Muslim officials fuel row over alcohol by seizing beer from store

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 August, 2009, 12:00am

Another front has opened in Malaysia's beer wars, with Muslim officials seizing 78 cans of beer from a 7-Eleven store and demanding that convenience stores stop selling alcohol.

The incident, which occurred at Shah Alam, Selangor, comes two weeks after a Singaporean Muslim model was sentenced by a Malaysian sharia court to be caned after she admitted drinking a beer in a club.

The beer seizure, which occurred on July 29, earned a sharp rebuke from an ethnic-Chinese minister in the Selangor state government, who forced the officials to return the alcohol to the store owner.

The row is stoking debate in Malaysia about the rights of non-Muslims to drink alcohol.

Ronnie Liu, state minister for local government affairs, reprimanded the Shah Alam local council officials and ordered them to hand over the beer on Saturday.

'They overstepped their authority,' said Mr Liu, a member of the Democratic Action Party. 'These and other outlets are licensed to sell beer, and the council has no legal authority to seize the beers.'

But Hassan Ali, head of the Parti Islam se-Malaysia in Selangor and state minister for Islamic affairs, defended the action, arguing that the Shah Alam neighbourhood was predominantly Muslim. He said the presence of beer at the 7-Eleven was proving to be an unacceptable temptation to the thousands of undergraduates at a nearby university.

'Since Muslims are a majority, it is only proper that the sale of beer is banned there,' he said. 'Muslims are against beer sales and consumption because Islam forbids it. We have also noticed rising incidences of alcohol drinking among Muslim youths. We want the sale of beer in all 24-hour stores in the state banned.'

Dr Hassan told Mr Liu not to interfere in Islamic matters and demanded that he be removed from the local-government portfolio.

It is the first time Islamic officials have targeted alcohol sales at an established chain store such as 7-Eleven, raising fears among Chinese and Indian minorities that sharia law is encroaching into the secular domain. Most shops selling alcoholic drinks are owned by Chinese or Indians, but the 7-Eleven outlet at the centre of the row is managed by a Muslim.

'We have a clear demarcation between Islam and secular laws. It is well established that alcohol is on sale to non-Muslims only,' said Kulasegaran Murugesan, an opposition lawmaker in the national Parliament who often speaks up for the rights of alcohol drinkers.

Malaysia's dual sharia and secular legal system often sparks fierce debates over where sharia law ends and secular rights begin. Sharia courts are entitled to convict and sentence Muslims who breach Islamic laws.