This is the first time Brunei Darussalam has made it into a post of Rule by Hukum (a dubious honor to be sure). According to Reuters, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has stated that the country would enforce shariah criminal law. Shariah law famously includes harsh punishments, including stoning for adultery, but in theory these are balanced by the high burden of proof and significant discretion given to judges. The version of shariah implemented in Brunei will be much stricter than anything currently in force in Malaysia or Indonesia, so Brunei will likely bear closer scrutiny from human rights advocates and lawyers from now on (including Rule by Hukum).
Category Archives: Islam
The Jakarta Post reported about a case in which a civil servant working with the Dharmasraya Regency Bappeda is on trial for expressing atheist views. The government is prosecuting him under the criminal code and Information Transaction Law for creating a Facebook group Minang Atheists. Moreover, the Constitution only guarantees religious freedom to the extent that individuals believe in a God.
Activists are worried that that the case has already gone too far. Sudarto, the director of the Center for Interfaith Community (Pusaka), argued:
The charges of blasphemy that brought against Alexander are based on ‘rubber articles.’ Their argument, which is exaggerated, is a failure of the Muslim community and our government to take care of other more important things.
Indeed, this is definitely selective prosecution at its worst. Alexander is already claiming he’ll convert back to Islam, but such a conversion sadly would be under duress.
Greg Lopez at the New Mandala blog points to a startling poll showing that over 70% (71.6% to be precise) of Malaysians would want to replace the Federal Constitution with the Quran. Lopez puts this in the context of an increasingly Islamicized Malaysia, although his conclusions are admittedly alarmist. It actually isn’t fairly unusually for Muslims to hold Islamic law in higher regard than their country’s constitution. Unlike secular law, Islamic law is religious law and inherently viewed as morally superior. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the average Muslim approves each tenet of Islamic law, or even understand Shariah. In fact, if we look at the rest of the poll, we find evidence for this proposition. Overwhelming majorities of Malaysians support Islamic law, but very few have actually read the Quran, and even fewer claim to understand its verses. In short, we shouldn’t read too much into the 70% statistic as it might simply indicate that respondents want a more “moral” law, not the specific provisions of Shariah.
Sometimes, as academics, we study the decisions of constitutional courts for their political and legal value. However, sometimes the most important impact of these decisions is on the lives of ordinary citizens. Sadly, a recent outrage in Indonesia reminds us that the decisions courts make can have grave consequences.
A while back, I mentioned a case in which Indonesia’s Mahkamah Konstitusi upheld the 1965 Blasphemy Law as applied to the Ahmadiyah sect. Now, as has been widely reported, less than a year later, a mob of Muslims attacks and stabbed three Ahmadis to death in a village not far from Jakarta. This has justly been portrayed as a black eye for Indonesia. The Economist accuses the government of “fudging” on protecting human rights. Yet, few commentators seem to have drawn the line back to the Mahkamah Konstitusi. Of course, the justices bear absolutely no blame for the violence – that lies solely at the feet of a small number of disturbed young men. Still, I can’t help but wonder if a clear moral mandate from the court might have sent a signal that suppression of minorities would not be tolerated.
In a recent speech, president SBY encouraged Indonesians to utilize legal means to resolve their disputes. I certainly hope more of his countrymen heed his advice.
Human Rights Watch has released a report critical of the application of Shari’ah law in Aceh, Indonesia. Policing Morality: Abuses in the Application of Sharia in Aceh, Indonesia alleges that citizen enforcement of the law has resulted in discrimination, abuse, and even torture. Of course, Islamic fundamentalism has been a controversial topic in Indonesia for quite some time. According to BBC, the head of the Sharia law department in Aceh, Rusydi Ali Muhammad, seemed to acknowledge some shortcomings, but also complained about the one-sidedness of the report. The real question is whether Aceh is an isolated phenomenon, or a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the archipelago…
First of all, I apologize for not posting the past few weeks. I’ve been a bit sick and decided to take it easy.
When catching up on the news, I saw an interesting development in Malaysia. The government recently appointed two female judges to the Shariah court system – the first women ever on the Islamic bench. Sisters in Islam, a feminist NGO group, had long advocated such a move in order to reduce the alleged bias against women on the courts. However, as I discussed in my recent review of the book Islamic Modern, the reality of gender dynamics in the courts might be a bit more complex. Nonetheless, a greater gender balance on the bench is inevitably a positive development for the Shariah courts.
Since 9/11, Islamic law has gained an unfair reputation for being medieval and repressive. Certainly, there are occasional high-profile cases that seem disturbing according to modern notions of human rights (stoning in Iran for instance). Yet, many non-Muslims lack a firm grasp of how Islamic Courts actually operate on a regular basis. In Islamic Modern: Religious Courts and Cultural Politics in Malaysia, Professor Michael Peletz, who conducted fieldwork in Malaysia during the 1980s, provides synopses and transcripts of several cases in the Islamic Court in Rembau. He argues that, far from being repressive, Islamic Courts in fact tend to resemble arbitration and family counseling.
As a record of the types of cases in the docket of the Islamic Court of Rembau, Islamic Modern is invaluable. The book – and Peletz’s commentary – really conveys a sense of how Islamic courts operate on a daily basis. Almost all of the cases dealt with actions for divorce – from the husband who wants a second wife to the wife who abandons her lazy husband. Surprisingly, females were more likely to initiate litigation than males. Indeed, I was surprised how often the Kadi (judge) permitted the wife’s petition for divorce and how often he stressed the husband’s responsibility in marriage. Furthermore, by treating marriage as a contractual obligation between individuals, Peletz argues that Islamic Courts are modernizing Malay identity slowly eroding customary familial and kin linkages (hence the title “Islamic Modern”).
Beyond the actually cases, I found Islamic Modern unfortunately lacking. First, the cases Peletz summarizes deal almost exclusively with divorce. I understand that marital actions probably do comprise a large portion of the docket of most Islamic Courts (as statistics on pages 156-59 suggest). However, it would have been useful to learn more about how Islamic Courts handle other areas of the law – especially because several Malaysian apostasy cases, such as “Lina Joy,” have received so much international attention. In fact, Peletz spends much of the last third of the book discussing gender and homosexuality in Malaysia. This is an important discussion, but seems only tangentially related to the courts.
At the end of the day, Peletz, an anthropologist by training, focuses more on the individual cases and concepts of human culture (he uses the word “symbol” quite a bit). As such, Islamic Modern excels when discussing gender relations, but almost ignores the courts as political institutions. After reading the book, I learned very little about the jurisdiction of these courts, their relationship to the secular courts, or even the tenure of Kadi judges – all of which seem to be hot issues in the field of Shari’ah law in Malaysia. I do hope Peletz’s future research explores these issues in a bit more depth. In the meantime, if you have any interest in Islamic law, I highly suggest reading at least the discussion of the cases in Islamic Modern.