Christians in Malaysia are deeply concerned about an attempt to change the law to allow Islamic punishments in the state of Kelantan. Currently, individual Malaysian states can operate sharia courts, but only for matters of family law, although even these can cause serious problems for Christians, particularly those who have converted from an Islamic background. The maximum sentences sharia courts can impose are a fine of up to 5,000 Malaysian rupees, six strokes of the cane or three years imprisonment. The latter is a punishment that anyone who converts to Christianity from Islam potentially faces.
Now, however, a private member’s bill proposed by the leader of the main Islamist party wants to amend the federal law to allow sharia courts to impose Islamic punishments, other than the death penalty. The bill has been described by a Muslim professor of law in the USA as a devious attempt to bring in hudud (Islamic criminal law) by the backdoor. The supporters of the bill have sought to placate non-Muslims who make up around 40% of Malaysia’s population by claiming that these punishments will only apply to Muslims. However, as anyone who is a Muslim is subject to the sharia courts for life, this could mean that anyone who converts to Christianity would face life imprisonment. It is also extremely likely that if the state of Kelantan was granted these powers then the Kelantan parliament would immediately change the law so that the punishments would apply to all people, not just to Muslims.
This move represents the latest twist in an ongoing power struggle between the sharia courts operated by individual Malaysian states and the federal courts that enforce Malaysia’s constitutional law. It also illustrates the creeping spread of sharia enforcement. Malaysia’s first Prime Minister 'Tunku Abdul Rahman' was emphatic that “there is no way we can have an Islamic State here….we cannot force the non-Malays and non-Muslims to follow our way of life. Our slogan ‘live and let live’ must be maintained because it is the only practical solution in a multi-racial society like ours.”