In Malaysia, ruling party uses Islamic values to bolster support

The emphasis on Islamic values is aimed at solidifying support among the Muslim Malay majority. But critics say the move alienates other ethnic groups.

By Ivy Sam and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Next on the banned list was British author Peter Mayle’s sex-education book “Where Did I Come From?” and, in May, “Allah, Liberty & Love” by liberal Muslim activist Irshad Manji, which calls for reform and greater tolerance within Islam.

Although state religious officials in Malaysia say preventing citizens’ exposure to “un-Islamic” books, authors and entertainers is a moral necessity, opposition leaders offer a different view: It’s largely about political power.

With polls suggesting a recent erosion in support for Prime Minister Najib Razak and the ruling party, particularly among younger, tech-savvy voters, the government has been working overtime to solidify its support among the country’s Muslim Malay majority. And one way it has done that, analysts said, is by fanning fear of secularism and the spread of religions other than Islam.

“That is why you see a concentrated attempt to win them over by being ultra-religious,” said Ahmad Farouk, chairman and director of the Islamic Renaissance Front think tank, who believes Malaysia’s differences should be celebrated, not condemned. “We can’t behave or think like a 7th century Muslim. We are already in the 21st century.”

Critics charge that stepped-up appeals to “Islamic values” by the ruling United Malays National Organization party may exact a larger cost, dividing society, eroding Malaysia’s significant accomplishments and undercutting the confidence it enjoys among foreign investors.

“Malaysia’s reputation has been dented for many years by these shortsighted attempts to win local votes,” said Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Singaporean-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “It’s never what’s good for society, rather what’s good for the party.”

Those close to the ruling party, including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, counter that lax morality and a weak hand at the wheel could spark ethnic violence and social disorder.

“When you open up things, you become liberal,” Mahathir told the Agence France-Presse news service in a June interview. “We need a government that is firm.”

In late April, nearly 250,000 people marched through Kuala Lumpur, the capital, calling for free and fair elections, rattling the ruling party.

State religious scholars condemned the demonstrations and issued an edict, or fatwa, against Muslims participating in street protests.

Muslims make up 60% of Malaysia’s 28 million people, while Christians account for about 9%. Several churches were firebombed in January 2010 after the country’s high court allowed the Catholic Church to use the term “Allah” in Malay translations of the Bible.

The country also has sizable ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian communities that chafe under rules guaranteeing Muslim Malays preferences in politics, business and education.

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