Sexuality, Islam & Politics in Malaysia


A review of Sexuality, Islam and Politics in Malaysia: A Study of the Shifting Strategies of Regulation, by tan beng hui.

In the past decade or so, there has been persistent and prominent hostility towards sexual diversity in Malaysia – for example, in the mass media. This public hostility has increasingly gained an “Islamic” flavour, making it easy to attribute rising homophobia to so-called religious fundamentalism. In this dissertation, tan beng hui asks how the contemporary discourse on sexuality in Malaysia has become defined in the way that it is. By doing this, she does not take “Islam” for granted as a driver of this process, but rather investigates how particular expressions of Islam are produced and used by the state. She finds that the “construction of official Islam” is what “upholds heterosexuality as the sole legitimate form of sexuality” and results in greater intolerance of sexual diversity (p. 8).

NOTE: The author tan beng hui spells her name using only lowercase letters. The reviewer respects this preference and will refer to the author as ‘tan’ throughout.)

Chapter 1 opens with a relevant, attention-grabbing case study. In late 2010, Azwan Ismail announced on YouTube, “Saya gay, saya OK (I’m gay, I’m OK).” The video went viral and attracted mostly rude and vicious comments, some inciting violence and a few even threatening to kill Azwan. This is because Azwan is Malay and thus categorised by the state as Muslim. Within days, the religious establishment addressed the uproar not by defending Azwan’s safety, but by tacitly endorsing anti-gay attitudes, even violence. tan zooms out from this case study to cover the responses of the various “Islamic” actors and introduces her central argument: “…the control of non-normative sexualities and genders in Malaysia [is located] within a larger state project to centralise its authority over Islam” (p. 7). Over the next six chapters, tan works out the answers to her three main questions (p. 6): “How does the state use religion to regulate sexual marginals? How effective has this approach been? Why or why not?”

She pursues her analysis through two main methods. First, she combs through archival and other relevant historical works, including Hansard proceedings – verbatim records of debates in federal and state-level legislatures. Second, she conducts in-depth interviews with the “regulators” of sexuality, the “regulated,” and other experts. She supplements these by surveying news sources from the English and Malay print and electronic media, and the official websites and annual reports of various state “Islamic” authorities.

Chapter 2 sets the framework for the unfolding argument. Firstly, tan unpacks the concept of “heteronormativity,” a “regime” which facilitates the “privileging of heterosexuality as a normative sexual practice and way of life – and the converse of this, the demonization of homosexuality and being gay” (p. 24, italics in original). At the same time, tan acknowledges the limits of the concept of “heteronormativity” in that it needs to take “localised processes” into account when looking at contemporary hostilities towards homosexuality and transgenderism (p. 26). After this caveat, the chapter examines the dynamics of the Malaysian state.

Malaysia is a federation, and therefore has a central Federal government and sub-national units of government, or States. tan proposes that Federal-State relations are skewed to favour the centre. One of the ways in which the Federal state seeks to strengthen itself further is by expanding and centralising its control over Islam, which constitutionally falls under the purview of the States. In this project, the Federal state is often aided by a group of actors tan calls the “Syariah lobby,” consisting of state-salaried religious functionaries, ethno-nationalists and religio-nationalists (p. 53). This expansion of Islam has gone hand-in-hand with a strengthening of heteronormativity, in distinct phases. tan describes the “Islamisation” process of the 1980s and 1990s as “haphazard, weak and ineffective,” and also left largely in the hands of the respective States (p. 40). Starting from the late 1990s, however, the Federal state began to centralise the administration of Islam more forcibly, focusing on the expansion of “Syariah” law – a process tan refers to as “Syariahtisation” (p. 41).

