Sultan Ismail Petra Arch, Kota Bharu, Kelantan State, Malaysia
Sultan Ismail Petra Arch, Kota Bharu, Kelantan State, Malaysia
Paul Conge

KOTA BHARU On Sultan Zaineb street, congregants leave the mosque one by one in Kota Bharu, the capital of the rural Kelantan state, in northeastern Malaysia. After Friday prayers, the loudspeakers are put on standby.

Some men wearing the traditional kufi turban cross a square at the heart of which stands a white arrow-shaped building. Padang Merdeka, an open-sky memorial that commemorates the place where the country's independence was declared in 1957, now faces a grim future.

On July 12, the State Assembly voted in favor of using public beatings to punish Muslims who do not act in accordance with Sharia law. Islamic leaders have chosen this square as the "arena" for Koranic punishment.

People here want a purer life, without temptation, robberies, alcohol.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has been ruling Kelantan state for 27 uninterrupted years. Since 1990, the party has been making the daily life of the region's 1.4 million inhabitants, most of them farmers, gradually more Islamic. Cinemas, night clubs and casinos have been closed and banned. There are separate waiting lines at supermarkets for men and women and wearing "indecent outfits' such as skirts or bikinis, even at the beach, is a criminal offense. "We are trying to increase the power of Sharia law, to live in an Islamic State consistent with the Koran and the Sunnah," explains Zamakhshari Muhamad at the Islamic Party's office.

An Islamic Constitution

On Saturdays, a martial arts show is sometimes played at the cultural center. This is one of the few places that have not been declared haram (sinful).

As early as 1995, authorities banned singing, Hindi puppet shows and most dances. Chaon, a guide at the tourist office, doesn't see a problem with the prohibitions. "People here want a purer life, without temptation, robberies, alcohol," he says. "Elsewhere in the country, there are still Muslims who drink! Even our political leaders, in Kuala Lumpur. They are perverted by bribes, corruption."

Malaysian Muslim women attend prayer at a mosque in Kelantan, Malaysia — Photo: Abdul Ramdzhani Rahman/ZUMA

This rhetoric against the government in the national capital hits home for many. Leading Malaysia since 1957, the Barisan Nasional party promotes modernity and "racial harmony" between Malaysians (62% of the population), Chinese (25%) and Indian (9%). But Najib Razak, the prime minister, is entangled in a corruption scandal, in which billions of dollars of public money have been siphoned off by a Malaysian sovereign fund.

The PAS, which claims that only honest and upright people are on their side, has sensed an opportunity. "These leaders, who pretend they are open-minded and in favor of secularism, are all corrupted. We reject their ideology and want an Islamic constitution," says Wan, a member of party's security detail.

Physical punishment

Since 2015, when the PAS split with the opposition coalition (Pakatan Harapan), the Islamic party has been in the hands of the most extreme ideologues. The party immediately went back to its roots: it amended the Islamic penal code in Kelantan state to introduce hudud, the physical punishment prescribed by God in the Koran. This piece of legislation allows amputation and stipulates that, in cases of adultery, the offender will be "punished by 100 lashes and risks one year in prison." Yet, the text was blocked by the federal parliament and will remain so for as long as the legislation that limits Sharia law exists. But the PAS is trying to loosen that stranglehold by passing amendments to it that would enable 100 lashes as punishment, although the legal limit is currently six.

People have been brainwashed by a retrograde, patriarchal and stupid system.

Public flagellation, backed by Kelantan's Sultan, is bringing down another barrier. "These punishments are not that harsh," says Dato Che Lah, the agriculture minister of the Kelantan state. "They are just teaching sinners a good lesson and making them feel ashamed for what they did. Punishing them will dissuade others and will reduce crime."

For Nik Elin, a lawyer and activist who left the region to live in peace, "people have been brainwashed by a retrograde, patriarchal and stupid system. Women, who are encouraged not to wear lipstick or heels, became third-class citizens, controlled by men."

One Muslim legal expert empowered to give rulings on religious matters who hails from Pahang, a neighboring Malaysian state, has already warned that he's also trying to pass the same sort of reforms.

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