Issues of religion and race a challenge for Malaysia

A Malaysian parent uploaded a picture of school pupils having meals inside what looks like a changing room next to a toilet at a school in Selangor on July 22.

The Facebook picture went viral with the suggestion that non-Muslim pupils were told to eat in the makeshift canteen during Ramadan so as not to offend Muslim pupils who fast.

“Let me make this clear. This is not about religion or race,” said Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan as he told reporters that the controversy was over.

But it is far from over. Parents received conflicting explanations from the school as to why the canteen was shut down. The episode may be merely a case of bad school management, but the fiasco has been turned into an issue of race and religion.

It is the latest in a litany of issues that emerged one after another during the fasting month.

The other issues include the use of the word “Allah” by Christians, the proposal to make Islamic and Asian civilisation studies compulsory at private universities and a bill that allows unilateral conversion of minors to Islam. There is also an uproar over the antics of the sex-blogging couple who recently called on Muslims to eat a Chinese pork rib dish.

The emergence of these issues may be coincidental, but taken together, they have sparked a series of contentious debates that could lead to serious ethnic and religious tension.

The Allah issue was revived after Vatican envoy to Malaysia Joseph Marino, in remarks to reporters on July 11, supported the arguments of the local Catholic Church in an ongoing court battle with the government over whether the word Allah could be used by Christians to mean God. His comments drew flak, with Malay right-wing groups demanding his expulsion. The government’s appeal against a high court judgment in 2009 granting the Church the right to use the word in its Catholic Herald newsletter will be heard next month.

The move to make Islamic and Asian Civilisation studies compulsory at private universities came under fire because it is seen as an attempt to impose Islam on non-Muslim students, who dominate the institutions, rather than standardise requirements in government universities.

There is an underlying suspicion that religious zealots are at work, not only in pushing for the Islamic studies subject at private universities but also in the tabling of the bill that allows unilateral conversion of minors to Islam in the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan.

The government withdrew the latter bill on conversions on July 5 after a week of protests from non-Muslims. But it does not soothe non-Muslim anger as the clause still exists in the Islamic enactments in many other states.

The bill was drafted to address concerns over the fate of children when a parent converts to Islam. When conversion is allowed with the consent of only one parent, the right of the converting parent to change the child’s religion is recognised, but the right of the non-Muslim spouse is ignored.

And in a surprise development last Thursday, a high court in Ipoh ruled as unconstitutional the conversion of three minors by their Muslim convert father without the knowledge of the non-Muslim mother in 2009. This can be expected to trigger a new round of debate as such matters come under the purview of the Syariah Court.

Then there is the controversy sparked by the sex-blogging couple who asked Muslims to break fast with bak kut teh, a pork rib dish. The episode raised the question of justice and fair play. Critics wondered why the couple were swiftly indicted for allegedly insulting Islam, while two Malay supremacists Ibrahim Ali and Zulkifli Nordin of the rightist group Perkasa were spared from prosecution for religious insults.

In January, Ibrahim called for the burning of Malay language bibles which use the word Allah for God. Three months later, his deputy, Zulkifli, mocked Hindu deities.

Given the nature of politics in Malaysia, it was probably inevitable that these issues would emerge quickly one after another.

There are reasons for this.

First is the position of Islam in Malaysia. According to the constitution, Islam is the religion of the federation but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the federation. The nine Malay rulers are sovereign monarchs and head of Muslims in their respective states. As Islam takes precedence over other religions, many pro-Islam policies have been issued and Islamic enactments introduced to govern Muslim affairs. An Islamic bureaucracy is well established and the Syariah Court has been upgraded to be on a par with the civil courts. The upshot of this is that non-Muslims tend to feel threatened at the perceived growing Islamic environment in a state that is supposed to be secular.

Unlike Indonesia and Turkey, Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society with no clear Muslim majority. Muslims here form only 60 per cent of the 28 million population. The other 40 per cent is made up of non-Muslims, who are keenly aware of their rights and are becoming assertive in voicing out their displeasure at any outward signs of Islamisation.

Second, the activities of right-wing groups like Perkasa, Jati and Pembela can heighten political tension because of their hardline positions on issues concerning race and religion. They are aligned to Umno, leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and have followers who are members of the Malay party. These groups see themselves as champions of Malay rights and religion. There are signs that they are becoming intolerant of minorities, especially after the May 5 general election, because they view the non-Malays as having betrayed the BN by voting en masse for the opposition.

Third, Malay politics is also at play when issues of race and religion come to the fore. Umno and the opposition Islamic party Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party (PAS) are always trying to outdo each other in portraying itself to be the more Islamic and more reasonable party. PAS used to say that non-Muslims could use the word Allah for God, but made an about-turn after Umno began gaining ground by maintaining that the word was exclusive to Muslims. These issues will continue to be played up in the run-up to the Umno general assembly and party elections in October.

Despite contentious issues, political stability still prevails in Malaysia because all sides want law and order. But if nothing is done to address these issues, there is no certainty that ethnic and religious strife will not happen.

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