Malaysia to enforce ban on articles insulting Islam

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Islamic scholars hailed on Monday government plans to enforce a law which bans the publication of articles deemed derogatory to Islam or the Prophet Mohammad.

The government has said it will enforce a ban on such writing according to newspaper reports, drawing immediate praise from the Muslim Scholars Association, which spearheaded a campaign for a crackdown.

The scholars or ulamas in mainly Muslim Malaysia complained to the country's Sultans in February, naming six moderate Muslim commentators they said had insulted the religion.

"This is what we wanted, to put an end to all these insults," Abdul Ghani Shamsudin told Reuters.

Berita Harian newspaper quoted Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's top religious adviser Abdul Hamid Othman last week as saying local dailies would no longer be allowed to publish articles that disparaged Islam or the Prophet.

"The government gives writers the freedom to write about Islam as long as they don't touch on the Prophet and the tenets of Islam," Hamid said.

He cited an article which claimed that the Prophet had had relations with nine women as an example.

"Such statement can be misinterpreted and cause confusion among Muslims," he said.

The ulamas took their complaint to the rulers after failing to get what they wanted from state religious authorities.

They urged the nine Sultans -- hereditary rulers who are defenders of the Islamic faith and head of Islamic religion in their respective states -- to act against the writers.

The rulers referred the complaint to the National Islamic Affairs Committee chaired by Mahathir, which met last week and decided to study the matter further.

Existing laws, rarely enforced, hold that anyone found guilty of insulting the religion faces fines of 5,000 ringgit ($1,315), three years in jail or both.

Islam is Malaysia's official faith, though the government follows a moderate form and the constitution guarantees freedom of religion in a multi-racial nation of 23 million people which includes many Buddhist ethnic Chinese and Hindu ethnic Indians.