God as politics in Malaysia

Some analysts predict that the violence could coax certain constituencies, particularly Christians in Sabah and Sarawak, away from UMNO and towards the PR opposition, potentially paving the way for the parliamentary defections Anwar has long sought to topple the government. Others believe UMNO’s poor handling of the violence could sway more voters against the party at the next election, which already promised to be hotly contested.

By Fabio Scarpello, Asia Times

DENPASAR, Indonesia – The escalating Allah controversy that has resulted in the bombing of Christian churches across Malaysia has called into question the country’s moderate Muslim credentials and could have major repercussions for political alliances that underpin the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO)-led coalition government.

Both main political blocs – UMNO and the Anwar Ibrahim-led Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition coalition – have bid to capitalize on the violence, which has devolved from an obscure freedom of expression issue into a volatile matter of internal security that could potentially determine the government’s political survival.

UMNO has so far come out the worse for wear with its credibility shaken and reputation bruised by perceptions it has tacitly condoned the violence targeting Christians. Political analysts believe those perceptions, fanned by online media and blogs, could alienate UMNO’s moderate Muslim base and perhaps more importantly constituencies in the swing states of Sabah and Sarawak, whose parliamentarians help to maintain UMNO’s parliamentary majority.

Some analysts predict that the violence could coax certain constituencies, particularly Christians in Sabah and Sarawak, away from UMNO and towards the PR opposition, potentially paving the way for the parliamentary defections Anwar has long sought to topple the government. Others believe UMNO’s poor handling of the violence could sway more voters against the party at the next election, which already promised to be hotly contested.

UMNO’s politicization of ethnicity and religion has a long history. Many feel those tactics have paved the way for the recent senseless attacks against at least nine churches in the wake last month’s High Court ruling in favor of Catholic weekly newspaper, the Herald, that allowed the publication to use the word “Allah” in reference to the Christian God.

Lim Teck Ghee, director for the Kuala Lumpur-based Center for Policy Initiatives, said that hot-headed Muslims would not have felt emboldened enough to throw firebombs at churches had former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad not “shifted the political goal posts in 2001 by pronouncing Malaysia as an Islamic state”.

Another wedge driven between local religions, Gee says, was former premier Abdullah Badawi’s neglect of inter-faith dialogue in favor of what he characterizes as the former premier’s “empty Islamic Hadhari rhetoric”. He also pinned the blame on academics, a partisan media and the attorney general “for having failed to draw attention to the rise of political party-related religious and right-wing extremism”.

The approach of current UMNO leader and Prime Minister Najib Razak to the controversy has apparently been influenced by the March 2008 election results, which saw the heretofore invincible Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lose power in five of the federation’s 13 states and yield its long-held two-thirds majority in parliament.

A series of by-elections since have underlined the shift in voter-sentiment away from UMNO and indicated that its past politicking in favor of Malay Muslims over minority groups is no longer the rock-solid strategy it previously was. Minorities, including ethnic Chinese and Indians, constitute 40% of the Malaysian electorate.

The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the respective ethnic Indian and Chinese parties of the BN coalition, were virtually wiped off the political map at the last election. Meanwhile, UMNO simultaneously lost substantial support among its traditional Malay Muslim constituency.

The BN currently controls 137 of 220 parliamentary seats; PR, on the other hand, holds sway over 82 seats, while three members of parliament are independent of either coalition. Anwar recently told this correspondent that several BN parliamentarians had long been ready to cross over, but were held back “by fear of repression”.

Those claims are difficult to substantiate, but the Allah controversy has confirmed to many political observers that UMNO has given up trying to revive the political fortunes of the MCA or MIC and is now deliberately moving to withdraw into its conservative, nationalist past.

The earlier decision to ban The Herald from using the word “Allah”, as well as the vociferous reaction to the court verdict last month that reinstated the paper’s right to use the word in its publications was to many observers a thinly veiled attempt to reunite a splintered ethnic Malay vote – which combined represents some 60% of the country’s 26 million people.

That strategy was apparently based on the assumption that the controversy would not alienate the large Christian constituencies in Sabah and Sarawak. Non-Muslims form the majority in the two states and Christians form the single biggest constituency by faith, accounting for 47% of the two Borneo-based states’ combined population.

