Religious tensions flare in Malaysia


The Metro Tabernacle Church, a storefront with metal shutters, sits gutted, black smoke stains on the concrete pillars bearing witness to the intense fire that destroyed the property.

The attacks on this and more than a dozen other houses of worship in January, followed in February by the caning of three Muslim teenagers for extramarital sex and a kerfuffle this month over an insulting act during a Christian service have prompted some soul-searching in Malaysia.

Though religious tensions have occasionally simmered in this multicultural society, these were the first attacks in recent memory, and left some Malaysians wondering how committed their nation remains to its relatively tolerant brand of Islam and what the cost could be to its global image, foreign investments and tourism trade.

“It hurts your international reputation,” said Kharis Idris, director of the MyFuture Foundation, which promotes multicultural engagement. “Church burning doesn’t sound good in any country. If it goes on, it will be bad for the economy. And if someone were to kill someone, all hell could break loose.”

The spark for the wave of violence was a successful challenge by the Herald, a Catholic weekly, of a government ban on continued use of the word “Allah” by Christians to describe God. The court has stayed its late-December decision pending a government appeal.

Analysts say the case has inflamed passions among politicians pandering for votes and extremists who have an interest in upsetting Malaysia’s delicate blend of religion and ethnicity.

King Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin referred to the controversy Monday in his annual speech to Parliament, calling on all parties to “avoid raising sensitive issues that could jeopardize public peace.”

This year Malaysia has seen the firebombing or vandalizing of 11 churches, two Muslim prayer halls, a mosque, the offices of the Catholic newspaper’s attorneys and a Sikh temple.

“It’s not just an issue of religious tolerance; after all, mainstream Malaysians are pretty tolerant people,” said Norani Othman, a sociologist and founding member of SIS Forum Malaysia, a Muslim women’s organization. “The silent majority has kept silent while the government keeps pandering to a minority of loudmouths.”

A few miles from Metro Tabernacle, Father Lawrence Andrew sits at his desk at the Herald as colleagues prepare to distribute the latest edition.

He flips through a reprinted Malay-Latin dictionary first published in 1631, referencing its definition of “Allah.” His point: Christianity has been using the term throughout the Muslim world for centuries without a problem, including in Egypt, Indonesia and Syria; its use in the Arab world predates Islam itself.

“Who are they to say what word we use or not?” the soft-spoken priest said, beneath a picture of himself meeting the pope.

Conservative Muslims see it differently. They want Christians to use an alternative term, “Tuhan,” fearing that continued use of “Allah” could lead Muslims to convert to Christianity. (Such conversion is forbidden in Malaysia.)

“Using the word ‘Allah’ can create confusion,” said Ibrahim Ali, a member of Parliament with the Perkasa party. “Malaysia has its own history and culture, and others should respect that.”

Malaysia has about 28 million people, about 60% of them Muslim, 19% Buddhist, 9% Christian and 6% Hindu. Ethnically, Malaysia is 53% Malay, which, as defined by the constitution, means people who practice Islam, speak Malay and follow Malay culture. The country is also 26% ethnic Chinese, 12% indigenous and 8% ethnic Indian.

The lead governing party, United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, touts itself as the protector of Malay rights. And it has increasingly sought to appeal to its hard-line base, analysts say, after being trounced in 2008 elections that saw the coalition -- in power essentially since the nation became independent in 1957 -- lose its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has condemned the religious attacks, promotes a more inclusive economic approach under the “1Malaysia” banner. He has also offered compensation and boosted security around churches and temples, and disputes any suggestion that the government hasn’t done enough.

But other members of his government have espoused hard-line pro-Malay views.

“UMNO has championed itself as the protector of Malay rights, but it’s not working as well as it used to,” said Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “So they’re trying to play up the race card without losing votes.”

The nation’s struggle over religion, politics and privilege has played out in the headlines.

On New Year’s Day, the Islamic morality police arrested 52 unmarried Muslim couples in budget hotels -- mainly students and young factory workers. Next, they threatened to hunt down Internet supporters of a spontaneous Valentine’s Day “no-panties” campaign among college students.

And Malaysia for the first time last month caned females after three Muslim teenagers became pregnant out of wedlock.

“UMNO has basically opened the door for protests to happen,” said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Singapore Management University. “Malaysia has become more conservative and less tolerant.”

Some also say inflammatory statements by individual officials and the government’s failure to discourage extremist outrage immediately after the “Allah” court decision are sending a message that attacks on religious minorities are tolerated, a criticism that the government disputes.

“The irresponsible conduct of fanning the emotions by UMNO leaders has brought about this dangerous situation,” former Cabinet secretary Zaid Ibrahim, now with the opposition, said in a statement.

Last year, the government was criticized for failing to quickly prosecute a group of Muslims who used a cow’s severed head to demonstrate against construction of a Hindu temple.

Minority groups also say it’s become difficult to obtain permits to build a church or temple. And Catholics expressed displeasure with a government decision this month not to punish two reporters with Al- Islam magazine who posed as Catholics, attended a Mass and spit out the Communion wafer, which Catholics believe represents the body of Christ. Al-Islam has since apologized.

Yet some also see a silver lining. The increasingly educated, Web-savvy public hasn’t reacted to what some suspect may have been acts designed to raise tensions.

After hog heads were tossed into two mosques, a rumor spread that it might have been done by extremist Muslims to spur outrage to their political advantage. Pigs are considered unclean by Muslims.

“The Malaysian public was sophisticated enough to see this was a deliberately provocative act,” said Ooi.