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Opinion: Sharia debate offers glimpse into Malaysia’s looming ‘culture war’

Malaysia is fast becoming ground zero of a global “culture war”, as conflicting visions of society struggle for dominance.

Broadly speaking, there are two main forces at work. One is a more Western-inclined, common law-based outlook, which has been shaped by Malaysia’s location at the heart of one of Asia’s busiest trade routes, the country’s rich history and various communities that have settled there.

The other, meanwhile, is a more purist approach, which prioritises Islamic traditions.

There’s no doubt that the second is gathering in strength.

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To better understand the conservative community, it’s worth considering the case of Afiq Awang and Muna bt Che Rime, a charming, newlywed Malay couple.

Both are in their mid-twenties and graduates from the International Islamic University on the eastern fringes of Kuala Lumpur. With their loose-fitting, modest attire (Muna wears a hijab that reaches down to her waist), they look like quintessentially pious Muslims.

There are certain acts that are sinful in Islam and I believe that adequate punishments should be meted out

Whilst their clothing may distinguish them from other young people, they share many of the same challenges, such as the high cost of living and prohibitive property prices. Both also recognise that their lives will not be as prosperous as their parents, which in turn fuels their anger and disdain for Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government.

Afiq encourages Muna – a trainee lawyer – to state her views, which she does so typically with a smile and a calm, authoritative manner.

Currently a chambering student, her legal education – she has studied both the sharia and civil legal systems that govern Malaysia – has imbued her with an enviable directness. Afiq’s (he’s a Sharia compliance officer at a pharmaceutical company) arguments are less so.

Muna is particularly impassioned about a controversial bill to amend the Sharia Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 – the RUU 355 – championed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) with the government’s tacit approval.

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While it may seem arcane and irrelevant, the bill has become a lightning rod for criticism, essentially for seeking to enhance the sentencing powers of Malaysia’s sharia courts.

For Malaysia’s large non-Muslim population, and the more progressive elements in the Malay community, this move has been viewed as an attempt to introduce the hardline penal code known as hudud.

Unsurprisingly, Muna views things differently. For her, the two parallel legal systems are supposed to be equal.

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However, it’s clear that the sharia system has lesser powers, which is something she says is an injustice because it was in existence “before” the arrival of the Europeans.

To Muna, this seemingly subordinate status makes her feel as if “our identity as a society that holds true to Islamic values and laws are being slowly eroded”.

Afiq, meanwhile, is particularly concerned about the failure to deal with premarital sex and drinking.

“Islam is not just a private and personal relationship between man and God, but it also governs the relationships between men,” he explains.

“There are certain acts that are sinful in Islam and I believe that adequate punishments should be meted out…Even though these acts only involve the person and God, I believe laws should be made to curb these problems.”

Inevitably, the issue of politics arises – in particular, how the controversy will shape the upcoming general elections – Malaysia’s 14th since Independence. Since both are PAS members, the discussion becomes quite heated.

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“PAS is not simply a political party,” says Muna. “We are also a movement that seeks to change the society. There are two elements that continue alongside the politics: tarbiyyah (education) and dakwah (outreach). Our aim is to create a truly Islamic society that embraces the tenets of the Koran.

“Don’t forget that most members of UMNO [the party of Prime Minister Najib Razak] share our views on Islam and the need to raise our respect for our faith. Their leaders are a different matter.”

Determined and forthright, Muna rebuts questions at every step, offering a glimpse into the enormity of the culture wars that still lie ahead.

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