KAMPUNG PULAU MELAKA, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia’s Islamist opposition party called on non-Muslims on Thursday to back its election campaign to apply strict sharia law, including amputations and stonings, for the country’s Muslims.
Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) is trying to broaden its appeal beyond the predominantly Muslim heartland at the next election, which is expected by political experts to be called by end-March and to be fought partly on the issue of rising street crime.
“The people want the best and there is nothing better than Islam,” Nik Aziz Nik Mat, 77, told Reuters after morning prayers at his home in the largely rural northeast state of Kelantan, ruled by PAS since 1990.
An Egyptian-educated scholar, Nik Aziz said non-Muslims had nothing to fear from strict sharia punishments, known as hudud, and a lot to gain from them, especially Malaysia’s large and wealthy ethnic Chinese minority.
“It is more important for the Chinese to accept hudud laws because those who steal do not steal from the poor,” said Nik Aziz, who wore a skullcap, white shirt and sarong.
“Who steals from the poor?”
Hudud laws would not apply to non-Muslims if the Pas campaign succeeds in the end.
Nik Aziz’s spartan, single-storey home of green brick and wood sits next to a mosque and a religious school in a traditional Malay village. Malays constitute virtually the entire Muslim population and are defined as Muslim under the constitution.
“Thieves steal from the rich and the Chinese are more well-off than the Malays. If a thief’s hand is amputated and he goes to the football field or he goes to the market, people can see that he is a thief,” he said.
“Everyone will be afraid and won’t steal.”
Malaysia, a collection of Islamic kingdoms in medieval times, still treats Islam as its only official religion, though waves of Chinese and Indian migration in the last two centuries have dramatically changed the racial and religious landscape.
More than 40 percent of Malaysian are now non-Muslim.
“It’s not impossible for hudud to be implemented,” said a Muslim watch-seller who gave his name as Nor, as he sipped coffee near his stall at a street market in Kelantan.
“It’s a good deterrent, but it’s not easy to be implemented because there are so many races.”
Malaysia has been run since independence in 1957 by a multi-racial coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian parties, which is considered the only political structure that can govern and keep a lid on Malaysia’s religious tensions.
But Malaysia’s opposition factions have been unable to come together. The main opposition Democratic Action Party, which is backed by mainly Chinese voters, says it could never go into a coalition with PAS while it retains its Islamist platform.
“It appears they still have a political death wish,” said Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the Democratic Action Party, when he was told of Nik Aziz’s latest comments.
“That is why we cannot cooperate with PAS... We believe that a theocratic (federal) state is not appropriate for Malaysia. Even the Muslims themselves don’t agree with a theocratic state.”
Malaysia’s current Islamic legal system deals mainly with issues such as apostasy and family matters, such as divorce. It cannot mete out severe punishments such as stoning for adultery. Even in Kelantan, the PAS state government says federal law prevents it from instituting these punishments.
In 2004, PAS fared poorly in general elections, just clinging onto Kelantan and losing power in neighboring Terengganu state. Since then, some younger and more pragmatic leaders have moved up the ranks, trying to move the party beyond its Muslim heartland.
But the party platform remains unchanged.
Writing and additional reporting by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Bill Tarrant
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