Thursday, September 01, 2005

When is a State Islamic?

Ever since the drafting committee completed work on Iraq’s new Constitution, there has been plenty of discussion, much of it uninformed, about what is and what is not an Islamic state and whether we should worry about it. Consider the following exchange from last Sunday’s Meet the Press:

Mr. Russert: “[Iraq is] going to be an Islamic state by the wording of its own Constitution.”

Gen. [Wayne] Downing: “There are other Islamic states. Turkey is an Islamic state. Malaysia is an Islamic state. Indonesia is an Islamic state. These are all Islamic states which are acceptable to the U.S. and acceptable to the world.”

It is worth remembering that there are more than two dozen countries in the world where a majority of the people are Muslims. Only a few of them could be called Islamic states. I would define and Islamic state as one that declares itself to be one – ie the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” or one that enforces hudud the criminal code spelled out in the Koran, complete with whipping, stoning and amputation of limbs.

By that definition there are probably only four Islamic states: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan. The new Constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq enshrine Islam, but Afghanistan doesn’t yet have a parliament to enact any Islamic laws. Nigeria and Malaysia have enacted hudud ordinances in some of their subdivisions. My expertise is in Asia not the Middle East, so I’ll discuss Indonesia and Malaysia in more detail.

Indonesia
Sorry, general. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is not an Islamic republic. The guiding principle of Indonesia is pancasila not Islam. Pancasila, which means “five principles,” refers to belief in one supreme God, humanism, national unity, democracy and justice. As a philosophy, pancasila lacks substance. It is really nothing more than a collection of platitudes, but it has been very useful nonetheless.

When the Constitution was written, Indonesia’s founders insisted on a culturally neutral identity rather than defining Indonesia by any one religion. Pancasila equates Islam equally to four other religions: Buddhism, Balinese Hinduism and Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity. More than 80 per cent of Indonesia’s 230 million people are Muslims, but the country is so big that the other 20 percent make up a lot of people.

In this way the minority religions and their practitioners are officially on an equal plane with the Muslim majority, not second-class, barely tolerated citizens as in true Islamic states. The Constitution guarantees “all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or beliefs . . .” and restricts Islam to family, mosque and prayer.

The central government has allowed Shariah, or Muslim religious law, to be enacted in only one province, Aceh, best known to the world at large as the site of last year’s tsunami. Aceh is noted as being exceptionally pious and also in rebellion against the central government in Jakarta, so this was a kind of sop.

But even so, Aceh is not allowed to enforce hudud laws, only “traditional Acehnese Islamic practices and values,” such as wearing a headscarf, which women would do anyway. Jakarta keeps a strong grip on the criminal code, so it would be difficult for any subdivision to become an Islamic state unless the whole country became one.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia adopted their Constitutions at Independence (1945 for Indonesia, 1957 for Malaysia), which was a time when colonialism and communism were the burning issues, not Islamic fundamentalism. One wonders what kinds of pressures these countries might be under if they had to write them today.

But it is worth noting that as recently as 2002, the People’s Consultative Assembly, the body that amends Indonesia’s constitution, voted down attempts to enshrine Islam in the Preamble of the Constitution. Over the years Muslim groups have sought to establish an Islamic state but the mainstream community has always rejected it.

Malaysia
Unlike Indonesia, Malaysia’s Constitution recognizes Islam as “the religion of the federation” but says that other religions may be practiced in “peace and harmony.” For the past dozen years Malaysian politics has been roiled by efforts to enact hudud laws in some of the country’s states. Malaysia is a federal union of fourteen states in peninsular Malaysia and on the island of Borneo.

The Parti Islam SeMalaysia (better known by its initials PAS) is dedicated to creating an Islamic state in Malaysia through constitutional means. PAS has never won more than a handful of seats in the federal parliament, but it controls the state of Kelantan on the east coast and for a while it governed the neighboring state of Terangganu.

In 1993 the Kelantan state assembly enacted the “State Syariah Criminal Bill” The pure hudud code covers such offenses as drinking alcohol, illicit intercourse, theft, blasphemy and apostasy (renouncing Islam) and applies to all Muslims. The penalties are whipping, amputation of limbs and death (by stoning for adultery).

No one has been prosecuted under Kelantan’s hudud code. Malaysia’s constitution makes the criminal code is a federal matter, and the police, answerable to Kuala Lumpur, decline to enforce the code. Since hudud discriminates against non-Muslims and women, it would seem to be unconstitutional under the document’s equal protection clause. However, as nobody is prosecuted, there have been no convictions to bring before the Supreme Court. So the issue has never been tested.

Malaysia’s Constitution makes religious affairs a matter for individual states, and they have enacted laws and established religious courts to judge personal matters such as marriage and inheritance for Muslims. Some states enforce restrictions on public drinking by Malays, too.

But except for Kelantan and Terengganu alcohol is generally available everywhere. Chinese restaurants dish out pork next to Malay restaurants observing halal. Chinese girls in miniskirts share the pavement with Malay women wearing headscarves. Women are highly emancipated and occupy important posts. Nobody would ever confuse Kuala Lumpur with Riyadh.

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