Friday, 28 August 2009

The case of Kartika Sari Dewi – sentenced to be caned for drinking beer, an activity that is a criminal offence for a Muslim - is troubling for liberal Malaysians. Writer Farish A. Noor, in online magazine MySinchew, explains how each time a case like this occurs, many Malaysians feel as though they face a turning point.

Like it or not, Malaysia still depends on trade and international goodwill from the developed countries of the West, not Afghanistan. This, then, is the dilemma that Malaysia faces at the moment, and there seems little consensus on how to proceed.

Kartika's caning has been postponed to the end of the month of Ramadan, but this buys precious little time to resolve what has to be a landmark case in Malaysian syariah law. One thing, however, is certain: The costs of caning Kartika are simply too high, and should that line be crossed the country would have jumped one rung up the Islamisation ladder yet again.

The choice for a moderate country like Malaysia is between creeping Islamisation or creeping liberalisation. It seems as though political pressure by the Opposition Islamic party, PAS, is forcing the governing party, UMNO, to behave in a certain way. The way it feels itself forced to behave is to accommodate the more conservative elements of society, the harder-line Islamists, so as not to suffer in the polls. Appeasement of Islamists, however, increases Malaysians’ sense of estrangement from the liberal West, on which it depends for so much of its investment and trade.

So in Malaysia, more than in Islamic countries such as Syria or Jordan, where there is no democratic process, we are able to view the effects of radicalisation on the political process. Which is why Malaysia makes such an interesting spectacle for a Western observer. Instead of totalitarian abuses we see the forces of society functioning in the same way they function in our own countries.

Another matter has appeared in the media today: the case of US rock group The Black Eyed Peas, whose show in Malaysia has been banned for Muslims. Muslims cannot go to the concert. Statements by the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture show that even the authorities feel conflicted. On the one hand, they want to boost the economy. On the other they feel obliged to uphold religious law, sharia.

"Muslims cannot attend. Non-Muslims can go and have fun," an official at the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture told The Associated Press.

She said the concert would not have been permitted at all under normal circumstances because government regulations forbid alcohol companies from organising concerts. But authorities made an exception on the hopes the event would boost tourism, the official said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to make public statements.

The concert is sponsored by Irish brewer, Guinness. This is the reason Malaysians have been forbidden from attending it.

What is sure, in all this, is that Kartika Sari Dewi is a brave woman. She has not appealed the sentence of six strokes of the cane. In fact, she has asked that the punishment be carried out in public. She wants the world to see. If this request is permitted, it will be interesting to see if the foreign media will be allowed to film it.

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