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September 22, 2017

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Islamic law strains Malaysia opposition's unity

KUALA LUMPUR--A Malaysian Muslim party on Wednesday launched a push to implement Islamic criminal punishments such as flogging and amputations in a state it governs, a move that threatens to tear apart the country's opposition.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is a member of a three-party opposition alliance that nearly wrested national power from Malaysia's six-decade-old ruling regime in 2013 elections.

But PAS's campaign for the Islamic penalties — known as hudud — in Kelantan state has brought the alliance to the breaking point just as it struggles to hold together following the jailing last month of its overall leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Malaysian media reports said PAS tabled amendments in the Kelantan state assembly on Wednesday, seeking to revise a 1993 law that set out such punishments but which was never enforced as it conflicts with the federal constitution.

The party plans to later submit a bill in the national parliament seeking a federal law change to allow hudud in Kelantan, a rural state in northern Malaysia's Islamic heartland.

Hatta Ramli, a moderate PAS member, called the issue the "biggest challenge" yet facing the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) coalition.

"I pray that the differences over the move ... will not end up in a break-up of Pakatan," he told AFP.

PAS officials say hudud in Kelantan would apply only to Muslims. Muslims make up around two-thirds of Malaysia's diverse population of about 28 million.

PAS's partners had issued stern warnings not to proceed with the plan, but have not yet explicitly threatened to expel the party from the coalition.

Malaysia practices a relatively tolerant brand of Islam, but more conservative attitudes have gained support in recent years, driven by intensifying competition between PAS and the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) for the key Muslim vote.

Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics analyst with National Taiwan University, said the hudud move reflects a power struggle within PAS between a conservative leadership dominated by ulama, or Islamic scholars, and more progressive party factions.

"The ulama leadership are using hudud as a political weapon to slay their enemies within the party, not to bring about genuine moral governance," she wrote in an opinion piece published Wednesday.

The divisions over hudud will heighten voter concerns over whether the fractious alliance, and particularly PAS, could be trusted with national government, she added.

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