News analysis: Malaysian model drinks beer, asks to be caned

BOSTON — It's a sordid tale with the goods to placate the gods of news.

A model. Booze. Religion. Caning (yes, being beaten repeatedly by a rattan stick). An impassioned appeal by human rights advocates. A willing sacrifice. 

Here's the skinny:

Last year Malaysian model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno was drinking a beer in a hotel nightclub in the eastern Malaysian state of Pahang. Police raided the club and charged the 32-year-old mother of two with drinking alcohol — a transgression under Sharia law in Malaysia. An Islamic court then fined Kartika $1,400 and sentenced her to six lashes with a cane, due to be carried out next weekend.

This week, Amnesty International put out a statement decrying the punishment:

"Caning is a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment and is prohibited under international human rights law." Amnesty International urged Malaysian authorities to "immediately revoke the sentence to cane her and abolish the practice of caning altogether."

But Kartika resisted. Not only does she want to be caned, but she's asking that the punishment be given in public to help spread the word to other Muslims about the evils of drinking (right now the caning is scheduled to happen inside a women's prison). "I want to respect the law," Kartika said Friday. "Who am I to question the Islamic authorities' laws? That is beyond me."

So, what do we make of all of this, aside from the fact that the world is an endlessly fascinating place filled with complex and interesting stories?

First, expect the TV talking heads to rev their bloviating engines (my inbox has already been hit with emails from "experts" who are eager to discuss these important matters).

That's because this story has just the script the Larry King-types drool over: a damsel in distress (better yet, a real live model). An authortarian villain (in this case, two: a distant, capricious foreign government and Islamic law). A looming deadline. An alcoholic whiff of scandal. The titillating threat of violence. And to top it off a heroine who, Christ-like, views her punishment as possible salvation for an entire religion.

That's a lot of sound bite juice, and don't be surprised when this story takes off this week, particularly if the caning goes on as planned. (I'm especially looking forward to the Stephen Colbert/Jon Stewart take on things.)

You can be sure that guest bookers across the cable TV spectrum are right now poring over Wikipedia's Malaysia page, while Googling "caning" and simultaneously scouring their Rolodexes for religious experts, Sharia law scholars or anyone else to help catapult this personal saga into a media circus.

It's late August, after all, and the news is slow. A little blast of crazy from Asia might make a nice diversion from the dull complexities of heath care reform.

But if this story does explode into the global media meme with the crack of a rattan cane, be careful. Or, at least, be thoughtful.

A complex issue like this, of course, can't be understood in a two-minute TV interview, with one heavily powdered face shouting down another.

Malaysia itself is a teeming mass of division (the country is split in two by the South China Sea, after all) as well as cultural, political and religious nuance. It's a place made up of 28 million ethnic Malays, Chinese, Indians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christains and,  yes, Prada-wearing boozers.

Is caning brutal? Of course. Does it have a long history, with complex and deeply rooted cultural and religious undertones? Yes. And can anyone but Kartika really know what's motivating her actions? Is it honest faith? Guilt at her own perceived transgression? Personal gain? A twisted combination of these and other unknown factors? The screaming nut in the splitscreen certainly can't know that.

So enjoy the spectacle, and feel free to form your own opinions.

But if you really want to understand the pieces of this looming narrative in our ever-shrinking world, do your homework first. In particular, dig deeper into the cultural foundations of Malaysia to see why this is occurring. At its root, this intersection of caning, boozing and punishment is a product of a distinct culture. It informs the beliefs and practices of all three, from the social norms that make up what's appropriate, to the precise make-up of the country's justice system (in this case, one that operates on a dual track to serve both Muslims and non-Muslims).

The practice of religion in Malaysia, too, is rooted in these same unique cultural factors. Ditto for the Malaysian political and economic systems that help fuel this story. And, of course, there are the cultural underpinnings in your own country that form the unconscious opinions, thoughts and biases that make up your own understanding — and the media's take — on a salacious story like this.

So turn down the volume, and peel back the layers. Then, if you must, go on TV to yell and scream.