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Sin Squad on Patrol in Malaysia

Making busts in bars, bedrooms, the nation's religious cops aim to preserve Islamic values.


GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia — Abdul Hami and his girlfriend, Batmini, were awakened in their hotel room at 4 a.m. by an insistent knock on the door. "Housekeeping," a male voice called out. Bleary-eyed, Abdul opened the door to find the religious police.

Five plainclothes officers from the government's Islamic Affairs Department quickly entered the small room. Three more blocked the door. They had no search warrant, but they didn't need one. Abdul, it was clear, had violated the law against khalwat--being alone with a woman who was not his wife.

Batmini grabbed what clothes she could and hid in the bathroom. Officers soon concluded that she was a Hindu and not subject to Sharia, or Islamic law. But Abdul, a Muslim, was arrested. The 29-year-old chauffeur faces up to two years in jail and a maximum fine of $790--the equivalent of four months' pay.

"I will ask to pay the fine," a downcast Abdul said as he waited at the police station to be booked.

Malaysia's beautiful beaches and luxury hotels attract visitors from around the world. Its modern capital, Kuala Lumpur, boasts the tallest building on Earth. The federal government, looking to the future, has created a competitive high-tech manufacturing sector.

Yet Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country of 22 million people, is striving to maintain its strict religious traditions in the face of globalization. Civil rights, as known in the West, take second place to the preservation of Islamic values.

The state-funded religious police routinely cite or arrest Muslims for drinking alcohol, kissing in public, gambling, committing adultery, practicing homosexuality, insulting Islam or eating in public during the holy month of Ramadan. In Sharia court, Islamic judges chastise defendants for not praying enough and send the worst offenders to jail for months or even years.

"Although good moral standards are taught at home and in school, there are people who will break the law, and we need enforcement," said George Town defense attorney Ahmed Bazari, who handles many Sharia cases. "The law is good."

Malaysia's version of Sharia is more tolerant than in countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where Islamic law is strictly enforced. After all, this is Southeast Asia, and Malaysia's neighbors include indulgent Thailand and materialistic Singapore.

Malaysia, a former British colony, gained independence in 1957. Today, it is a multiethnic state where Malays--most of whom are Muslims--make up half the population, while descendants of Chinese and Indian immigrants account for a third. Islam is the national religion, but there are many Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and Christians.

A Western-style police and court system enforces criminal laws that apply to all Malaysians.

But Sharia law is enforced only against Muslims, contributing to a sense that the country has dual personalities.

The same government that hopes to lure more Hollywood productions after the profitable filming here of "Anna and the King" is intolerant of dissent, controls the press, jails opposition leaders without trial and is openly antagonistic to the West. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's autocratic leader, accuses Western powers of seeking to dominate his nation through globalization.

"Foreigners who once colonized us, who have done nothing to help us, these foreigners have no good intentions," Mahathir said last month. "They hate Malaysia. . . . They wish us to become their puppet client state."

Mahathir is 75, and his 20-year grip on power is weakening. He is under challenge from Islamic fundamentalists on one side and the liberal opposition on the other. His solution has been to appease Islamic leaders while cracking down on his democracy-oriented critics.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, once considered a shoo-in to be the next prime minister, ran afoul of Mahathir in 1998. He was arrested, beaten and convicted on what were widely decried as dubious charges of corruption and sodomy. In April, 10 of Anwar's leading supporters were jailed without trial.

At the same time, Muslim fundamentalists have won power in rural parts of the country and are pressing for stricter Islamic law. Some Muslim leaders want to adopt hudud, a code that would permit harsh punishment, such as stoning adulterers to death.

Supporters of the Sharia code say it helps reduce out-of-wedlock births, alcoholism, adultery, the breakup of families and a host of sins common in the West.

As Malaysia's male-dominated society changes and young women move from villages to work in factories, Muslims say it is especially important to protect them from evil influences. The religious police serve as "big brothers" who watch over such women, whose families aren't nearby to tell them how to behave.

The Islamic Affairs Department, or Jabatan Agama Islam, was established shortly after independence. Its role as moral enforcer expanded in the mid-1990s, when the nation's Sharia laws were strengthened.

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