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Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, who has been sentenced to six lashes of the cane for drinking beer in a Kuantan hotel, has garnered a lot of international and local attention.

At this point in time, the caning has been delayed in view of the fasting month, Ramadhan, but the sentence will be meted out after the month is over. At the time of writing, the Pahang Syariah Court of Appeal is seeking to revise the sentence.

Kartika, in a matter of weeks, has become a sort of symbol — both political and socio-religious — in Malaysia. The part-time model, and now unemployed nurse, even has two Facebook pages supporting her. The number of members per page is rather paltry, to say the least, yet it cannot be denied that she has made an impact in the lives of Malaysians.

Is Kartika’s “fight” really a clash between liberal Muslims and the conservatives? It would seem so, as reported in the international press, and the more liberal online media in Malaysia. Are we entering the Dark Ages, and is Malaysia being “Talibanised”?

Statements by personalities such as Amir Muhammad, a filmmaker and Yati Karpawi, an activist aligned with Sisters in Islam, are however not the voice of the majority of Muslim Malaysians; they would be considered liberal elites who believe in a secular state and feminist ideals, all no-nos in the jurisdiction of Islam in Malaysia. Still, do PAS Youth (who agree with the punishment) and their members represent ALL the Muslim voices in this country?

The caning or soon-to-be caning of Kartika is followed by the alcohol debacle in Selangor. To the observer, the chasm between the non-Muslims and Malays/Muslims is growing wider. The racial divide is increasingly becoming a religious one. Non-Muslims and Muslims have shown their displeasure, and have already more or less staked their territories – the public lives of Muslims are not the business of their non-Muslim friends, and vice versa. But by encouraging such divisive behaviour, do we want to close our eyes to the injustices faced by our fellow Malaysians who just happen to not be of our faith and race?

First things first: there is a marked difference between caning under Syariah law and our Civil law. According to Azhar Harun (aka the columnist-blogger Art Harun), “Under civil law, women cannot be subjected to caning as a punishment for any offence. The position under Syariah law is, however, different as women may be subjected to the punishment of caning. There is, however, a loophole or a lacuna here. This is because there has been no procedural guideline as to how a caning ought to be carried out under Syariah law.

“As such, when Kartika was sentenced to be caned, she had to be caned in accordance with our civil law. Caning under civil law is, however, different from the Syariah concept of caning for the consumption of alcohol (on the assumption that Syariah did in fact prescribe caning for this offence). Under Syariah, precedents have shown that the wrongdoer was hit with a slipper or a date palm branch. The punishment is designed to humiliate rather than to inflict untold pain. Under civil law, caning is done so harshly that even fearsome gangsters are known to plead not to be caned! The question is, are we going to impose on Kartika a punishment which is way heavier than that which was prescribed by Syariah law (assuming it did prescribe a punishment at all)?

Secondly, under civil law she must go to prison to be caned but the Syariah court did not impose custodial sentence on her. According to Azhar, last week a Syariah prosecutor went to Syariah court and asked for her to be “remanded” in prison for a week to facilitate the caning. The Syariah Judge granted the order.

This was illegal because a person can only be punished once. The punishment meted to Kartika was RM5,000 fine and six lashes; they instead obtained an additional sentence. Furthermore, how could they obtain a remand order? A remand is for the authority to put someone in a lock-up to complete investigation. She has already been found guilty and sentenced. The Syariah court had made a grave error, and caused an injustice. “What guideline are we going to use here? Do we want to punish her even worse than Syariah permits?”

A dipstick survey conducted on Facebook and a cursory look at the heated comments in forums and blogs display a variety of theories, however. Some lucid, and some bordering on hysteria.

Quite a number thought Kartika’s refusal to appeal was about exhibitionism and wanting to make a statement. According to Nadia Jalil, “I think it’s one of the many examples in which Islam has been distorted and appropriated for selected interests in this country. I also think it’s the muftis-that-be in this case, who lack compassion and intellectual discernment (as always).”

Hazman B quipped, “I just think the back-n-forth decision-making process has made a mockery of Islam — laws are laws and it should be followed — frankly I have no idea what the Islamic law says about someone who drinks alcohol but for Malaysia to say one thing and say a different thing later, makes it as if Islam itself can’t make a firm and swift decision on such… inviting further hatred to the already high degree of hate it has incited via other parties — so is this all a Melayu/UMNO/BN decision or is it God’s law?”

