A revived attempt to introduce strict Islamic penal code - or hudud - in Kelantan is driving deep fissures in Malaysia's Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance of three big opposition parties.
An irate leader of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) has already told Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to leave the alliance, formed six years ago, if it wants to implement hudud, saying the move is against the Constitution in multiracial Malaysia.
PAS is set to table in Parliament next month a Bill proposing that the Islamic penal code be implemented in Kelantan, despite objections from the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
The spectre of hudud law in Malaysia in the past caused non-Muslim voters to bolt from the PAS and any party associated with it.
Under hudud, a convicted thief's limb could be amputated and adulterers stoned, for example.
While PKR is also against the move, its chief Anwar Ibrahim has been less harsh in criticising PAS over it, for fear of upsetting Muslim voters, who make up 60 per cent of the country's 29 million population.
Kelantan Deputy Menteri Besar Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah said: "As far as PAS is concerned, we have not violated any agreement with our allies. We have the right to implement the Islamic laws as the laws of the land in Kelantan." He is a key PAS leader pushing for hudud in the state.
"It is also the right of our allies PKR and DAP to disagree but, make or break, we will implement the laws by next year," he was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper last Thursday.
Alarm bells are ringing for opposition leaders opposed to the hudud Bill's presentation in Parliament for two reasons.
One is that the Bill will be presented by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang himself, meaning the issue has the nod of top leaders of the Islamic party.
Two, there is widespread talk that PAS may seek support from Muslim Umno MPs to push the vote through in the national Parliament. PAS, trying to shore up its weakening Muslim voter base, argues that it needs only a simple majority in the 222-seat Parliament to implement hudud law in Kelantan.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said late last month that his government does not reject hudud law, but that there are administrative matters that must be in place before it can be implemented.
The issues of hudud, and whether to make Malaysia an Islamic state, have waxed and waned since PAS won the Kelantan state legislature in 1990.
The DAP and PAS have often crossed swords over the issue to the benefit of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that governs Malaysia.
But Datuk Seri Anwar managed to get the DAP and PAS to put aside Islamic issues for the 2008 and 2013 general elections, and play up instead issues of BN graft and poor governance under Umno.
Chinese voters have since warmed to PAS, and Malay voters to the DAP.
To PAS, the criticisms by non-Muslims on the implementation of hudud law are unwarranted as the law is applicable only to Muslims.
But non-Muslim Malaysians, who make up 40 per cent of the population, are alarmed as there could be grey areas such as if a Muslim and a non-Muslim are involved in an offence under Islamic law, an example being an unmarried couple caught in a hotel room.
Non-Muslims are also worried about the possible expansion of Islamic law that could infringe on their rights in the future.
It is also unclear if Malaysia's Muslims, though becoming increasingly devout, would support hudud law. Most are reluctant to openly criticise syariah (Islamic) laws that they believe come from Allah and must be carried out to reduce crime and other social woes, but that does not mean they necessarily support their implementation now.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, an open critic of the move, has added fire to the debate by saying: "There is no justice if hudud is implemented because the hands of a Muslim thief are cut while a non-Muslim spends two months in prison. Is that justice? If it is not justice, then it is not Islamic."
DAP's veteran leader Lim Kit Siang wrote in his blog recently that "the electoral costs to be paid by PR would have been hefty and significant if hudud had been part of the PR manifesto" in the 2013 General Election.
Also, DAP acting chairman Tan Kok Wai told the Malaysiakini news site last Wednesday that there would be "no room for you" if PAS were to push ahead with its proposal.
He quoted a Chinese proverb that says: "People who walk different paths cannot make plans together."
Mr Anwar, mirroring the comments of his political nemesis Datuk Seri Najib, said: "We cannot talk about hudud when the judiciary and the judges are still not independent. I can give you tens of examples, even including the syariah courts. Now, who are the ones who will implement this hudud?"
This article was published on May 5 in The Straits Times.
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