By P. Gunasegaram

Original article can be found here.

And let’s do away too with a slew of outmoded, archaic laws in the statute books, both syariah and civil.

Let’s come right out and say it: It is abhorrent to most Malaysians and most of the world that a Muslim woman – or any woman – should be whipped for drinking beer. And that is especially so when scholars say that the Quran does not prescribe such a punishment in the first place.

It’s a fact of Malaysian life that when it comes to religion we tread ever so softly, sometimes even too softly, because this entire area is considered so sensitive and is open to manipulation by undesirable elements in society.

But, sometimes, when those charged with the upholding of religious laws overstep their boundaries, it is up to the rest of us – Muslim or non-Muslim – to speak up or otherwise run the risk of having the more extreme views predominate and therefore prevail.

It’s dangerous if we don’t, because shying away from making a stand against an unfair situation means that those perpetrating it simply get more encouraged.

If the silent majority keeps silent its voice will never be heard. That would be bad.

And then there is the issue of many outmoded and archaic laws in the statute books, both syariah and civil, which can – and sometimes are – used to press charges against citizens.

The most famous of these now is the second charge of sodomy that former deputy prime minister and current Pakatan Rakyat de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim faces.

Many of these laws don’t involve any harm done to others and mainly centre around a person’s individual behaviour and his relations with other adults in private.

It is time that we cleaned up our statute books and got rid of laws that infringe on a person’s individual choice and which does no harm to others.

We should not only act when there is international reaction and attention focused on the issue but must as a matter of course do what is right and just for those who are affected by such punishment.

Earlier this week, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a Malaysian living in Singapore, had her whipping sentence deferred by the Pahang Syariah Appeal Court in view of Ramadan, the fasting month.

On July 20, the Pahang Syariah Court had fined Kartika RM5,000 and ordered her to be given six strokes of the rotan after she pleaded guilty to drinking beer at a hotel in Cherating, Pahang, last year.

Kartika refused to appeal and was not only adamant that she be caned but also wanted it to be done in public.

Everything seemed set for her punishment when she was scheduled for caning on Monday at Kajang prison. But Pahang Religious Department officers made a literal U-turn after picking her up at her house and returned her 45 minutes later after stopping by the roadside for 40 minutes.

This followed a letter from the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

This case is drawing international media attention and may well affect Malaysia’s long-standing reputation and status as a moderate Islamic nation which has managed to blend Islamic tenets with development imperatives for the betterment of its citizenry.

In a twist of events, Kartika achieved what some of our best corporate personalities have not been able to – to make the front page of two of the most respected business newspapers in the world.

Both Asia editions of the New York-based Wall Street Journal and the London-based Financial Times had pictures of her on Tuesday on page 1, with reports inside.

Besides that, her plight was also reported in the New York Times and by other newspapers and agencies across the globe.

While our actions should not be based on what others think of us, we must also be mindful that they are in accord with internationally accepted norms with respect to human rights and right of choice when it comes to personal behaviour.

We must take care not to be hypocrites and not to be selective in our punishments.

If everyone who is a Muslim is to be whipped for taking alcohol, our jails will be filled to overflowing with those awaiting punishment and I dare say this will include quite a number of very big names.

So why can’t we do away with punishment for an offence like this especially when many experts say there is no prescribed punishment in the Quran for taking alcohol?

While at it, we should remove from the statute books archaic laws relating to people’s sexual preferences.

How ridiculous it is for instance to keep laws which outlaw oral sex, for instance, and other acts which occur between consenting adults in their own individual moments of privacy!

There is more than a case to be made out for outlawing whipping completely for any offence, especially since experts say that there is no evidence to indicate that such punishment deters misbehaviour.

We have only to look at the number of rape and incest cases in our country to understand that the assertion is anecdotally true.

We have to stand steadfast against those who would enlist the help of vigilantes to oversee personal behaviour.

There was one proposal a couple of years ago for khalwat or close proximity.

Earlier this week, a Selangor state executive council member proposed that mosque officials be given the right to arrest Muslims who take alcohol.

Imagine the kind of abuse that will give rise to – and the invasion of privacy such moves will result in – if there is a scramble to catch offenders.

Already there have been many reported cases of abuse, including one where a Rela officer refused to allow a female detainee to relieve herself in private and actually took a picture of her when she did.

No matter from where justice comes, the bottom line is that it must be fair, merciful, impartial, compassionate and proportionate to the offence committed. If we ensure that all laws – syariah or civil – conform to that, there will be no problems.

Managing editor P Gunasegaram says there is real danger of disarray when man purports to speak for God.

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