Southeast Asia Not Buying Into Sharia

By Todd Crowell

To hear some tell it, dark forces have been set loose upon the United States - forces determined to impose Islamic Sharia law on an unwilling Christian nation.

It's worth remembering, however, that there are more than two dozen countries in the world where a majority of the people are Muslims. Only a few of them could be described as self-declared Islamic states, such as the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” or one that enforces the strict criminal code known as hudud spelled out in the Koran.

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By that definition there are probably only four truly Islamic states: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan. Two other non-Islamic states, Nigeria and Malaysia, have enacted strict Sharia ordinances in some of their subdivisions. My expertise is in Asia, not the Middle East, so I’ll discuss Indonesia and Malaysia in more detail.

Indonesia, though boasting the world’s largest Muslim population, is not an Islamic state. The guiding principle of Indonesia is pancasila, which refers to a belief in one supreme God, humanism, national unity, democracy and justice. As a philosophy, pancasila is really nothing much more than a collection of platitudes, but it has served as a useful unifying creed.

When Indonesia gained independence in 1948, its founders insisted on a culturally neutral identity rather than defining Indonesia by any one religion. In this way the minority religions and their practitioners are officially on an equal plane with the Muslim majority, not second-class, barely tolerated citizens as in other Islamic states.

The central government has allowed Sharia to be enacted and enforced in only one province, Aceh, best known to the world at large as the site of the devastating tsunami in late 2004. Aceh is noted as being exceptionally pious, and for years mounted an insurgency against the central government in Jakarta. It was allowed to adopt some Shariah as part of the settlement that ended an insurgency stretching over two decades.

Learn More About Religion in Indonesia

But even so, Aceh is not allowed to enforce strict hudud law, only “traditional Acehnese Islamic practices and values,” such as wearing a headscarf, which most of the women there would probably do anyway. Jakarta keeps a strong grip on the criminal code, so it would be difficult for any subdivision to become an Islamic state unless the whole country became one.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia adopted their constitutions at independence, which was a time when colonialism and communism were the burning issues, not Islamic fundamentalism. One wonders what kinds of pressures these countries might be under if they had to write them today.

But it is worth noting that as recently as 2002, the People’s Consultative Assembly, the body that at the time had the power to amend Indonesia’s constitution, voted down attempts to enshrine Islam in the preamble. Over the years Muslim groups have sought to establish an Islamic state but the mainstream community has always rejected it.

For the past dozen years Malaysian politics has been roiled by efforts to enact hudud laws in some of the country’s states. Malaysia is a federal union of 14 states in peninsular Malaya and on the island of Borneo. About 60 percent of the population is Muslim, the rest Hindu, Christian or, in the case of Borneo, animist.

The Parti Islam SeMalaysia (better known by its initials PAS) is dedicated to creating an Islamic state in Malaysia through democratic means. PAS has never won more than a handful of seats in the federal parliament, but it controls the state of Kelantan on the east coast and for a while it governed the neighboring state of Terangganu.

In 1993 the Kelantan state assembly enacted the “State Syariah (Sharia) Criminal Bill.” The pure hudud code covers such offenses as drinking alcohol, illicit intercourse, theft, blasphemy and apostasy (renouncing Islam) and applies it to all Muslims. The penalties are whipping, amputation of limbs and death (by stoning for adultery).

No one has ever been prosecuted under Kelantan’s hudud code. Malaysia’s constitution makes the criminal code a federal matter, and the police, answerable to Kuala Lumpur, decline to enforce the code. However, as nobody is prosecuted, there have been no convictions to bring before the Supreme Court. So the issue has never been tested.

Malaysia’s constitution makes religious affairs a matter for individual states, and most have enacted laws and established religious courts to judge personal matters, such as marriage and inheritance for Muslims. Some states enforce restrictions on public drinking by Malays, too.

But with the exception of Kelantan, alcohol is generally available everywhere. Chinese restaurants dish out pork next to Malay restaurants observing halal. Ethnic Chinese women in miniskirts share the pavement with Malay women wearing headscarves. Women are highly emancipated and occupy important posts.

Nobody would ever confuse Kuala Lumpur with Riyadh.

Todd Crowell covered Tiananmen as Chief of Correspondents for Asiaweek. He is compiling a Dictionary of the Modern Asian Language and comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (www.asiacable.blogspot.com).

Todd Crowell covered Tiananmen as Chief of Correspondents for Asiaweek. He comments on Asian affairs at Asia Cable (www.asiacable.blogspot.com).

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