Geopolitics

Kelantan, A Laboratory For Sharia Law In Malaysia

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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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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