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Raids and fines for Ramadan fast breaking spotlight rising religious conservatism in multicultural Malaysia

<i>MOHD RASFAN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Supporters of the Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) gather for a rally
MOHD RASFAN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Supporters of the Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) gather for a rally

By Heather Chen, CNN

(CNN) — Religious authorities in Malaysia have stepped up moral policing efforts during the holy month of Ramadan in what critics warn has been part of a wider recent shift toward a more conservative form of Islam in the multi-racial and culturally diverse nation.

Ramadan, regarded as the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, is celebrated by Muslims around the world who abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual acts during daylight hours and break their fast after sundown.

It is a month of deep spiritual reflection and celebration with friends and family – but can also be far from easy, as anyone who has tried fasting can attest.

In many parts of Malaysia, Muslims caught eating or drinking during daytime hours can find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Around 20.6 million of Malaysia’s 34 million-strong population are Muslims, but the country is also home to sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities that include Buddhists, Christians and Hindus, as well as indigenous communities.

Under the country’s unusual dual track legal system, which is also federal and varies from state to state, Muslims are subject to sharia law on a host of social issues including marriage, divorce and fasting.

Religious police tend to ramp up their presence during Ramadan, activists note, which ends later this week, patrolling the streets more visibly and staking out at popular eateries – sometimes in disguise – to catch those breaching the rules.

Those caught eating or drinking during daytime hours face fines of up to 1,000 Malaysian Ringgit (about $200) and prison terms of up to a year. Non-Muslims caught selling food, drinks or tobacco to Muslims during fasting hours are also subject to penalties.

Arrest figures have not yet been released for this year but in 2023, religious officials in the state of Malacca, a major tourist destination, recorded nearly 100 arrests of Muslims caught eating in public during the fasting month, an increase from 41 arrests the previous year, they said.

This year, more than 10 “hotspots” were identified throughout the state, said the chairman of its Islamic Religious Department, JAIM.

Rahmad Mariman announced that “frequent monitoring and inspections” were being carried out at popular bars, restaurants, malls and parks. “Through these operations, JAIM enforcement officers will detain Muslims found eating in public and will not hesitate to take action against traders involved in selling food to them,” Mariman said in a statement.

Up north in the state of Perak, JAIM’s counterpart, the Gerik Islamic Religious Department (JAIPK), took to TikTok to share videos of inspections and fasting raids religious officers had conducted throughout March.

In one video, set against a spaghetti western soundtrack, JAIPK officers wearing their distinctive black and white uniforms and reflective vests were seen arriving at an open-air eatery in the town of Gerik during the day to question restaurant staff and catch Muslims buying food.

One man wearing a blue motorcycle helmet, whose face is pixelated in the video, was seen fleeing the restaurant with a plastic bag of food.

“This was not a reenactment by professionals. It is an actual video of what took place during our recent operations,” JAIPK wrote in a caption accompanying its TikTok video, which went viral – racking up more than 1.7 million views and continuing to draw thousands of comments since it was uploaded on March 15.

‘Heightened tensions’

Like much of South and Southeast Asia, Malaysia has historically practiced a moderate form of Islam but religious conservatism has been on the rise in recent years.

At the forefront of this shift, experts say, is the ultra-conservative hardline Islamist political party PAS, which made historic gains during Malaysia’s 2023 general election and wields great influence in its stronghold conservative states in the north.

PAS party leader Hadi Awang, also a religious teacher, regularly expresses his support for harsher sharia laws.

CNN reached out to multiple state religious bodies across Malaysia for comment. One religious enforcement officer from Malacca said that more raids had been carried out this year at various roadside stalls, restaurants and parks as compared to 2023 and 2022.

“It is our responsibility to protect and preserve the name of Islam during this important time,” said the male officer, who declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak with international media.

But not all cases result in arrests, he also stressed. “It is also important that we show compassion, especially on very hot days when we see people drinking water – sometimes it can’t be helped.”

Moral policing during Ramadan is a longstanding issue in the country, according to Malaysian women’s rights group Sisters in Islam, which advocates against religious policing and points to another controversial area of concern – “khalwat” laws.

Also known as “close proximity laws”, they vary from state to state and are part of the civil sharia legislation that only applies to Muslims. They are used to prosecute unmarried couples deemed to be overly close to each other.

On March 8, religious police raided a luxury condominium in the capital Kuala Lumpur and arrested two actors, a married male and a single female, under these laws, a move that generated significant local media coverage.

Complaints were made to the state religious department, media reports said, and the scandal caused a national stir – drawing scorn from conservative politicians and prompting public apologies from the celebrities.

Sisters in Islam told CNN that overzealous application of religious laws had gotten worse in recent years.

“These acts of moral policing violate personal freedoms and paint a distorted image of Islam and raises important questions,” said SIS spokeswoman Ameena Siddiqi.

It is also common practice during Ramadan for public schools in Malaysia to shut their canteens, leaving limited options to eat and rest during the day, Siddiqi notes.

“This has led to instances where non-Muslim students are forced to ‘respect’ their fasting peers and eat their recess meals in toilets,” Siddiqi said, adding sensitivities around fasting add to “heightened tensions.”

“Restaurants and eateries have refused to serve food to pregnant women during Ramadan, which goes against the very essence of Islam,” Siddiqi added.

Anisah Mahmood, a 42-year-old mother of two from Kuala Lumpur now living in London, said she was suspended by her company in 2018 after she was caught eating in public. She was breastfeeding at the time.

“There are valid reasons for not fasting, mostly medical,” she said. “But this is severely misunderstood in Malaysia, even if you are tired or sick, you will be shamed and made to feel like a bad person.”

The issue of shuttered school canteens has been hotly debated over the years and was recently revived in parliament by Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek.

Non-Muslim students, she argued, “should not be forced to eat in storerooms or other inappropriate places” during Ramadan “when canteens are available.”

Her comments drew criticism from PAS.

“We think it’s common today that everyone respects those who are fasting and the children that are still learning to fast,” PAS lawmaker Haji Ahmad Bin Yahaya, said in a statement shared online.

For those who struggle to fast or adhere to the rigors of the faith they were born with, Ramadan can be a stressful time.

Yusuf, a Malay Muslim man in his 30s who lives in the southern state of Johor, recalled how he was caught buying food during Ramadan by religious police in 2019.

“As long as you look Malay, you must fast during Ramadan – those are the rules,” Yusuf told CNN.

He asked not to publish his full name and age given the sensitivities of the topic.

“No one likes to admit when they don’t fast – especially if they are in Malaysia,” he said.

“I try to fast and try to be consistent, but it gets mentally taxing and can feel almost impossible when all you want is coffee and a cigarette to help get you through the day.”

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