Malaysia confronts its ethnic and religious divisions (WITH VIDEO)

By Al Jazeera

Malaysia’s Selangor Islamic Religious Department (known as Jais) worked with police in early August to raid Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. The church was holding a charity dinner at the time of the raid. While authorities have not issued an official explanation for the raid and are still conducting an investigation into the events, the dinner’s opponents claim participants were attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity. Those who supported the raid say the action was undertaken in the name of defending Islam. 


Watch the video here:

Participants say they were holding the dinner in support of pan-Malaysian unity and deny accusations of proselytising. The Thanksgiving dinner attendants included citizens of different races and religions.

The raid may reflect tensions that undercut Malaysian society, which is divided along both religious and ethnic lines. Sixty percent of the country is Muslim, and just over half are ethnic Malay.

According to the constitution, citizens claiming Malay ethnicity must be practicing Muslims, speak the Malay language, and adhere to Malay cultural values. The conditions are in place to ensure that only Malay may claim protection under special laws that reserve jobs and other benefits for the ethnic majority. Although they are an ethnic majority in the country, Malay have been historically disadvantaged, advocates say, because of ethnic Chinese and Indians’ advantageous roles in trade and commerce.

As a result, ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the civil service, universities, and at other institutions.

But some in the country are hoping to encourage a pan-Malaysian identity that transcends ethnic, cultural, and religious identities. Prime Minister Najib Razak has promoted a campaign called 1Malaysia to rally Malaysians around the idea of common nationality.

In March, religious tensions were inflamed when a Christian newspaper in the country successfully challenged a law that prohibited Christians from using the word “Allah” to refer to God. Violence broke out between Christians and Muslims after the law was overturned, and heightened tensions surrounding religion in the country may have contributed to the August 3 church raid.