Chapter 3 then charts the evolution of “Islamic” sexual injunctions in Malaysia from pre- to postcolonial times. It begins with historical evidence that sexual misconduct carried various penalties even in the pre-colonial era. Still, it was the British who eventually codified “Islamic” laws in the Malay Peninsula, which were then inherited by postcolonial Malaysia. Yet, colonial constructions of “Islamic” legislation only outlawed heterosexual infractions – liwat (sexual relations between male persons) and musahaqah (sexual relations between female persons) were only introduced as Syariah offences from the 1980s onwards. To complicate matters, the postcolonial Federal Constitution turned Islam into a State matter, and so Syariah offences and their punishments vary across States. Nevertheless, there was a concerted effort by the Syariah lobby to expand “Islamic” laws, stemming from their bitterness at Islam’s subordination to civil laws derived from English common law. tan traces these developments with meticulous detail, showing us pre- and postcolonial continuities in the building of a vast Islamic bureaucracy, which has in turn entrenched Federal-State tensions over Islamic jurisdiction.

Throughout this process, it appears that legislative debates on non-normative genders and sexualities were not key drivers in Syariahtisation.  In fact, the criminalisation of sexual offences seems to have been debated quite casually and the laws were passed with few questions or checks and balances. Nevertheless, the overall outcome was significant – by naming and penalising non-normative sexualities and genders, Syariahtisation paved the way for demonising them in the name of Islam.

Syariah advocates claim that these stringent regulations of morality are one way in which “Islamic” laws are superior to “secular” laws. Chapter 4 examines if this is really the case and finds that these claims are based on false assumptions. tan shows that colonial legacies, beginning with the introduction of the Indian Penal Code in 1860 and its subsequent exportation across the British Empire, have resulted in overlapping features in “secular” and “Syariah” injunctions on morality. This cloning and adoption of the IPC, which criminalised sodomy, resulted in the transplanting of a particular moral order on local populations which then took on a life of its own. For instance, the Penal Code’s Section 377, which criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, was amended and fortified in the 1980s. To date, apart from zina (adultery or fornication), muqaddimah zina (the prelude to adultery or fornication), and khalwat (illicit proximity between an unmarried heterosexual couple), every “Islamic” sexual offence has at least one corresponding provision under “secular” law. This has resulted in much messiness over whether the state uses Syariah or secular legislation to prosecute sexual offences.

Chapter 5 discusses various case studies showing how the prosecution of moral offences is arbitrary and often selective, particularly on gender and sexuality. For instance, the high-profile prosecution of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim under Section 377 contrasts with the almost non-issue of another rising star within government ranks, Azalina Othman Said, accused in the mass media of being a lesbian.

In her focus on the consequences of Islam-inspired enforcement of sexual morals, tan uses official figures of “unnatural” crimes recorded under the Syariah legal system and her own interviews with sexual marginals. She finds that there have hardly been any Syariah convictions for liwat or musahaqah at all. Yet, the very existence and public knowledge about these provisions creates a climate of fear amongst sexual marginals who then censor and regulate their own sexual expression. tan says, however, that Syariahtisation has affected male-to-female transsexuals disproportionately, with many of them suffering overt violence at the hands of Syariah and secular enforcement authorities. Nevertheless, even this is irregular between States – for example, there were 84 Syariah court cases prosecuting “men behaving like women” in Melaka compared to only one in Kedah between 2005 and 2009 (p. 148). Furthermore, from 2005 to 2009, there were 346 cases of “men behaving like women” nationwide as opposed to 27,277 cases of khalwat. Thus, the state’s “anti-gay bark is worse than its bite” (p. 158), notwithstanding the enforcement abuse that occurs by-and-large with impunity.

