Analysts: Rising intolerance, religious conservatism in Malaysia fueled by opposition

Iman Muttaqin Yusof and Sheridan Mahavera
Kuala Lumpur
Analysts: Rising intolerance, religious conservatism in Malaysia fueled by opposition A scene from Malaysian director Khairi Anwar’s 2021 film “Mentega Terbang,” which some Muslims in the Southeast Asian nation say blasphemes Islam.
[Photo courtesy Facebook @mentegaterbangmovie]

An International Women’s Day march, a film about a Muslim character exploring other religions’ views on the afterlife, and an interfaith program have all recently become targets of religious conservatives’ outrage in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Additionally, one state’s Islamic authority warned against wearing bikinis at beaches, some police stations and hospitals reprimanded or turned away citizens for wearing shorts, and a Kuala Lumpur club canceled a cross-dressing Thai group’s performance after 60 police reports were filed against it.

These and similar incidents have raised concerns among many Malaysians about growing Islamic conservatism, moral policing and a potential culture war in this multireligious, multiracial country.

Coupled with seemingly intolerant statements by politicians, such incidents have become so frequent in the last four months that Raysham Bin Raya, a Malaysian of Indian ethnicity, often finds himself wondering, “What next?”

“The conservative Malays seem to be attempting to impose their beliefs on others. I feel suffocated by how things are. I guess because this issue feels personal and close to me,” the 21-year-old student told BenarNews.

“Some believe that politicians are playing a role in fueling this issue. This will impact society in such a way it could have lasting effects.”

Analysts said politicians have been stirring the pot further these last few months since the multiracial – and multireligious – Anwar Ibrahim government took office in late November.

The opposition Malay-nationalist Perikatan Nasional coalition, which includes the hardline Islamic party PAS, portrays the government as anti-Islam and anti-Malay, and the ethnic Malay majority as a community under threat, said analyst Tunku Mohar Mokhtar.

Special privileges enshrined in Malaysia’s constitution ensure that Malays are granted business licenses, scholarships and jobs in the public sector and civil service, and opposition politicians allege that these privileges may be taken away, the analyst added.

Ethnic Malays make up close to 70% of Malaysia’s population, and all of them are Muslim. Ethnic Chinese comprise 22.8% of the population, and ethnic Indians 6.6%.

“[All this outrage] is in fact, political brinkmanship,” Tunku Mohar, of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, told BenarNews.

“This issue also reflects the failure of our education system, and the state of our social relations, where the majority community is duped into believing that they are the minority and are being marginalized.”

A multi-race, multicultural group performs at the 65th National Independence Day event in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 31, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Take the case of a government interfaith project in Kuala Lumpur called “Jom Ziarah” (Let’s Visit”), a program to give youths a better understanding of Malaysia’s diverse faiths by taking them to churches, temples and mosques. 

Perikatan politicians accused the program of being an attempt to spread Christianity among Muslim youths and an emboldened section of the Muslim majority vented on social media. The government suspended the program.

“Nothing in the government’s program suggested that its participants would take part in religious rituals when they visited the different houses of worship, which would be considered unlawful,” Tunku Mohar said.

The fact that a multi-racial and multi-religious government is in power was being used to play into people’s insecurities, said Aizat Shamsuddin, coordinator of Komuniti Muslim Universal (KMU), a Muslim youth group. 

“These issues are being politicized by certain political parties with the objective of making it seem that the unity government is allowing Muslims to change religion,” he told BenarNews.

Communal rhetoric has become so heightened that the prime minister last week asked security forces to be on alert for elements fomenting racial and religious unrest.

The directive came two days before veteran leader and former two-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was to address a “Malay Proclamation” event, which a local newspaper said would discuss the “plight” of the ethnic majority.

The organizers eventually canceled the Sunday event, claiming that many venues refused to host them. Mahathir called Anwar a dictator who was suppressing free speech.

The immediate prognosis for religious relations in Malaysia does not look good either, said Lau Zhe Wei, a political science professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

With polls upcoming in six states, the atmosphere will only get worse, he said.

“[This] is a result of electoral politics. This is a battle about who is Malay enough or Islamic enough to gain the support of the majority,” Lau Zhe told BenarNews.

“The government is facing a tough challenge and is pressured to counter the claims that Putrajaya does not champion the Muslims and Islam. … If we are not careful, this will lead to more serious racial tension.”


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