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Hudud bill - a political battle over religion

COMMENT As the Dewan Rakyat resumed its sitting yesterday, many Malaysians are concerned how will Hadi’s motion or perceived hudud bill be evolved, debated and contested.

Is Hadi’s motion essentially a hudud bill, or merely an enactment to enhance existing Islamic criminal laws, or possibly a stepping stone to implement hudud?

It's a motion that draws different viewpoints, perceptions and responses, depending on one’s political stand, religious affiliation and social experience.

To a certain extent, substances and details matter less, as those who support further institutionalisation of Islamic criminal laws (however defined) will back it, while those who do not support will be against it.

In other words, the hudud debate is not much about hudud itself, but is more about how different Muslims and non-Muslims would like to position the role of Islam in public life and legal sphere in Malaysia.

Therefore, those in between, especially Muslims who would like Islam to have greater role in public life, yet do not prefer the legalistic approaches might be caught in a dilemma.

As anti-hudud has been equalised by some of its proponents as 'anti-Islam/anti-Malay', these Muslims might be somehow forced to support the so-called hudud bill, even though they might not have sufficient knowledge on what constitutes the bill and perhaps actually disagree with its implementation.

The debate underneath Hadi's motion or perceived hudud bill is not only a religious one, but very much a political one - for PAS to demonstrate that it is more 'Islamic' than Amanah, for Umno to show that it 'fights for Islam' while DAP 'rejects Islam', for the ruling parties to divide Malays and non-Malays.

In such processes, not only so-called liberal or progressive Muslims are sidelined, the voice of many ordinary Muslims might also be distorted or misrepresented.

Undeniably, hudud is becoming an increasingly important issue, yet it is not a decisive one among many Muslims.

After all, PAS supporters and many Muslim voters stayed true to PAS in the last two general elections, even though the party did not openly campaign for a stricter implementation of Islamic criminal laws at either time.

Diverse opinions of religious scholars

Moreover, terms such as ‘hudud’, ‘syariah’ and ‘Islamic’ have been often used interchangeably by both Muslims and non-Muslims politicians alike, even though they might carry different meanings. In fact, various religious scholars might have diverse opinions on what constitutes hudud, syariah and Islamic laws, just as they may differ in ways of implementing them.

Similarly, conflating and uncritical use of terms such as 'Wahhabism', 'Salafism', 'Arabisation' and 'Islamisation' might not be useful in understanding the multi-faceted religiosity of many Muslims.

Often, many Malaysians conflate personal quest for piety with state bureaucratisation of Islam, business branding of syariah-compliance with political commitment on Islamism. Such over-generalisations might not be helpful to resolve various issues concerning Malaysians today, including the debate over hudud.

To a certain extent, hudud to Malay Muslims is akin to Chinese education to many Chinese Malaysians.

For example, many ethnic Chinese support or at least will not go against the existence of independent secondary Chinese schools, but only a few of them send their children to such schools.

The Chinese support towards independent secondary Chinese schools is not much about their endorsements of such schools, just like the Muslims support towards hudud is not much about their agreements to enforce hudud.

Instead, such supports are manifestations of identity politics in Malaysia - the politics that are not only divisive, but also silencing the internal differences in the name of communal interest.

There are no easy solutions to contentious hudud debates. Nevertheless, it is important for all Malaysians to move the debates of hudud bill beyond identity politics, beyond the dichotomy of Muslims and non-Muslims, beyond the politics of 'us' and 'them'.

It is also necessary for us to give more voices to ordinary Muslims, as well as to understand the diversity of Muslim viewpoints beyond the simplified labelling such as Islamists, Wahhabis and liberal Muslims.

HEW WAI WENG is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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