Why beer doesn’t mix well with mainly Muslim Malaysia
Beer, which as an alcoholic beverage is forbidden in Islam to its believers, has long had it easy in mainly Muslim Malaysia. The country’s population of 27 million is made up of about 55 percent Malay Muslims and mainly Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities who practice a variety of faiths including Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. The personal right of the non-Muslims to drink alcoholic beverages is legally recognised, a sign of tolerance despite the special status of Islam under Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution. So beer is not difficult to find in convenience stores, supermarkets and entertainment outlets.
(Photo: Beer drinkers, 20 July 2009/Nguyen Huy Kham)
But this easygoing attitude towards beer has hit the rocks of late amid what some suspect has been a growing religiosity of the country’s Muslims. Last month, 32-year old Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor very nearly became the first woman to be caned in Malaysia for drinking alcohol under rarely enforced Islamic criminal laws. Caught drinking beer in a hotel lobby in the eastern state of Pahang by religious enforcement officers, she was sentenced to six strokes of the cane and a fine. This was possible because Malaysia practices a dual-track legal system. Muslims are subject to Islamic family and criminal laws that run alongside national civil laws.
A Malaysian Islamic appeals court judge ordered a review of Kartika’s sentence, but a public debate is still raging. Opinions are divided even among Islamic scholars with some questioning what the exact punishment for the offence, which isn’t specified in the Quran, should be. Others are in full support and believe that Kartika’s sentence was mild.
(Photo: Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, 21 Aug 2009/Zainal Abd Halim)
This was not the first time beer has run foul of Malaysia’s Muslims. The opposition Islamist party grabbed headlines last month when it insisted on full implementation of an alcohol ban for Muslims in the country’s most developed state of Selangor ,which it governs. The call by the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) did not amuse its die-hard secular partner, the mainly ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party. A war of words erupted between the two parties.
Anger towards beer has in fact been known to have turned literally explosive. In 2000, a cult group known as Al Maunah raided a military armoury, then mounted grenade attacks against a Hindu temple and a Carlsberg brewery.
Beer has been a major target, but not the only subject drawing the wrath of some Muslims in the country. The Islamist PAS last month protested against a planned concert by the band Michael Learns To Rock, believing it an insult to allow the act to perform during the fasting month of Ramadan.
The government has also employed regulations to similar effect, namely in the recent ban against Muslims from attending a concert by U.S. hip hop band The Black Eyed Peas. The government later did a U-turn on the restriction.
Malaysians can watch music videos on satellite television with any problem. It is not impossible to spot Muslims in pubs and nightclubs drinking alcohol despite strict Islamic laws. These contradictions are difficult to explain. Some feel it’s part of a natural and continuing struggle among Muslims trying to balance faith and modernity. Others believe the majority of Muslims in the country are turning towards greater conservatism, which bodes ill for tolerance in this mainly Muslim but still multi-religious country.
(Photo: The Black Eyed Peas, 6 July 2009/Denis Balibouse)
Add to that an increasingly intense political battle between the ruling United Malays National Organisation and the opposition PAS for the support of the majority Malays ahead of the next election due by 2013. With each party trying to outdo the other on who is the better champion of Islam, Malaysian beer lovers could be forgiven for wondering whether the taps will one day run dry.
What’s needed is for Malaysians of all religions to sit down and talk to each about these issues more often and honestly. Thirsty work, but nothing that cannot be resolved over several pints of orange juice.