few points raised in his letter.

The recent charade about the sale of canned and bottled beer in Shah Alam is telling in many ways. I can still recall a series of pictures of Chinese PAS supporters drinking canned beer and posing before the press at their operations centre in Terengganu. It was the height of the 2004 general elections, and subsequent criticisms of the matter were duly reported in the New Straits Times.

I suppose there is a difference in behaviour during courtship and after.

In Malaysia, retailers are required to obtain a license to sell and serve alcoholic beverages. However, a license is not required for beer sold in bottles and cans. The liquor license in Malaysia is subjected to a myriad of laws and regulations, differing in degrees by the awarding local authorities and all kinds of considerations are made prior to its issue. However, there is an existing procedure.

If Hasan Ali is keen to regulate the sale of canned and bottled beer, he should call for the regulation of such goods under the liquor license (or motion for a new license). It is immature of our politicians to frame it as a religious and cultural tussle, when no such conflict exists.

If our argument is on the easy access to intoxicating beverages like beer near residential areas, then a restriction on sales through licensing is the answer. Why make arguments along a divisive path of religious sensitivities - thus pitting the Muslims against the non-Muslims?

Malaysia is still a civil society built on the foundations of a constitution. There wil no end to the demarcation of public spaces if we are to accommodate everyone's 'sensitivities'. It will end up with mob rule, where the majority will impose their supposed 'right' where and when they can. Already, commentators the writer saying that Hasan Ali is right to call for an alcohol ban for Muslims.

I am totally confused - aren't alcoholic beverages already off-limits to Muslims in Malaysia? I thought Muslims will only consume products with a 'halal' certification in this country. So why are non-Muslims punished for Muslims who fail to uphold their Islamic principles?

It is thus interesting for the writer to come charging about the non-Muslims' failure to understand Islamic principles. Sure, we know that alcoholic beverages are not only 'haram' for consumption, but every Muslim involved along the production and distribution of the product is committing a sin.

In that case, the writer should recommend that no Muslim should be allowed to work on such products, from advertising to sales, and any tax collected should be reinvested only for non- Muslim interests.

You see, there are people making a living from both cigarettes and liquor. Some of them also actually enjoy wine, beer and vodka. Claiming that 'alcohol-drinking is the mother of all evil and vices', and adding that 'this is a fact', would surely persuade a lot of alcohol-consuming Malaysians to change their ways.

I don't drink, my grandfather does. He enjoys the occasional rice wine, although we do worry about his liver at his age - he is in his eighties. If Muslims want non-Muslims to respect Islam, they should show some of the same. In the writer's case, insults and logical fallacies won't get you very far.

I think many right-thinking Malaysian citizens agree that we need to regulate gambling, drinking and smoking. There is a reason why they are dubbed 'sin taxes'. There is a lot of justification for the regulation of beer sales and I know many countries regulate drinking hours and venues.

But instead of making rational and logical arguments on the basis of the common good, our politicians are only quick to seize on regressive arguments, appealing to the audience by their religion and race. Rational citizens must not only resist to respond in kind and allow such individuals to dictate the basis of an argument, but we should also understand the underlying issues at stake.

Any talk of banning alcoholic beverages in our country is doomed to fail. What we can do is regulate it, just like how we should regulate gambling and smoking. If we cannot control the demand, at least we can tighten the supply. At the same time, we must be strict in our enforcement, and keep a look out for black market activities that might come in to fill the void.

I welcome proper rules and regulations that will control the sales of alcohol and tobacco (including Lotto tickets) in the form of licenses, but I forbid any decision to award such licenses by ethnic ratio alone. A

s a rule, all sales of alcohol and tobacco should be limited to licensed restaurants/pubs (limited quantity and hours of sale), convenience stores (in limited number and away from residential areas, places of worship, schools and hospitals, just to name a few) and other specialised stores.

Existing prohibition to sell alcoholic beverages to Muslims and cigarettes to underage buyers should be enforced more thoroughly instead of taking the products off the shelves of law-abiding licensed operators and cutting off their revenue stream.

The instruments of the law is there for a reason. Nobody is above the law, and unless Hasan Ali and his colleagues in office have made the necessary amendments to the rules and regulations, seizures of beer stocks from local convenience stores remains illegal.

I know some operators have voluntarily removed such products from their shelves in certain areas, but that is made out of Pakatan Rakyat politeness, if not outright intimidation. I know some policymakers are already keen to regulate the sale of condoms to curb illicit sexual activities, but I suspect we need to weigh the risks and benefits before doing something that silly.

Stop selling a cigarette and that's one less being smoked, stop selling a condom... well, let's just say mankind have a long history of sex prior to the invention of polyurethane sheath.

I would say that gambling, smoking and drinking are the concern ot all Malaysians and not just the Muslims. The sooner we can get on the same page to regulate such behaviour, all the better. On gambling and drinking, the solution seems straightforward for the Muslims, via restricted sales and prosecuted public consumption.

I wish we can just ban all three like chewing gum in Singapore, but there are arguments that one has the right to gamble, smoke and drink to your own folly in this country, just like how people actually have the right to be stupid. The only thing we can do then is damage control.

And a quick note on Hasan Ali being the 'beacon of light for Islam in a world that has succumbed to corruption and immorality' - lets' just say that I feel sorry for the man to have to shoulder such a heavy responsibility. May he be bright always.

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