Church attacks: Where is People First and Performance Now?

Public  anger and disenchantment is building up in Malaysia as it becomes clear that neither Prime Minister Najib Razak nor his deputy are serious about defusing or finding consensual solutions to the religious tensions simmering in the country following an outbreak of violence and vandalism against non-Muslim places of worship.

By Wong Choon Mei (Harakah)

Indeed, their ‘coolness’ – whether feigned or real – has sparked widespread speculation that a harsh crackdown against political rivals, religious dissidents and some civil society organizations may be imminent.

“We cannot predict their game plan but we condemn their irresponsibility and lack of response to this spate of gang-sponsored terrorism,” PAS strategist Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad (PIC) told Harakahdaily.

“We warn them not to try and use the long arm of the draconian Internal Security Act to preserve their own power and locking up Pakatan and other CSO leaders for speaking up on the issue when they themselves are the ones who instigated this tragic situation.”

The ISA is a draconian law, crafted to contain terrorism. It allows for detention without trial for indefinite periods of time and has been frequently abused by the ruling Umno-Barisan Nasional government – especially during the Mahathir regime – to lock up political and business rivals in the past.

Brazening it out

Najib, who took office in a blitz of publicity and a promise to unite the races with his 1Malaysia, People First, Performance Now plan, left for Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. He will be there on a four-day visit before heading next to India from Jan 19 to 23.  

Before leaving, the PM called for a special meeting with top editors of the mainstream press, telling them that his government had the situation under control and urged them not to give space to the views of opposition leaders, in particular the Islamic-based PAS.

But hardly had the dust settled on his departure when a church in Johor became the ninth Christian place of worship to be vandalized, underscoring the instability still lurking below the surface.

Najib has yet to make any comment. But Deputy Prime Minister Muhuyiddin Yassin is likely to raise the mercury a notch with remarks that clearly show that they are unlikely to respect in any significant way the wishes of the non-Muslims, as well as a growing majority of Malays, for inter-faith dialogue to break the deadlock.

“I agree to a certain extent,” Muhyiddin told reporters while in London on a visit. “There are differences. I don’t want to go deep into that issue. I think we have to manage issues at home our own way because we have our own way of life, culture, traditions and respect for one another which are our strengths.”

Heavy toll on Malaysians and Malaysia

In the past seven days, at least nine churches, a 100-year old Sikh temple and a Catholic school have been attacked by arsonists and vandals hurling firebombs, stones and even paint at the facilities. Other than the first church, a large part of which was completely gutted by fire, the physical damage to the other places of worship has not been as severe.

Nevertheless, the toll on the citizenry in terms of public confidence and morale, and on the country’s image and economy as a moderate and business-friendly Muslim nation, has been tremendous. Foreign investors and overseas religious groups – both Islamic and non-Islamic – have called on Najib to reject strong-arm tactics and instead initiate discourse and dialogue.

“The Christian community is currently under siege by unscrupulous arsonists out to create disunity among peace loving Malaysians. Barisan Nasional component parties should now re-examine their position and their coalition status with Umno,” said Ronnie Klassen, a Sabah PKR leader.

“Till now what we see are the Umno leaders and the police still pretending to be cool about the whole thing. Till now, despite all the advice not just from Pakatan and PAS, but also from religious and civil society leaders in this country and even abroad, Najib has not dared to call for an inter-faith dialogue to sort out the issue,” chided Dr Dzulkefly.

No arrests have been made so far, despite police claims that the incidents were the work of amateurs, widely believed to be Muslim zealots fired up by Umno’s communal rhetoric.

When the shoe does not fit

At the heart of this outbreak of religious bigotry, one of the worst in Malaysia’s history, is a landmark High Court ruling allowing non-Muslims to use the word Allah. The court lifted a Home Ministry ban on the usage, sparking a storm of protest from some Muslim groups and Umno leaders, who saw the decision as a political opportunity to galvanize support from the Malay community.

Malays form 60 percent of the country’s 27 million population and are split down the line between the nationalist Umno party and the Islamist PAS. Both have their own hardcore supporters and their battle for the hearts and minds of the Malay electorate has been long-standing.

But in the Allah row, PAS – which is led by a core committee of religious experts or ulamak – stuck by Islamic teachings, which do not prohibit non-Muslims from using Allah, rather than play the racial card.

In contrast, Umno – criticized in the past for its capitalist and corrupt policies – opted to play the role of the defender of Islam to regain political mileage with the Malays, who are all Muslims.

“This is a clear cut example of the phrase ‘when the shoe does not fit’. Even though it may be embarrassing for them, Najib must have the courage to say ‘Enough! We made a mistake. Let us now correct it’.” said Dr Dzulkefly.

“As the PM of all Malaysians, he must have the courage to stop distressing and worrying the rakyat. He cannot put Umno’s interests first, that would put Malaysia in the ranks of Zimbabwe and Myanmar. Where is his People First, Performance Now? “

Despite denials, Najib and his cousin Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein gave tacit approval for mass demonstrations against the court ruling despite outcry from civil society leaders who balked at the blatant disregard for law and order.

Other Umno leaders such as ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, his son Trade Minister Mukhrz Mahathir and Women’s chief Shahrizat Jalil openly slammed the court ruling, throwing their support behind a high-profile Facebook campaign to get Malays to back their ‘Allah for Muslims Only’ stance.