KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – After a series of flip-flops, authorities in Malaysia decided this week that a 32-year old Muslim woman caught drinking beer in violation of Islamic law would not be caned after all.
The controversy may have subsided, pending a legal review, but it has left a bitter aftertaste.
The case of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a former model and nurse, drew the attention of international media and rights groups and presented a harsh view of the kind of Islamic justice dispensed in one of the world’s most moderate and stable Muslim-majority countries.
“It is pretty embarrassing,” Marina Mahathir, a leading women’s activist and the daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, told The Associated Press in an interview.
Kartika was charged with violating a law prohibiting Muslims from drinking alcohol. Marina said it raised a key question about how Islamic laws are applied in Malaysia. “Are they working to dispense justice or to provide moral lessons for the rest of us?” she said.
Malaysia follows a dual-track justice system. Shariah laws apply to Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of the 27 million population, in all personal matters. Non-Muslims — the Chinese, Indian, Sikh and other minorities — are covered by civil laws, and are free to drink.
Often the two sets of laws collide and the winner usually is the Islamic system. For example, a Muslim who converts from Islam is guilty of apostasy under Shariah laws — punishable by jail and fine — even though freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution.
The two legal systems have also conflicted over custody cases, where a father converted to Islam and wanted the children to do the same. In other disputes, Islamic authorities have forcibly taken for burial the bodies of people who secretly converted to Islam before their death.
Kartika’s controversy started unnoticed in December 2007 when Islamic morality police — functionaries of the government’s Islamic Religious Department — caught her drinking beer at a beach resort in Pahang state. She pleaded guilty to violating the Islamic law banning Muslims drinking alcohol and was sentenced by a Shariah High Court in Pahang in July to six strokes of the cane and a fine of 5,000 ringgit ($1,400).
She paid the fine and decided not to appeal her sentence. Had she appealed, lawyers say, the caning would have been struck down and the case would have died a natural death.
Kartika’s case snowballed into a media circus after it was reported she would be kept in jail for a week for the sentence to be carried out. Lawyers and women’s activists were outraged. On Monday, Kartika was taken away by Islamic officials in a van headed for the prison.
But officials turned back 30 minutes later and Kartika was brought home. At first, officials said the sentencing was being suspended on compassionate grounds until the end of the holy month of Ramadan. However, it emerged later that the chief judge of the Shariah court put the caning on hold indefinitely pending a review.
If it is carried out, the caning would be done with a thin stick and would be largely symbolic rather than to cause pain. But activists say it raises the broader question of whether such Islamic laws should intrude into Muslims’ private lives.
“These types of punishments are in the books. Whether they are used or not is something else,” Marina said, noting that many Muslim women do drink in Malaysia. “It is really between men and God. That’s how it should be. The Quran is clear that alcohol is prohibited but it does not impose a punishment.”
There are several other gray areas in the conflict between Shariah and civil laws. While Kartika can be caned under Islamic rules, Malaysia’s penal code prohibits caning of women.
Muddying the issue further, only three states in Malaysia — Pahang, Perlis and Kelantan — impose caning for drinking alcohol. In the other 10 states it is punishable by a fine.
Maria Chin Abdullah, the executive director of woman’s group Empower, says much of the legal confusion is because of the government’s reluctance to make it clear that federal civil laws carry more weight than Shariah laws for fear of offending Muslim voters.
“They (the government) have to intervene. Otherwise Kartika will not be the only case. If you don’t clear this issue of jurisdiction then we will keep on having cases like this. We will constantly be battling between Shariah and civil laws,” she said.
Malaysia’s ruling coalition, the National Front, is dominated by the United Malays National Organization, a party made up exclusively of Malay Muslims of all types — conservative, liberal and middle-of-the-road.
The Front narrowly won general elections in 2008, but it was its worst performance after five decades of political dominance since Malaysia won independence in 1957. With support dwindling, UMNO is reluctant to upset any of its constituents by taking a stand on the issue, either for Kartika or for the Shariah courts.
UMNO is also trying to woo the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, whose supporters are mainly conservative rural Malays.
Top PAS officials have called for Kartika’s caning to be carried out.
The party’s youth chief, Nasrudin Hassan, said that if the sentence is revoked, it might make the Shariah courts seem “inconsistent or powerless.”