The religious department, whose job is to prevent immoral behaviour among Muslims, have come under severe criticism recently for raiding public and private premises to haul up couples suspected of breaking Islamic morality rules.

 

Nazri Abdul Aziz, a minister in the Prime Minister's Department, said on Thursday the religious department officials now must get police approval before raids and must conduct them accompanied by police officers.

 

"Someone must be accountable for anything that happens during the raids," Nazri said. "This is a very serious matter, (because) we do not want to see Malaysia turning into Afghanistan during the Taliban rule. If this is not stopped, it may happen."

 

Before they were driven from power in late 2001, the Taliban imposed its interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan, banning television and music and barring women from some workplaces.

 

Restrictions placed

 

Nazri said Malaysia's cabinet decided to place restrictions on the morality raids to make sure they proceed in an orderly manner.

 

The Islamic officials occasionally raid locations such as discos. But the inspections generally involve lovers' haunts to curb khalwat, or "close proximity," a crime akin to adultery applying to un-chaperoned meetings between men and women who are not married to each other.

 

"We do not want to see Malaysia turning into Afghanistan during the Taliban rule"

Nazri Abdul Aziz,
Minister in the Prime Minister's Department

According to the Islamic Affairs Department, those found guilty of khalwat can be jailed for up to six months and fined a maximum of $789 (3000 ringgit) under Islamic laws, which do not apply to non-Muslims.

 

The government also has told a Muslim youth vigilante squad to stop spying on couples for the religious department.

 

Evaluation demanded

 

Human-rights and opposition activists demanded an evaluation of the religious police after they arrested 100 Muslims at a Kuala Lumpur disco in January for alleged indecent behaviour.

 

The disco patrons said they were locked up at the department's headquarters for 10 hours, and accused officials of humiliating the women, commenting on their attire and taking photographs of them.

 

On 6 February, a popular actor turned fitness instructor, Eezaq Farrouq Harahap, and a female friend were detained for alleged khalwat at an apartment. He said he was wrongfully detained while having dinner with the friend, her sister and her brother-in-law.

 

More than half of Malaysia's 25 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. There are also many ethnic Chinese Buddhists and Christians and ethnic Indian Hindus.

 

Malaysia generally regards itself as a tolerant Islamic country. It currently heads the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim grouping.