Thursday, February 9, 2017

Why and what is opposition to Act 355?

There are many aspects of the Private Member’s Bill or Rang Undang-Undang Persendirian (RUU355/Act 355), brought by PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang in Parliament, that have interested me.
I have already written and spoken on different occasions on my views about the Act. I am now trying very hard to understand the crux of the opposition to the amendments sought. 
A few things are clear about the arguments by the proponents of the Act 355 if I understand them correctly. Firstly, they say that increasing the sentencing powers will empower the Shariah courts. Secondly, they feel that as Muslims the Shariah law must be implemented by all Muslims.
It is a must according to their understanding of being a good Muslim. Furthermore, they argue that the amendments will only affect three offences; namely that of zina, offence of falsely accusing someone of zina, and alcohol consumption, with their respective punishments of 100, 80 and 40 lashes. These are offences which are already part of the Shariah law in the country.
There is clearly support for the punishment of 100 lashes for the offence of zina in the Quran while the punishment of 80 and 40 lashes is found in other sources accepted by the majority of Muslim legalists. 
The indisputable fact is that the Act 355 itself concerns the jurisdiction of the Shariah courts and what is sought to amend is the sentencing powers of the Shariah courts. It is perfectly constitutional to seek to amend any Act. 
Then why are some Muslims opposing the amendments to increase the powers of the Shariah courts? Why are also non-Muslims opposing the amendments since Shariah laws will only affect the Muslims?
The simplistic response would be that these Muslims who are opposing are ignorant, liberalists, western influenced or agents of some anti-Islam force. I am not convinced by these simplistic responses. I believe the opposing Muslims are concerned whether or not such enhanced powers in the hands of the Shariah courts as existing today will be justly carried out. 
The other concern that I believe these opposing Muslims may have is their understanding of what is justice in Islam and priorities of the Shariah. If this is so, then they should come out more explicitly and clearly what their understanding is so that it can be the subject of useful dialogue with the view to develop Islamic understanding in the country. 
However, these opposing Muslims should not forget that much of the offences that they now appear to oppose are already part of the Shariah law in the country. Why then the opposition now? This is the part that is still unclear to many.
I doubt if these opposing Muslims oppose Shariah laws per se. I believe both sides will agree that the ultimate aim of Shariah must be justice. The proponents of Act 355 argue that justice can only be served when the Shariah as enshrined in the Quran and developed by the jurists are implemented. What is the counter argument, if any, that can be advanced by the opponents? 
I have also heard arguments that this is a backdoor to implement hudud laws in the future. It could very well be. However, what may happen in the future cannot be a valid objection to what is constitutionally permissible today. 
The other argument often heard is that this may give rise to a dual legal system. Such an argument is a separate matter altogether and cannot be a valid objection to the amendments sought.
I have often argued for a single Malaysian legal system but I do not position this argument as an objection to Act 355. What I envision is a total reform of the Shariah system in the country and a possible fusion with the civil law system. Admittedly, this will require a long-term reform of the justice system in the country.
I may have my own fundamental disagreements with the interpretation of what constitutes hudud and I have written elaborately on this on various occasions. I also disagree that merely increasing sentencing powers leads to empowering the courts. However, on the debate relating to the amendments to Act 355, I believe that constitutionally and on the basis of mainstream juristic views, the proponents of the Act have a stronger case. 
For the non-Muslims, as the law now stands, they have nothing to fear in terms of the application of Shariah laws on them. Hence, the opposition by some non-Muslims is difficult to fathom as it appears to be founded more on fear rather than facts. 
I would be surprised if the amendments sought are not passed in Parliament when they are debated.

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