KUALA LUMPUR Two Malaysian states are set to change their Islamic laws to punish Muslims who engage in homosexuality, raising the prospect of gay Muslims being punished twice and stoking concerns about rising intolerance toward same-gender relationships.
Homosexuality is punishable by law in Malaysia by caning and up to 20 years in jail, but the legal amendments planned by Pahang and Malacca religious authorities would give the state governments additional ammunition.
If the proposed changes came into force, a Muslim homosexual could be punished under both federal and state religious charges, meaning that jail terms could run consecutively and result in longer time.
Analysts said the proposed amendments hinted at an increasing intolerance toward homosexuality and could erode support for the government among the majority ethnic Malays, who are Muslims by birth.
"The irony of the situation is that the overwhelming majority of gay people in this country are Malays," said James Chin, a political analyst at Monash University in Malaysia. "When they have these laws to target non-mainstream sexual minorities, they are actually targeting their own people."
Malacca's chief minister, Mohd Ali Rustam, said the state would review its Islamic law provisions to allow Muslim gays and lesbians to be tried in court and punished by a jail term or a fine to deter homosexuality.
"So many people like to promote human rights, even up to the point they want to allow lesbian activities and homosexuality," Ali told Reuters.
"In Islam, we cannot do all this. It is against Islamic law," he said, adding that Muslim homosexuals would also be required to attend counseling.
Ali, who is also Malacca Islamic Religious Department chairman, said the proposed penalties would also apply to those who supported homosexuality even if they did not practice it.
"We want to put it in the enactment so that we can enforce it and bring them to our sharia (Islamic law) court. Then we can charge them for promoting or supporting these illegal activities."
On Thursday, the top cleric of central Pahang state was quoted in The Star newspaper as saying the state would also amend its Islamic laws to allow for action against homosexual-related activities.
"Islam prohibits deviant sexual orientation or behavior," Abdul Rahman Osman was quoted as saying. "Appropriate action should be taken to address these problems. We fear that this abnormal behavior will be regarded as a norm."
In Malaysia, religion is within the respective states' purview and the authorities do not need federal government approval to effect legislative changes.
Last week, organizers were forced to cancel an annual sexuality rights festival in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, after police threatened to crack down on the event, saying it could create widespread unease and public disorder.
About 60 percent of the country's population of 28 million are Muslims, and Islamic law tenets are used as an official yardstick for the behavior of followers. Still, Muslims often throng bars serving alcohol in Kuala Lumpur.
Extramarital sex is frowned upon and same-gender relationships often draw criticism although the rise of alternative media channels has bred a greater openness in debates about homosexuality.
But public discussions involving sexuality often assume a conservative veneer. Films and music are also heavily censored to remove explicit content, and homosexuals and transvestites complain of professional and social discrimination.
(Editing by Elaine Lies)