Islamic law debate puts pressure on Malaysian PM
Feuding over an Islamic penal code that stipulates stoning for adultery and amputation for theft has put a spotlight on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's struggle to secure the majority Muslim vote and fend off attacks on his leadership.
The "hudud" controversy was triggered by the Islamist party that rules Kelantan, a northern state where nightclubs are banned and there are separate public benches for men and women.
Parti Islam se-Malaysia's (PAS) push to have "hudud" recognised under federal law, so it can be implemented in Kelantan, risks splitting the national opposition coalition to which it belongs: an already wobbly three-party alliance.
The opposition's squabbles would be heartening for Prime Minister Najib were it not for the divisions that the row has highlighted within his own party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Stunned by the desertion of ethnic Malay votes in the 2013 election, conservatives within UMNO see the issue as an opportunity to burnish the Islamic credentials on which their party built its power base in this Muslim-majority country. Malays make up almost all of Malaysia's Muslim population.
UMNO lawmakers in Kelantan openly backed the push for hudud, a calculated decision "not to offend the sensitive Malay vote base", according to a senior UMNO leader. At a national level, though, the party has yet to make a public stand on the issue. Najib himself has not stated a view, but he is widely seen as a moderate on Islamic issues.
"Hudud has always been there in Malaysia. The only difference is that it was kept under control by previous leaderships," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) think tank. "His silence has now encouraged hudud supporters and made it difficult for others to argue for a rational dialogue." (Reuters)
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