What I want to do in this post is to explain some of the context in which these two stories are set. The stories come from a country that most Americans are unfamiliar with, involving a religion that many Americans don't understand very well, in part due to all the misinformation about our religion that circulates in both the virtual and real worlds. Not surprisingly, this context is very complex and subject to frequent changes involving, among other things, Malaysian history, politics, personalities, racial and ethnic relations, and religion. I've tried to explain all these aspects as briefly as I can; however, the essay is already long enough that I've decided to split this "comment" into two posts.
Before I begin, I want to give my bona fides regarding Malaysia. I freely admit that I'm an outsider looking in. However, those of us here in Singapore are almost all, by definition, Malaysia-watchers due to the proximity between their country, peoples and cultures, and ours. Many Singaporeans, including my wife's family, have relatives in Malaysia. When Singaporeans talk about going on holiday, they normally mean traveling up to Malaysia, and indeed, I myself have made a number of trips into Malaysia since 2003. Their news often is reported by Singaporean media, and one Malaysian TV channel, with its own news program, is broadcast into Singapore. And, of course, I am married into a Malay family with whom I have discussed Malaysian culture, history and politics many, many times over the years. So, while my knowledge about Malaysia is certainly imperfect, I think I have a decent grasp about what goes on up in that country.
There are several things one must keep in mind when discussing religious news out of Malaysia: Malaysia is a melting pot of several different ethnicities and cultures. Western (Peninsular) Malaysia (which I've traveled through) is primarily made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians, whereas East Malaysia (on the west coast of the island of Borneo) is mostly made up of Bumiputera (Boo-me-poo-trah), the indigenous tribes, along with Malays and Chinese (there are hardly any Indians in East Malaysia). There have also been strong influxes of immigrants (especially illegal) to Malaysia from all over South and Southeast Asia. So ethnically, religiously, and culturally, there is a very wide mix within Malaysia.
Another factor to consider is Malaysian politics. The country is a parliamentary democracy, and has about 33 political parties; however, four parties dominate: UMNO (United Malays National Organization), DAP (Democratic Action Party), PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the People's Justice Party, most commonly known as Keadilan), and PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party). UMNO has been in power more or less since independence in 1957, working through a coalition with 11 other parties to form Barisan Nasional (National Front). This coalition is the legal holder of the Prime Minister-ship; however, it is UMNO that calls BN's shots. The other three major parties, DAP, Keadilan and PAS, recently formed their own coalition, called Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance). This alliance is still rather shaky, especially as its leader, Anwar Ibrahim (a former Deputy Prime Minister under Dr. Mahathir Muhammad) is in the opening stages of his second sodomy trial. Likewise, there are some lingering concerns among non-Muslims that PAS's recent "good behavior" will revert back to its original form some time in the future.
Malaysian politics have been in a state of flux since 2002, when the former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir (he was originally a medical doctor), announced that he would retire from office in 2003, serving as PM for a total of 22 years. Dr. Mahathir is arguably the most influential man in Malaysian history, and still commands respect and admiration from many Malays. As mentioned above, Anwar Ibrahim was Dr. Mahathir's former Deputy Prime Minister, but was sacked by Mahathir in 1998; there are various suggestions as to why this was done. Anwar's replacement as DPM was Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who eventually replaced Dr. Mahathir as PM in 2003. Abdullah was generally seen as a promising replacement to Mahathir, especially with respect to getting rid of the corruption within Malaysian society. Although he won election to a second term in 2008, Abdullah was increasingly seen as a weak leader. Dr. Mahathir even quit UMNO as a protest against Abdullah's leadership. Abdullah finally resigned in April 2009, with Najib Abdul Razak (son of Malaysia's second Prime Minister) currently in office.
The 12th General Election, in March 2008, not only saw Abdullah reelected PM by a slimmer margin than he had won in 2004, it also saw the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, making significant gains in both the national and state parliaments. In the national parliament, BN lost a total of 58 seats while Pakatan Rakyat won a total of 62, bringing their total number of seats to 82 (36.9%), up from a total of 20 seats (9.1%) won in 2004. Keadilan had won 31 seats, up from 1 in 2004, while both DAP and PAS won 16 new seats each. In the state parliaments, Pakatan Rakyat took over five states, up from one in 2004 and two in 1999 (PAS had won the state parliaments in the previous two elections).
Now, of course, UMNO feels threatened by the rise of the Pakatan Rakyat coalition, but of the three opposition parties, UMNO feels most threatened by PAS. DAP's constituency is mostly Malaysian Chinese, along with some of the Indian population, while Keadilan's is mostly left- to moderate-Malays. PAS has traditionally targeted very conservative Muslims, while UMNO has picked up the majority of conservative Muslims who fall between Keadilan and PAS. (When I say "left," "moderate" or "conservative," I'm not using the terms associated with American politics; rather, I'm using descriptions for Muslim attitudes. If one was to compare Asians' political views to that of Americans, you'd find that many Asians are definitely left-of-center.) UMNO doesn't target Keadilan supporters because the latter are mostly anti-UMNO; however, PAS has traditionally worked toward turning Malaysia into an Islamic state (through the implementation of all aspects of Shari'ah). As a result, UMNO has tried to increase its electoral support by stealing away PAS supporters by being "more Muslim than thou." UMNO still isn't nearly as conservative as PAS was in the early 2000s, before the latter's big electoral defeat in the 2004 election, but UMNO has definitely made overtures toward the more conservative Muslims (who tend to concentrate in the north of the country).
In the meantime, I think we are seeing two distinct developments happening within the government's bureaucracy with respect to religious issues. On the one hand, I think more bureaucrats are taking advantage of the political flux to make their own judgments regarding religious issues. One example is the fatwa against yoga that was issued back in 2008. This was slapped down by the Sultan of Selangor, who said that the council which issued the fatwa should have consulted the nine Sultans of Malaysia first. Another development is that there seems to be confusion between the two sets of judiciaries (the civil courts and the Shari'ah courts) as to who has precedence over various matters. The Shari'ah courts, apparently, are either taking the lead or being referred to by the civil courts. This was one of the criticisms with respect to the caning of the three women. As the Al-Jazeera article that Ojibwa referenced notes:
The caning, however, has raised new questions about whether a state religious court can sentence women to be caned when federal law precludes women from such a punishment, while men below 50 can be punished by caning.
However, the trend I have observed over the past few years is that if the case involves a Muslim or issues pertaining to Islam, then the Shari'ah court will have precedence, regardless of what the federal law says.
To be continued...
[For an earlier post I wrote about the "Allah" case, see The Situation in Malaysia. Cross-posted at Street Prophets.]