Monday, February 10, 2014

Why religious police are a thumbs down

Aziz Bari
OUTSPOKEN: Many people have questioned the rationale for the setting up of the Syariah or religious police. Some like former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad doubted its necessity, saying doing religious duties and rituals should be a matter of faith rather than due to compulsion.

Some others, such as former IGP Tan Sri Musa Hassan, have raised the issue of the competence of the police force to deal with Syariah law, saying that they should first be trained in that law and this was just too much. Therefore, Musa argued, the police should focus on combating crime.

He was commenting on the remarks by IGP Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar who clarified an earlier announcement by Jakim Director-General Datuk Othman Mustafa at the end of January.

According to the latter, the proposed squad would be finalised soon, pending a meeting between the department and the police force. Khalid, however, said that it was not going to be known as Syariah police as such.

What was going to be done, the police chief said, was for the force to put their personnel in Jakim and respective state religious departments with a view to helping them carry out the legal enforcement. It would be recalled that Khalid supported the idea to set up the squad when it was first mooted by Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi during the Umno general assembly in mid-December.

The minister put up the proposal after the scathing attacks he made on PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu whom Zahid alleged was involved with Shii teachings. Zahid said the creation of such a squad would be good to stem the spread of Shii doctrine as well as other deviant teachings in the country.

He sounded arrogant when he “authorised” his colleague in charge of religion to take action against Shii follows. The latter, however, chose to be careful and circumspect. But two months on the government is still unsure of the proposed Syariah police format. To a certain extent it appears to be backpedalling as we can see from the way the federal police see the matter.
Although Zahid leads the ministry which controls the police force, the matter has to be dealt with in accordance with the existing law and this is why the top brass seem to be contradicting the politicians.

Whatever the case with the Syariah police in Saudi Arabia or Nigeria, Malaysia has its own system and this is the one thing that stands as the benchmark. And whatever the political agenda Zahid is pursuing, the Shii or Syiah teachings have yet to be declared as deviant. Of course there was a decision by the National Fatwa Council in 1996 but this is short of calling the sect outright illegal. 
The council has no legal standing in this regard as the religion of Islam is a matter for the states over which federal has no say.

It has to be said that when it comes to Syariah law enforcement the religious departments have already set up their own enforcement squad. In fact many years ago the Attorney-General’s Chambers have announced that they were in the process of revising the SOP for this squad.

We have yet to be told what happened to it. Perhaps the chambers have been too busy with other matters, such as the Altantuya case, sodomy series and lately the Herald case, that they have been sleeping over the issue.

From the way they speak to the press it appears that the minister, the police chief and Jakim head were not in any way aware of the enforcement squad. This is obviously unbecoming. 
Running the state should not be done on ad hoc basis. On top of that there has to be a certain amount of continuity. If the present administration feels that what was done before is no good it has to make it clear and scrap it altogether.

Technically speaking the format put forward by Khalid was fine. While some have raised the matter of federal-state division of powers, let us not forget that the police job is to enforce laws irrespective of whether it is federal or state. It is just like the Election Commission whose job is to conduct elections, be it federal, state or even the local ones. But with the present predicament, including the economic difficulties, it is certainly not sensible to add more to the already heavy burden of the police force. Given that they have yet to be able to say that they have done their job satisfactorily, Syariah enforcement should not be put on their plate.

Dr Abdul Aziz Bari is formerly IIUM law professor who now teaches at Unisel. He is also a Senior Fellow at IDEAS, an independent think tank, and Penang Institute set up by the Penang state government.

~ The Ant Daily

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