By Daniel Ten Kate and Ranjeetha Pakiam
Oct 16, 2009
Oct. 16 (Bloomberg) -- A 32-year-old mother may soon be caned in Malaysia as punishment for drinking a beer. Lawmakers in Indonesia’s Aceh province last month approved the stoning to death of adulterers and flogging of gays.
These are only the most recent signs of growing support among local governments for Islamic Shariah law in two countries the U.S. cites as models of moderate Muslim democracies. Clerics in both nations have also sought to ban yoga, Facebook and concerts by such artists as the Black Eyed Peas and Beyonce.
The spread of fundamentalist Islam across a swath of Southeast Asia is testing the ability of policymakers to appeal to devout Muslims while simultaneously protecting the rights of Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities. Striking the right balance is key to limiting tensions among religious groups, said Bernhard Platzdasch, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Governments can’t avoid allowing religious laws for Muslims “where there is considerable pressure from the grassroots to cater specifically to Muslim interests,” he said. Going too far can lead “to segregation among the religious communities, and segregation is very likely to lead to instability.”
Shariah, based principally on laws from the Koran, sayings from the Prophet Mohammed and the opinions of Muslim scholars, is followed by many Muslims in such areas as diet, alcohol consumption, marriage and finance.
In Malaysia, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was sentenced in July to six strokes of a cane for drinking beer by a Shariah court in the eastern state of Pahang. While caning is used to punish at least 40 crimes in the country, this was its first use for a religious offense. That judgment was followed by three others at the state level, with more pending.
The growth of such cases hasn’t spooked investors. The Jakarta Composite Index has risen 125 percent this year, making it the fourth-best performer among 91 world indexes in dollars. That may change if investors become concerned that Shariah’s spread may touch company operations.
“Indonesia remains as a country and a government fairly moderate,” said Greg Lesko, who helps oversee $700 million as head of equity at Deltec Asset Management in New York. “It’s more of a long-term concern.” Still, he added: “My wife thinks about it a lot when I travel.”
Indonesian lawmakers are considering a bill that would require all food, drinks, drugs and cosmetics to be tested for compliance with halal, or Islamic dietary rules. That would add costs for companies such as Vevey, Switzerland-based Nestle SA, the world’s largest food producer and Rotterdam-based Unilever NV, the world’s second-largest consumer-products maker.
Since Aceh first introduced a limited Shariah law in 2003, at least half of Indonesia’s 32 provinces have enacted their own variations, including some that apply to non-Muslims, according to Santa Ana, California-based Compass Direct News, a Christian organization that monitors religious discrimination.
Attitudes among Indonesian Muslims have hardened with the spread of Islamic courts, surveys show. A 2006 poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute found 48 percent of 1,173 respondents believed fornicators should be stoned, up from 39 percent in 2001. Thirty-eight percent said thieves should have their hands cut off, from 29 percent five years earlier. The margin of error was 3 percent.
In Malaysia’s northern state of Kelantan, where the Pan- Malaysian Islamic Party has held power for the past 19 years, the capital city of Kota Bharu has no movie theater.
Shariah for All
Chief Minister Nik Aziz Nik Mat, who has governed the state since 1990, said everyone should follow Shariah laws, no matter what their religion. In Malaysia, 40 percent of the nation’s 27 million people are non-Muslim.
“People say it is violent to allow for stoning as a form of punishment, but who says adultery is not violent?” said Nik Aziz, also the party’s national spiritual adviser.
Lawmakers in Aceh on Sept. 15 approved Shariah laws that mandate stoning to death for adulterers and 100 lashes for homosexuals. Aceh’s implementation of “in-your-face Shariah” will “set a very horrible precedent for the rest of the country” if not challenged, said James Van Zorge, a principal at risk consultant Van Zorge, Heffernan & Associates in Jakarta.
Mainstream parties also are taking on board Islamist policies.
The Malaysian state preparing to cane Kartika is controlled by the ruling United Malays National Organization and is home to Prime Minister Najib Razak. The government has declined to stop the punishment.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been silent on the question of whether Shariah conflicts with the country’s constitutional guarantees of rights for the 14 percent of its 248 million people who are non-Muslims.
“We’ve seen a conservative wave being strengthened across Southeast Asia,” said James Veitch, who lectures on Southeast Asian security at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington. “Governments are making gains militarily but they are not necessarily stopping the extremist elements.”
In July, bombs at Jakarta’s Ritz Carlton and JW Marriott hotels killed nine people. Indonesian police on Sept. 17 said they killed Noordin Mohammad Top, the alleged mastermind of the bombings wanted for killing more than 300 people since 2002.
To be sure, the state governments enacting Shariah laws in Malaysia and Indonesia are elected. Overtly Islamist parties in this area three times the size of Texas and home to 260 million people haven’t done well at the polls. Malaysia’s PAS has only 23 of 222 parliamentary seats; Indonesia’s four Islamic parties collectively performed worse in April elections than in 2004.
That hasn’t stopped Islamic mullahs. In January, clerics on the Indonesian Ulama Council followed their Malaysian counterparts and issued a fatwa, or religious edict, banning yoga. In May, they considered prohibiting Facebook, before issuing a ruling forbidding flirting on the site.
Malaysian authorities initially banned Muslims from seeing the singing group Black Eyed Peas last month because it was sponsored by Guinness, owned by London-based Diageo Plc, the world’s largest liquor maker.