The hudud debate: Stepping back from the chasm

So the two Pas private members’ bills, originally supposed to be tabled in Parliament in June, have been shelved.

May 16, 2014

By Anil Netto
So the two Pas private members’ bills, originally supposed to be tabled in Parliament in June, have been shelved. The official reason for the postponement put forward by the party was that a joint Putrajaya-Kelantan government technical committee needs more time to study the implementation of the Syariah penal code in Kelantan.

Some may interpret the back-down as a face-saving move by both the BN and Pas after an unexpectedly loud and sustained public outcry, not only from people of other faiths but also from concerned Muslim commentators. The impact of introducing hudud on the economy should not be understated either.

The postponement of the bills came despite strong backing for hudud from pro-BN groups like Isma.

Pas intention to introduce hudud in Kelantan is not something new. (It has been lying in the backburner for two decades.) What is new were the more receptive sounds coming from Umno and Putrajaya. As political scientist, Dr Francis Loh of Aliran, asked, was Umno goading Pas into pushing for hudud?

The hudud push comes on the back of the BN’s weak performance in the general election of 2013, when 51 per cent of the population voted for change.

The Pakatan Rakyat’s inroads in 2008 and 2013 came after their parties had agreed on a common platform that made no mention of hudud, while recognising that Pas was entitled to have its own Islamic state goal. Is this a weakness that needs to be addressed?

For a while it looked as if Pas had forgotten the lesson of the 2004 general election. That was when the party lost power in Terengganu after it mistook the groundswell of support for the opposition — especially in Malay-Muslim areas — in the general election 1999 (during the reformasi era) as support for the party’s Islamic state position.

The opposition performed disastrously in the 2004 general election, as many Malaysians seemed willing to give Abdullah Badawi a try after Mahathir had stepped down.

Chastised by their poor performance, and after much soul-searching, Pas came up with its more inclusive “Pas for all” slogan. It ditched the Islamic state for a broader negara kebajikan concept. Pas’ Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad has defined this concept as “a nation of care and opportunity – premised on a state based on the Quranic imperatives of Justice (Al-’Adli) and Care (Al-Ihsan), which will provide opportunity to all to realise their potential to serve the raison d’etre of creation”.

Now Justice and Care are universal principles that many are comfortable with. Crucially, it showed that the party was embarking on a more enlightened path.

But after the 2013 general election —which saw the BN suffering setbacks which left the coalition dominated by Umno and after the electoral defeats by a few progressive politicians in Pas, the right wing conservatives on both sides decided the time was ripe to join forces to push their move exclusive religious agendas.

The conservatives were all the more concerned as Malaysians appeared to be moving past the old race-based politics and crossing boundaries and joining forces on a host of public interest issues and campaigns such as Bersih, Stop Lynas, No to GST and No to TPPA – thus embracing the New Politics.

Right wing pro-BN groups like Perkasa and later Isma appeared to be given considerable latitude — and media publicity — to put forward their shrill, narrow and divisive rhetoric. This alarmed more moderate and progressive-minded Malaysians.

Some observers saw it as a plan to split the 51 per cent of Malaysians who had voted for change in the 2013 general election and to create a rift among the Pakatan parties. BN parties too were similarly divided over hudud — perhaps that mattered less for the BN as MCA and MIC were already weakened. But BN cannot afford to take for granted its ‘fixed deposits’ of Sarawak and Sabah especially with rumblings of discontent being heard in both states.

Many have argued there is no guarantee that justice would be achieved or corruption eradicated even with hudud while others felt that the code was not suitable for a multi-religious nation like Malaysia in the present era. They point out that even without hudud, all sorts of grey areas have emerged in the overlapping jurisdictions of Islamic family laws and civil law. Others were already concerned about their right to religious freedom in the context of creeping Islamisation.

Unwittingly or otherwise, the public spat over hudud has conveniently nudged away from the headlines the public outcry against GST (62 per cent of Malaysians oppose the GST), the Barang Naik protests, the serious reservations over the neoliberal Trans-Pacific Partnership Agenda and the much criticised handling of the MH370 incident.

After the acrimonious public debate on hudud, good sense appears to have prevailed and let’s hope we can move forward to a more inclusive environment. Pas especially has to do some serious soul-searching and discover who its real friends are and what matters more — Justice and Care and Compassion or harsh punitive measures.

The realisation may have dawned that the risks and implications of pursuing the hudud agenda would have been too costly — for both sides and for the nation and its overall harmony.

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