IF we were to believe everything we read, one would think that torture or degrading behaviour, if done differently, would no longer constitute torture or degrading behaviour. Indeed, this is what Pahang’s Mufti Department would want Muslims and non-Muslims to believe.
Scan of New Straits Times report on syariah caning
On 26 Oct 2009, the New Straits Times ran a story espousing how syariah caning was different from caning under civil law. At a day-long seminar organised by 14 Muslim non-governmental organisations, a demonstration of syariah caning was conducted to presumably show just how humane syariah caning could be.
A staff from the department explained that only a syariah-compliant rotan could be used, the woman had to be fully dressed and seated, and the caning would have to be moderate so as not to break the skin. “You cannot raise your hand above your head [while caning the woman],” the officer said.
But is it actually humane, or even effective, to whip a woman — or for that matter, a man — whether according to syariah or any other convention? Does the state religious authority, and all the other proponents of the whipping of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, actually believe that torture or degrading and humiliating behaviour by any other fashion can be made just, humane and compassionate?
How is it better?
If anything, the syariah caning demonstration in Kuantan was a ploy. A public relations exercise. A way to pull the wool over our eyes about what actually the whipping, as punishment for a Muslim drinking alcohol in public, is about.
Mannequin display of caning procedure
under criminal law in Malaysia
(public domain / Wiki commons)Are we expected to believe that because a syariah-complaint cane is less than 1.22m long and 1.25cm thick, it will not hurt the person who is struck by it? Are we to believe that if the cane is only raised to a certain height that it will not hurt when it comes down? Are we also expected to believe that if no skin is broken during the caning, that the person has not been treated in a degrading and humiliating manner for a personal sin that the state has no business criminalising?
Let’s be honest. The whole purpose of having syariah laws that allow for caning to be meted out for, in this instance, drinking alcohol is to ensure that Muslims can be punished if they don’t do what the state tells them to. It’s to give power to the state to whip (pun intended) the ummah into shape according to a particular interpretation of Islam.
So, if punishment is really what this is all about, isn’t it obvious that how that punishment is meted out isn’t going to change the fact that the state is still punishing Kartika? That would mean that even if her skin is unbroken from the syariah-compliant cane, what the state is saying is that it has a right to punish, humiliate and degrade a Muslim for a personal sin.
The seminar in Kuantan ended with the 500 or so participants adopting a five-point resolution which among others urged all parties to respect syariah and the decisions made by the syariah courts.
Some scholars say whipping Muslims for alcohol consumption is inconsistent with the Quran’s teachings
But here’s what curious about such a resolution. According to several different Muslim scholars, whipping for alcohol consumption is inconsistent with the Quran and with the spirit of Islamic teaching. These scholars include Dr Chandra Muzaffar, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Professor Dr Mohammad Hashim Kamali, and Professor Abdullah Saeed. Other Muslims such as activist Norhayati Kaprawi and women’s rights group Sisters in Islam have also argued that Islam is a religion of compassion, not punishment which should be left in God’s good hands.
How then can any Muslim, what more an Islamic state agency, describe the caning of Kartika as judgement according to syariah that cannot be challenged? Truth is, Islam upholds justice, peace and compassion, and syariah laws can be compliant with human rights principles.
It is only when some Muslim groups and Islamic state agencies don’t respect the true spirit of Islam and of syariah that human rights are violated in the name of Islam, and public relations exercises, such as the one in Kuantan, need to be conducted.
To be fair, the groups clamouring for Kartika to be whipped according to syariah are not the only ones guilty of trying to call a spade a cuddly teddy bear. The Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government is doing exactly the same thing with the Internal Security Act (ISA) which allows for indefinite state detention without trial.
Detention without trial, or whipping, by any other name is still torture
Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has announced all kinds of proposals to reform the ISA including reviewing the definition of “threats to national security and public peace”. He has also talked about re-examining the length of detention and the appointment of independent investigators.
But as I have argued before in my column, this is a whitewash. Presumably, these reforms are meant to make the ISA less draconian. But will it still be draconian? You bet. For so long as the law allows for detention without trial, no amount of changes to the execution of that detention will make it less a violation of human rights.
All about power
What is it then that underpins the actions of the Islamic state authorities and the BN government? It’s that dizzying, addictive substance called power. More potent than alcohol, power is what is motivating the Islamic state authorities to insist on caning Kartika and the government on detaining people without trial. For the Islamic authorities in Pahang and other states with similar syariah punishments for personal sins such as alcohol consumption, it’s about having the power to force Muslims to live and act according to a particular definition of Islam. For the federal government, it’s about having the power to silence dissent.
What else could it be, right? After all, we know that there is no compulsion in Islam and that caning for alcohol consumption is not Quranic. We also know that detention without trial is a violation of one’s right to liberty and a fair trial. Hence, no matter how much less torturous the caning or detention is, the fact remains: we are being asked to hand over power to religious authorities and to our government to violate our rights.
Jacqueline Ann Surin is convinced government will do anything, from cracking down to deaths in custody to public relations exercises to using Islam, to stay in power. She wonders if Malaysians will let our state get away with it.
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns
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