Therefore, it seems that while the state employs strong anti-gay rhetoric regularly, the actual regulation of LGBT’s might not be as strong a priority as it is made out to be. Chapter 6 uncovers what the state’s agenda really is when regulating gender and sexuality in the name of Islam. tan shows that the state’s considerable financial allocation to Syariahtisation is not evenly distributed within the Islamic bureaucracy – the budget for religious enforcement has historically been dwarfed by the budget for religious education programmes (pp. 166-168). Nevertheless, there is great rhetorical emphasis on the enforcement of Syariah legislation, leading to administrative differentiation and expansion of Enforcement divisions. The conundrum, however, is that these divisions are largely populated by staff with very basic educational qualifications, who are not necessarily well-versed in the complexities and nuances of Islamic knowledge. The religious bureaucracy is aware of this, and some Syariah officials acknowledge that enforcers can be unprofessional and even irresponsible in carrying out their duties (p. 174). Yet, there is an overall unwillingness to acknowledge that it is practically impossible to enforce moral laws. Moral policing has turned into an ever more important symbol of the Federal state’s authority over the administration of Islam. This explains the gap between the strong anti-gay rhetoric by state Islamic authorities and the rare and irregular enforcement of Syariah provisions on the ground.

Chapter 7 grapples with how this lack of real enforcement of Syariah controls can still affect the lives of LGBT individuals so profoundly. tan identifies the government-controlled mass media as the main actors who draw sensationalised and largely negative attention towards sexual marginals, often in collusion with state authorities. This provokes strong reactions from “secular” and religiously “progressive” human rights defenders against the administration of Islam, on one hand, and on the other, from the Syariah lobby who demand greater enforcement of Islam. This then amplifies hostility between the two sides. The state, however, is not a neutral arbiter – because of its Federal project to centralise its authority over Islam, the state often sides with the Syariah lobby. By doing this, the state unleashes a chain of unintended consequences – it is unable to contain turf wars within the Islamic bureaucracy, and it unwittingly provokes greater contestations of Islam among critical sectors of the public.

Chapter 8 thus concludes that although “Islam” has played an integral part in postcolonial state formation, it has not been administered or regulated according to a coherent or well-structured plan. In fact, Syariahtisation has been accompanied by a confusing expansion and duplication of various Islamic departments and irregular enforcement. This has inadvertently led to greater public awareness and criticism about inconsistencies in the state’s application of Islam, which in turn provokes greater defensiveness among the Syariah lobby and the state. tan recommends that “one way to loosen the Federal government’s grip over Muslims is to return Islam to the domain of states as guaranteed under the Constitution” (p. 240). This could potentially open the doors to more plural expressions of Islam which are better able to embrace sexual and gender diversity.

tan’s work is thorough and backed with rigorous empirical data. Furthermore, she writes in clear, accessible English without sacrificing scholarly rigour. This is especially commendable given her painstaking explanations of historical developments and contemporary dynamics in the administration of Islam, demystifying how “Islam” is utilised and manipulated by different social actors.

tan shows how struggles over the symbolic meaning of “Islam” have tangible, material consequences. In particular, her work demonstrates how the “state” is not a fixed entity, but something that is constantly evolving. By extension, through its instrumentalisation of “Islam,” the “state” is also responsible for making different aspects of “Islam” salient at different points in history.  In other words, much of the meaning of “Islam” is also constructed by dynamic social forces. Thus, although anti-gay rhetoric in the name of contemporary Islam appears to be a universal phenomenon, tan shows that much of it is also produced by local conditions involving complex social and political change.  Her work is indispensable for scholars of Islam, Southeast Asia, and gender and sexuality.

Shanon Shah Mohd Sidik
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
Faculty of Arts and Humanities
King’s College London

Primary Sources

Archives of colonial and postcolonial legislation
Forty-four in-depth interviews: the “Syariah lobby”, “sexual marginals” and “other experts” (pseudonyms listed on pp. 261-262)
News sources: English and Malay print and electronic media
Official websites of various “Islamic” departments
Annual reports of Federal Islamic authorities

Dissertation Information

National University of Singapore. 2012. 263 pp. Primary Advisor: Goh Beng Lan.

Image: Still image from Azwan Ismail, “Saya gay, saya OK (I’m gay, I’m OK).”

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