What’s next after church attacks in Malaysia?

He could lose votes in the states of Sabah and Sarawak which have larger Christian populations. Sarawak has 31 MPs and Sabah 25, home to just two opposition MPs. The government has 137 seats in a 222-member parliament.
By Niluksi Koswanage, Reuters

Malaysian Muslims rallied on Friday to protest against Christians using the word “Allah” for God after a spate of attacks on churches which threatened to stoke racial and religious tensions.
Following are some questions and answers on what lies ahead in this majority Muslim Southeast Asian country of 28 million.
The risk is small but analysts do not discount tensions coming to a boil between the majority Malays who are Muslim and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities who practice a range of faiths such as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.
It mostly depends on whether Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government comes down hard on the arsonists who attacked the churches. Usually at any sign of trouble the government uses the Internal Security Act that allows detention without trial.
The government says the attacks have been carried out by disaffected or criminal youths and that they are not coordinated.
What may hold back ethnic clashes is the memory of the bloody 1969 riots that divided the country.
Protests on Friday at mosques against the non-Muslim use of the word Allah have been peaceful although the language on banners and speeches suggests growing anger.
After the arson attempts against the churches, possibly. Religious disputes are a risk mostly in their potential to increase ethnic tensions, making it important for investors to see how the government handles the issue.
Investors have been avoiding Malaysia due to the lacklustre government of Najib’s predecessor and Najib is working hard to implement economic reforms to win back investment.
Malaysia was one of the worst-performing stock markets in Asia in 2009, ranked fourth from the bottom. Malaysia’s benchmark share index rose 45 percent in 2009.
During a meeting with investors in New York last year, Najib was asked about the government’s stand over the caning sentence meted out to a Muslim woman for drinking beer under rarely-enforced Islamic criminal laws.
An escalation of religious tensions in Malaysia could weaken Najib’s ability to push through economic reforms.
The issue stems from a Malaysian Catholic newspaper’s successful legal bid last week to overturn a government ban against the paper’s use of the word “Allah” to describe the Christian God in its Malay language edition.
Their argument is that use of the word Allah has been common among non-English speaking Malaysian Christians in the Borneo island states of Sabah and Sarawak for decades.
The government since has obtained a stay of execution on the judgment this week amid growing Malay-Muslim anger. The case is also before the Appeal’s court and the verdict there can still be challenged at the Federal Court, Malaysia’s top court.
It is illegal for non-Muslims to proselytise to Muslims but freedom of worship for the mainly Buddhist, Christian and Hindu religious minorities, who make up 40 percent of the country’s population, is guaranteed under the constitution.
The coalition, which ruled Malaysia for 52 years, suffered its worst-ever setbacks in national and state elections in 2008 after being abandoned by non-Malays in part due to unease over an increasing Islamisation.
Religious tensions will jeopardise Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ability to win back ethnic Chinese and Indian voters in the next general election, which must be held by 2013. The opposition and some political commentators say that Najib failed to show leadership on the church issue.
He could lose votes in the states of Sabah and Sarawak which have larger Christian populations. Sarawak has 31 MPs and Sabah 25, home to just two opposition MPs. The government has 137 seats in a 222-member parliament.
The three-party opposition People’s Alliance led by former Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim is regarded as having played the religious row much more skilfully than the government.
While stressing its Muslim credentials, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) has appealed for tolerance as has Anwar. PAS has also managed to keep its Islamic credentials intact.
(Reporting by Razak Ahmad, Niluksi Koswanage and Soo Ai Peng; Editing by David Chance and Sugita Katyal)