Rozita S disagreed with the notion of it being a case of the “Talibanisation” of Malaysia. “Hmm. Somehow I get the feeling that this is part of the central government’s ploy to show up the opposition. You know, just to show the people that they’re a bunch of useless gits who can’t do their job properly. I mean, one thing after another — the Kampung Buah Pala case, Beng Hock, Khalid Ibrahim, the sugar shortage case and now this. I don’t know about you, but it sure smells fishy. My 2 cents’ worth.”

In the Malay forums, however, there seemed to be many calls for the redemption and repentance of Kartika. The fact that she refused to appeal and has apologised is gaining her widespread appeal, for accepting the punishment. Why, in this particular demographic, is there such a need for sandiwara? This “Bertaubat lah Nak…” histrionics does not serve her purpose but is emblematic of Malay culture.

What is Islam’s take on the consumption of alcohol and the punishment for it? The explanations differ from one person to the other, ulama to ulama and Muslim activists. Imam Feisal Rauf wrote about it in The Star on July 29, 2009.

“…Neither the Quran nor the Hadith invokes a penalty for alcohol consumption. The sin of consuming alcohol is described in the Quran in the mildest language of prohibition. When it comes to dietary laws, the Quran commands the believers in Sura 5:3: “forbidden (hurrimat) to you is the dead animal, loose blood, and the flesh of the pig.”

Rauf continued, “… Some legal scholars suggest that the divine command ijtinab, to avoid something, is milder language than tahrim, prohibition. A Muslim consuming a glass of wine with a pork chop commits a more serious offence in eating pork; yet as there is no Quran or Hadith penalty for consuming pork, there is also none for alcohol consumption.”

How did the punishment come about then?

Rauf wrote, “It occurred during the time of the second Caliph Umar b. al-Khattab. There was a companion of the Prophet (sahabi) who had fought on the Prophet’s side in his battles. A heavy drinker, he would walk the streets of Madina drunk at night and loudly shout scandalous things about people. The inhabitants of Madina complained, and Umar formed a committee to decide what to do.

“Imam Ali, based on the man having committed slander, suggested the penalty for slander, whose maximum penalty is 80 lashes. Since that time, this has been considered the maximum penalty for alcohol consumption, based on utilising the Syariah concept of ta`zir (deterrence).

“I disagree with this being the mandatory sentence for the offence of wine consumption, because it is the maximum sentence for another, separate offence – slander – albeit committed under the influence of alcohol.”

Clive Kessler, an Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology with The University of New South Wales, in an interview with Mark Colvin on the ABC Radio National on August 25, 2009 felt it was really about politics. “The crucial, the crux of the matter came with the following the early 2008 elections, the March 2008 elections which represented a major setback for Umno — for the governing party and great advances in particular for its Islamist Opposition, PAS, the Malayan Islamic party.

“In this context Umno is seeking to detach PAS from the Opposition coalition and to garner its support for itself. Umno is trying to appease the Islamic party and cannot afford to stand out and oppose it… Umno is in disarray. It’s in paralysis. PAS knows it and in that context the people, whether they are Islamic party supporters or not but who are Syariah law activists and expansionists, see the opportunity through the Syariah courts to suddenly impose unprecedented …”

What is Kartika’s legacy?

Malaysians, especially Muslim Malaysians, will seriously need to meet and discuss what it is that they want out of Islam in Malaysia. How do they want their faith to be administered in this country? If one is considered a liberal, would his opinion not be worth much, and if she is a conservative, would hers also not be considered? Muslim Malaysians too need to demand that their faith not be hijacked for political gains.

The political “Drama Minggu Ini” that Malaysians are watching now is creating great fatigue among them. It is also causing great insecurity, and does not bode well for a country’s psychological make-up.

Malaysia may have her image severely tarnished by the press surrounding Kartika, but what is even more impactful on her psyche is that Malaysia is no longer a thinking country, and a compassionate one.

Note: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the Chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an international organisation devoted to improving West-Muslim world relations, and author of “Islam, A Sacred Law, What Every Muslim Should know about the Shariah”.

Source : The Malaysian Insider (Dina Zaman)

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