BRITISH television station Channel 4 recently placed the spotlight on government raids on unmarried Muslim couples in Malaysia, embedding a reporter in a team of religious police officers to film a short-yet-revealing documentary.
Focusing on the enforcement of sharia (Islamic) law in Malaysia as a whole, Channel 4 reporter Marcel Theroux followed religious police as they mounted their raids in Kuala Lumpur in the wee hours of the morning.
This is what strict Sharia Law looks like.Malaysia's transgender Muslims get some of the toughest treatment from the country's religious police – as Unreported World witnessed on patrol.
Posted by Channel 4 News on Thursday, March 17, 2016
The team of officers are shown visiting various budget hotels in the city, checking the register at each stop. Arriving at the premises, the enforcers would scan for Muslim names on the hotel register before knocking on those rooms. Married Muslim couples will have to produce a marriage license to avoid arrest.
Adhering to Shariah laws, Khalwat or “close proximity” between two unrelated Muslims of the opposite sex in (for example, a secluded room or a public park) is illegal in Malaysia, and punishable for up to two years in prison – effectively criminalising extramarital sex between Muslims.
The reporter was baffled by this, remarking, “On one hand, you want to be respectful of another person’s culture, and then on the other hand, you remember being 24 years old and you think, ‘Can it really be possible for me, as an adult, now to be under arrest for being in a hotel room with my girlfriend?'”
The documentary also highlighted the plight of transgender Muslims in the country, frequently arrested for crossdressing – also a crime under Malaysia’s sharia law.
“A man obviously must be a man and a woman must behave like a woman. We have to follow the divine laws and sharia law,” remarked one of the religious police officers in the video.
In landmark ruling in 2014, the Malaysian Court of Appeal struck down a ban on crossdressing, declaring it to be unconstitutional. However, last October, the country’s highest court – the Federal Court – reversed that ruling based on procedural rules and court jurisdiction, essentially upholding the ban.
The ambit of Islamic law in Malaysia has always been constitutional, with liberals arguing that the country is secular by constitution, and conservatives pointing to the constitution’s recognition of Islam and Islamic law. Over the last few years, liberal activists have complained about the growing assertiveness of the country’s religious authorities.
Nonetheless, with its Muslim-majority population, Malaysia remains a deeply conservative country. A Pew Research report in 2013 showed that an overwhelming 86 percent of Malaysian Muslims want Islamic law (or sharia law) to be the official law of the land. Of that group, 60 percent approved of stoning as a punishment for adultery.
That same report also revealed that 94 percent of Malaysian Muslims believe extramarital sex to be immoral – the same percentage as their counterparts in neighboring Indonesia.
With those numbers, it’s difficult to see Malaysian authorities moving in a more permissive direction anytime soon.