Government measures limit spread of anger in Malaysia

Although officially an Islamic state, the Malaysian administration has historically been less strict than most Islamic states in the enforcement of laws concerning blasphemy against Islam.

Article 295-298A of the Malaysian Penal Code extends punishment to those who offend religions, not limited to Islam. Under this statute, offences against religion in Malaysia are punishable with up to three years in prison or a fine of approximately US$1,000.

Islam, however, retains a special status; blasphemy prosecutions and convictions have been, for the most part, restricted to the defamation of Islam and/or the Quran.

The Malaysian Federation judiciary system consists of two court systems: The general civil code of law extends its jurisdiction over non-Muslims, and the Syariah court system is reserved for Muslims. Syariah courts in particular have designated and categorized various "criminal offense statutes" based on blasphemy. Offenders, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have been prosecuted and sentenced under these statutes.

However, individual states are also empowered by Article 3-1 of the Constitution to codify laws regarding Islam, and subsequently all civil courts -- of both judicial systems -- are also empowered to deal with questions of blasphemy at the state level. The question of blasphemy, under this structure, is thus applicable to non-Muslims as well.

The Malaysian government on Feb. 10 issued a complete blanket ban on the publishing, importation, reproduction, circulation and possession of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.

On the same day, between two and three thousand Malaysians marched on the Danish embassy in Kuala Lumpur, voicing their outrage at the caricatures of the Prophet.

While the outrage caused by the Prophet cartoons did indubitably make itself evident in Malaysia, protests were slightly more restrained than those in Pakistan and the Middle East -- where protesters were often in their tens of thousands --  and were limited to measured demonstrations in early February.

The restrained response can possibly be explained by the government's quick response to limit the spread of the controversy.

Three newspapers' operations were suspended for reprinting these cartoons: Berita Petang Sarawak Daily, the Sarawak Tribune and the Guangming Daily. The Ministry of Internal Security cited the preservation of pubic peace and national interest as the reasons behind the bans. Two television networks, TV3 and ntv7, were also made to apologize for broadcasting the cartoons.

Leaders Respond

Malaysian officials and various leaders universally condemned the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Former deputy leader, Anwar Ibhrahim called the cartoons a regression to "prejudice and ignorance."

"Such acts clearly constitute a regression into the cultural prejudices of the Dark Ages," he said. "Not only are Muslims angry, but a great number of people of other faiths are also outraged by such callous hypocrisy." Anwar also called upon the Muslim world for restraint, to respond with "greater wisdom" to their "justified anger."

At an international conference, the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi commented on what the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad showed:

"The demonisation of Islam and the vilification of Muslims, there is no denying, is widespread within mainstream Western society. The publishing of these cartoons, in combination with Western actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, have all contributed in one way or another to the huge chasm that has emerged between the West and Islam," he added.

Most Malaysian leaders have been moderate in their criticisms, but oppositional parties have been much more fervent.

"You are playing with fire Denmark," said Hanifah Maidin of the youth wing of the pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which organised the protest. "We are ready to fight."


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