The two private members’ bills in Parliament to allow the implementation of hudud in Kelantan have once again brought the long-simmering issue of hudud to the fore. 

Some Muslim leaders have warned non-Muslims not to get involved in this debate, suggesting that this is a matter for Muslims alone to decide.

It would be all too easy to dismiss hudud as merely a “Muslim” issue. Certainly, it would be safer because to speak on hudud these days is to invite insults and threats. But hudud will profoundly affect us all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Only the most naïve, or deliberately duplicitous, would have us believe otherwise.

It is not so much an argument about the merits or demerits of hudud; Islamic scholars both at home and abroad have been arguing about it for years. The real issue is whether it is appropriate in a secular plural society like ours that is premised upon constitutional democracy. 

Proponents of hudud, of course, insist that it would not apply to non-Muslims. Such assurances are, in reality, quite meaningless especially these days when laws are often abused, ignored or selectively applied.

It might even be argued that non-Muslims are already being adversely affected by Sharia law, as the recent case of the conversion of minors has shown. By refusing to enforce the judgment of the civil court and restore custody of the children to their non-Muslim parent, the police have given the Sharia court the final say over the rights of non-Muslims in this matter.

Besides, we are also hearing arguments that hudud would result in an unequal system of punishment. For the crime of theft, for example, Muslims might suffer amputation while non-Muslims might draw a mere jail sentence. How long would it be before the demand grows for the standardization of punishment based on hudud?

Proponents of hudud also assert that non-Muslim opposition to hudud is based on ignorance, that hudud is, in fact, superior to the secular justice system, that it requires a higher burden of proof, etc. They often quote the judgments, writings and practices of rulers and scholars from Islam’s Golden Age to substantiate their argument.

What is more relevant, however, is not the theory of Islamic jurisprudence but its practice, not the stories of the past but the stories we hear today, not the restraints practiced by previous rulers but the excesses that we see before us now. And not just in faraway places like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia but right here in Malaysia.

Frankly, what we have seen thus far is not at all reassuring, to put it mildly. And when even doctors, who have sworn to protect and care for their patients, talk about maximizing pain in order to meet the objectives of hudud, we know that something is terribly wrong. 

It must also be remembered that the hudud debate is taking place in the context of growing extremism and intolerance in our society. Non-Muslim minorities are increasingly treated in a contemptuous and high-handed manner that does little to evoke trust or confidence.

Christians, for example, have been frequently demonized, churches have been attacked, bibles confiscated and pastors and priests harassed. Words in the Bible that Christians in Malaysia, and across the Muslim world, have used for centuries have now been deemed subversive and prohibited. When Christians use the national language as part of their services, they are accused of trying to influence Muslims; when they don’t, they are considered unpatriotic. Even Christmas decorations and Easter signage are considered provocative and offensive.

And this comes on top of years of quiet discrimination; churches face an uphill battle to obtain building permits, burial grounds and permits to organize public events.

Other non-Muslim faiths also face similar harassment and discrimination. Hindu temples, for example, are routinely demolished. Even heritage Hindu sites in the Bujang Valley, the oldest man-made structures in Southeast Asia, were razed to the ground without so much as a murmur.

A great Malaysian like Karpal Singh dies tragically and it becomes the occasion for snide remarks and celebration among bigots. Even in death, non-Muslims cannot “rest in peace,” courtesy of JAKIM [Islamic affairs department]. The dress of a female non-Muslim member of parliament, bland by normal standards, is suddenly considered offensive and un-Islamic.

Sadly, so much of this appalling behaviour goes unchallenged by those in power, even by those who insist that they represent a religion of peace, tolerance, compassion and humility. Obviously, the extremists in our midst would have no influence, and would simply wither away, if they did not have the backing of powerful men who are intent on stirring the cauldron of racial and religious intolerance in order to hold on to power.

The sense that non-Muslims are getting is that the extremists and religious fanatics will not rest until all vestiges of non-Islamic faiths, cultures and traditions are eradicated from national life or driven deep underground. We are “infidels” to be driven out or ruled with an iron fist rather than fellow Malaysians with the same rights, privileges and protection under the law.

Given this already toxic environment, it should come as no surprise that hudud is seen as but another step in the radicalization of our society and the marginalization of minority communities.

Despite the loud and noisy voices of extremism, it is encouraging, however, that the voices of moderation, of tolerance and respect, are now speaking up like never before.

A broad coalition of Malaysians from across the religious divide, from politics and especially, civil society, are passionately speaking out in favour of our secular constitutional foundations and making the point that hudud has no place in a multiracial and multi-religious society like ours. For so long as there are voices like that, there is hope for our future.

But we must not stop there because hudud is, in many ways, simply part of the larger, and as yet unfinished, debate about what we want our nation to be.

Obviously, we have come to a crossroad in the evolution of our national identity with a stark choice between two opposing visions: one will lead to a strengthening of our constitutional foundations and the entrenchment of the rights and privileges of all our citizens within a democratic framework; the other, make no mistake, will lead us down a dark and divisive road of intolerance and tyranny.

Most of us already agree that our nation is in crisis – endemic corruption, the abuse of power and the erosion of fundamental rights, a dysfunctional justice system, poverty and widening income disparity, the marginalization of the poor and disenfranchised, racial and religious polarization, to name but a few.

More than half a century after attaining independence, progress has stalled. Life is becoming harder, more stressful and more uncertain for more and more Malaysians. Many have lost hope and have left or are leaving. While the rest of the world moves ahead, breaking new ground in good governance, democracy and a better quality of life for all its citizens, we are still distracted by race and religion.

For the sake of our collective future, for the sake of this nation that we all love and are proud to call home, let us put aside the hudud debate, and the distraction it represents, and get to work on the real challenges facing our nation.

Let us recommit ourselves – Muslim and non-Muslim, Malay and non-Malay, Peninsula Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak, BN and PR, politicians and civil society – to realizing the dream of our founding fathers of a secular, democratic and socially inclusive nation, a nation that seeks to lift up all its citizens instead of dividing, demonizing or marginalizing them.

[Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador of Malaysia]