Church violence escalates: Najib’s political will in doubt

A glaring lack of leadership and political will by Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government – and this may be deliberate – has been blamed for the escalation in violence against Christian churches by extremist Muslim groups in Malaysia.

By Wong Choon Mei (Harakah)

”I would wish the PM and the government would act more resolutely and with a greater sense of urgency. Otherwise, the perpetrators would be further emboldened, while the public loses faith in their sincerity to control the situation,” Ramon Navaratnam, chairman of Centre for Public Policy Studies, to Harakahdaily.

“Remember, the whole world is watching. Time is of essence and how the PM and the government resolve the issue will be scrutinized. This includes investors at home and abroad. Whether the Malaysian people and the international community will remain confident about their government and our institutions is on test.”

In the early hours of Monday, the Sidang Injil Borneo in Seremban was hit by fire-bombs that scorched its front façade. This was the eighth church in four days to have suffered acts of arson and vandalism since Molotov cocktails were hurled at Christian places of worship in Kuala Lumpur on Friday .

Although, police were quick to say the culprits were amateurs, they have failed to stem the terrorism against the churches.

Places hit now include churches in Selangor, Taiping, Malacca and Miri, sparking renewed condemnation for Najib and his Umno party. Both have been widely blamed for having instigated the attacks as a means to rally political support from the Malay electorate.

“It is most strange that till now the police do not have any clues. Despite Najib and his cabinet rushing over to the gutted churches and having their photographs taken, there has not been any proper action plan put in place to arrest the violence nor to protect the churches,” said Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, the MP for Kuala Selangor and a PAS central committee member.

“This must be done with further delay. If Najib and the police cannot or do not want to so, then civil society groups, NGOs, Pakatan Rakyat and volunteers from the public will do it. We will form a task force to stop this senseless destruction even if we have to guard all Christian places of worship around the clock.”

Church must hold firm, not send the wrong signal Concern is also high that Najib and his party may be intentionally allowing the violence to continue in order to win political points to stem the advance of the Pakatan Rakyat, led by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim.  

The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religious practice and only prohibits proselytizing to Muslims. However, there is a sub-section 11(5) that states that public order transcends the other clauses. Observers believe it is this 11(5) section that Najib is now trying to trigger in order to save face and to emerge from the controversy as having successfully defended Islam.

“All the more, Malaysians must not be cowed into submission and must hold steadfast to their constitutional rights,” Dzulkefly said. “If there is any compromise, including by the Christian groups, it would send a very wrong signal to all Malaysians including to the rest of the world that we are caving in to over-zealots and unscrupulous groups with vested interest. Each time they cannot get what they want, they will go on a rampage – burn this and grab that.”

Section 11(5) can be invoked by the executive, the judiciary or by Parliament itself through an emergency motion. By the executive, it can take the form of an order from the PM himself, such as declaring a state of emergency and this was the basis for the widespread speculation that the current attacks were a prelude to another Operations Lalang or another May 13.

During these two black incidents, where to ostensibly restore public peace, the Umno-BN government had jailed thousands of dissidents including political rivals to consolidate their grip on power. Whilst through the judiciary, it would be via the Court of Appeal to overturn the High Court ruling on the basis of public interests and stability, hence the continued attacks and the marked lack of effective action by the police.

Don’t cave in to extremism, political thugs

There is also worry that Najib and his cohorts may play a more insidious hand by pressuring the Church to abandon the High Court ruling, although that was in its favor, and to stop other suits from being filed by other Christian groups.

Already, the spin from the Umno-BN media is that Christian churches should act more responsibly and put ‘national interests’ first – painting them as a selfish and irresponsible community if they did not.

“The federal constitution belongs to all Malaysians, not just Christians. It is the duty of all right-thinking Malaysians, not just the Christians, to defend the constitution and protect the future of this country,” said Ramon.

“The proper way forward is still a dialogue between all the different religious groups, Umno-BN, Pakatan Rakyat and civil society. This must be called immediately. There must not be any pressure applied to any quarter just so that Umno can save themselves and say they have succeeded in defending Islam. Malaysians must not allow themselves to be held ransom by political thugs,” said Dzulkefly.

Doing the right thing vs the wrong thing

Indeed, the  Pakatan trio of PAS, PKR and DAP has been gaining ground thanks to its multi-racial and reform agenda versus

Najib’s Umno, which has been slammed for its over reliance on  nationalism and racist politicking to stay in power. In particular, the Islamic-based PAS has sparked fear amongst Umno hardliners that it was losing its grip on the Malay electorate, its traditional bastion. While also a Malay predominant party, PAS has won greater voter confidence by insisting on prioritizing Islamic principles, such as in the eyes of the Muslim religion all men were equal, rather than playing the racial card.

The church attacks had flared up after a High Court ruling allowed a Christian magazine, the Herald, to use the word Allah in its Malay-language section. Umno and several Muslim NGOs slammed the ruling, although they did not deny it was in line with the federal constitution. They believe the word Allah was exclusive to the Malays and Muslims, warning that it could be abused by other faiths to convert Muslims, and threatened mass demonstrations.

Their stand contradicts that of many international Islamic councils, including PAS, whose ulamak or religious experts have studied the issue and decreed that non-Muslims could use the word, provided guidelines were drawn up by an inter-faith grouping. This was to prevent misuse by quarters with vested interests to create unrest, much like what is now happening to the churches.

“Religion and race are two of the most emotive issues. Najib cannot deny the attackers took the cue from him when he gave tacit approval to the mass protests. The whole world was against him for this irresponsible act. It was on international TV and yet his reply to the whole world was that he was powerless to stop them. So he cannot go back now and hypocritically pretend he did not trigger this,” said Dzulkefly.