The Allah controversy’s ripple effect, many agree, has been to discredit UMNO’s claim to ethnic Malay supremacy and emboldened the PR’s clarion call for multiracial harmony. Instead of driving more Muslims intro the UMNO fold, the church attacks seem to have renewed momentum towards an ethnic-blind country and political system.

UMNO’s religious bluff – that the Allah issue represented a threat to Islam and was part of a larger pro-Christian plot to convert Muslims – has been refuted by the opposition-led Parti Islam-se Malaysia (PAS), viewed widely as Malaysia’s most traditional Islamic party. PAS has so far largely stood by The Herald, underscoring the notion that the controversy is not a religious issue, but rather a political one.

As a consequence, PAS could lose appeal with its past core traditional Islamic constituency, but could in the process pick up more moderate Muslims that desert UMNO over the controversy. The opposition party could also benefit from emerging grass roots campaigns that have pinned the blame for the violence squarely on UMNO.

A group consisting of 121 non-governmental organizations and other religious and professional organizations has since the bombings promoted solidarity between religions while at the same time condemned UMNO. Farouk Musa, a leader of the umbrella group, said that such violence against places of worship “is as much an affront to Islam and to all religions as it is to Christians”.

The opposition is bidding to piggyback on those campaigns. “The UMNO-led government’s appeal is waning, not only with the non-Malays but also with the vast majority of Malays who realize that the ruling party has lost its way,” said Anwar in an interview with this correspondent. “UMNO’s ability to hold onto enough seats in parliament will be questioned by many if it continues down this reckless path.”

That promises in the weeks ahead to turn the political focus on Sabah and Sarawak. In those two states, people’s identity is tied mostly to tribe rather than religion or political affiliation, marking a different political culture than other areas of the country. Elections, especially in Sarawak, have historically been dominated by money politics, which UMNO has been able to influence with its access to state coffers.

Sarawak’s 31 seats account for 13% of parliament’s seats, while Sabah’s is slightly less with a tally of 25. All parliamentarians except for two from Sarawak and Sabah are currently aligned with the BN. But a sudden swing in favor of the opposition would mathematically be enough to topple the BN and bring Anwar and the PR to power.

Notably political leaders in the two states have remained muted as the Allah controversy has spiraled. But there are unmistakable signs of grassroots discontent. Some Borneo-based religious leaders, activists and academics have expressed anger over what they perceive as UMNO’s contempt for the collective political weight of Christian voters. Those rising sentiments accentuate what was already a growing sense of alienation in the two states vis-a-vis the wealthier peninsula.

The two states joined Malaya in 1963 on the basis of the so-called 20-point agreement for Sabah and the 18-point agreement for Sarawak. The agreements were written for the purpose of safeguarding the interests, rights and the autonomy of the people of the two states on the formation of the federation. It was originally envisaged that the two states would be two of four entities in the federation, the others being Malaya and Singapore.

Over time, Sabah and Sarawak’s political weight has diminished as two of 13 states in a wider federation, which also comprises three federal territories: Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya. Aside from nominally separate immigration controls, there is little evidence that the two states have maintained any degree of autonomy, including over natural resource exploitation.

In recent years, Sabah in particular has accused Kuala Lumpur of exploiting its resources; some estimate as much as 95% of the profits from Sabah’s natural resources is taken by the federal government. UMNO has arguably been remiss in addressing Sabah’s and Sarawak’s demands for more equitable revenue sharing, opening the way for Anwar’s opposition to make inroads through promises of a better economic deal.

Anwar’s coalition has actively bid to win over local politicians, saying that the coalition “is ready to show strong commitments to at least some of the East Malaysia’s (Sabah and Sarawak ) demands.” At last December’s opposition coalition convention, PR leaders made strong references to Sabah and Sarawak and promised to resolve contested issues on oil royalties and problems facing different local ethnic groups who are among the poorest and least educated in the country.

Whether those promises and growing disenchantment over the church bombings will be enough to win wholesale defections in Sabah and Sarawak is yet to be seen. PR has not yet fully mobilized its election machinery in the two insular states and some doubt that Anwar has done enough yet to win over local hearts and minds. But even if the church bombings motivate a split of the two state’s votes, it could be enough to swing the electoral balance in Anwar’s and the PR’s favor.