Malaysian authorities said Wednesday that officials caned four Muslim men and, for the first time, three Muslim women this month after being found guilty of having sex out of wedlock.
The move to cane the women under the country’s Islamic Shariah laws has raised fresh concerns about the growing political and judicial influence of Islam in what traditionally has been one of the world’s more moderate Muslim nations.
The vibrant, resource-rich country came under intense international scrutiny last year after a Shariah court sentenced 32-year-old Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno to be caned after she was caught drinking beer in a hotel bar. Many moderate Muslims and non-Muslim Malaysians saw that verdict as reflecting the growing reach of Islam in Malaysia over the past several years, although Prime Minister Najib Razak has said he won’t let Malaysia drift toward becoming an Islamist state.
The caning of Ms. Kartika, who is a Muslim, still hasn’t been carried out despite her requests to the Islamic courts to get it over with.
Wednesday’s announcement that three Muslim women were caned on Feb. 9 for having illicit sex thus came as a shock to many Malaysians. “This was a big a surprise. We had no idea this was going to happen,” said Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council. “We were always told Ms. Kartika would be the first.”
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein waited more than a week before announcing the punishment at a news conference following the government’s weekly cabinet meeting Wednesday. He didn’t provide details of the women’s identities. Later in the day, Mr. Hishammuddin said in a statement that four men also were sentenced and caned in connection with the case. They also weren’t identified.
All seven were found guilty of illicit sex and sentenced by a Shariah court in the Kuala Lumpur area between December and January.
“I hope this will not be misunderstood, so that it defiles the sanctity of Islam,” Mr. Hishammuddin said. “The punishment is to teach and give a chance to those who have fallen off the path to return and build a better life in the future.”
Two of the women and the four men were each struck six times, while the other woman was struck four times.
Mr. Hishammuddin said that a doctor was present at the canings, which took place in male and female prisons, and that the offenders weren’t tied. The women were seated while they were struck, and no injuries were reported. The idea, the officials previously have said, is to humiliate rather than injure—unlike the canings administered to drug pushers and other violators of civil laws, which can sometimes leave deep scars.
The offenders, Mr. Hishammuddin said, were then “advised on ways to repent and to get closer to Allah.”
Malaysia has a two-track legal system in which Shariah laws are applied to its majority Muslim population, while its large ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities answer only to civilian courts.
Political analysts say the rapid growth of Malaysia’s Shariah court system in recent years, however, is threatening to undermine the country’s reputation as a tolerant, progressive Muslim nation that has been able to attract sizable foreign investments in manufacturing and services.
“As Shariah courts expand their reach, there is a question of jurisdication—about whether there should be corporal punishment at all,” said Mr. Kesavan, the bar council president. “We think it is degrading, and as Malaysia evolves towards adopting international standards in other areas, we should observe international standards in legal matters, too.”
Some analysts have ascribed the increasingly political role of Islam in the country to the country’s race-based politics. Many ethnic Malays view their Islamic faith as a symbol of their racial identity and a sign of their privileged economic status, which includes a wide range of affirmative-action policies providing them preferential treatment over non-Malay minorities.
The country’s increasingly Islamic outlook also reflects the growing political role of the faith as the ruling National Front and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party—one of the main parties in an opposition coalition—compete to demonstrate which has the strongest Muslim credentials.
“Islam is a big part of the equation here,” says James Chin, a political-science professor at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University.
Tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims also have escalated since a court ruling on New Year’s Eve that allowed Christians to use the term “Allah” as a translation for “God” in their Malay-language publications. That triggered protests among Muslims who demand that Islam be protected, and led to attacks on a number of churches and the desecration of a mosque. The government immediately appealed the ruling.
Opposition leader and Muslim moderate Anwar Ibrahim, meanwhile, is now on trial for allegedly sodomizing a male aide in 2008—a charge that he denies and that he says was fabricated to destroy his political career. The government denies having anything to do with the allegations against Mr. Anwar.
in Kuala Lumpur
contributed to this article.
July 20. 2009—A 32-year-old mother of two is sentenced to six lashes with a rattan cane for drinking beer at a hotel in Pahang state in 2007. The sentence hasn’t been carried out, despite her requests to get it over with.
Dec. 31, 2009—Malaysia’s High Court rules that the Malay-language weekly newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church can use the term ‘Allah’ as a translation for ‘God.’ Angry Muslims say the word should be used only in Islam, despite its use by Arabic-speaking Christians world-wide. The government appeals the court decision.
January 2010—The court’s translation ruling sparks tensions across the country: Some 11 churches are attacked, and a Sikh temple and two Muslim prayer rooms are vandalized.
Jan. 27, 2010—The severed heads of wild boars, considered unclean animals in Islam, are found at two mosques near Kuala Lumpur.
Feb 7, 2010. Fifteen Muslims, including two women, are arrested by religious authorities in Pahang state for allegdly consuming alcohol. Eleven others are detained for unlawful close proximity to members of the opposite sex.
Feb. 9, 2010—Four men and, for the first time, three women, are caned after being found guilty in an Islamic court of having sex out of wedlock..