How Malaysia can reverse trend of increasing religious intolerance


Mazlee Malik, Today Online

A series of incidents in recent years has been undermining the religious harmony that Malaysia has thus far enjoyed. This began with the infamous “cow-head protest” in Shah Alam in August 2009 against a proposed Hindu temple that displayed unveiled disrespect and hatred towards Hindu citizens; and continued with three churches being torched in the Klang Valley in early January 2010.

This was followed by apparent retaliatory arson attacks against two suraus (prayer rooms) in Muar in late January 2010. Then came the mind-numbing act of incitement in April 2015 by 50 residents in Taman Medan over the display of a cross on a newly minted church, followed by the unfortunate Low Yat fracas, which led to the Red Shirts demonstration that further stoked racial tensions.

The mood was further affected by the conundrum over the use of “Allah”, the proposal to make Islamic and Asian civilisation studies compulsory at private universities, and a parliamentary Bill being presented that sought to allow the conversion of minors to Islam based on only one parent’s approval. The government eventually withdrew this controversial Bill, which would have allowed this unilateral conversion throughout Malaysia.

Public statements and actions by national Muslim leaders and state religious authorities have further exacerbated racial and religious discord.

A recent statement made by the Mufti of Pahang that called non-Muslims who disagree with the proposed Hudud Bill — which seeks a stricter enforcement of Syariah law in the state of Kelantan that may result in the amputation of limbs for certain crimes — “Kafir Harbi” (infidels) is a gross aberration to the basic values of equality, diversity, mutual respect and harmony espoused by Islam.

The emergence of these issues may be piecemeal and coincidental, but the trend threatens the very fabric of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious make-up. Many, including Muslim lawmakers from both the government and opposition camps, have raised concerns about Muslim Malaysians imposing their religious beliefs increasingly on minorities. Some suspect this is the purposive “divide and rule” agenda of powerful parties working to rouse a siege mentality among Muslims, and believe these are borne out of the authorities’ lackadaisical handling and condoning of these racial and religious incidents.

I propose three major steps that can be taken by concerned actors to limit and reverse this condition.

Over-institutionalisation of Islam

In the Constitution, religious affairs come under the purview of Malaysia’s respective states, headed by the rulers. It identifies these rulers as the “Heads of Islam” within their own territory. Religious authorities (Majlis Agama Islam Negeri) at the federal and state government levels oversee Islamic religious activities and the Syariah courts.

State governments, through their religious authorities, are legally responsible for the administration of mosques in the 13 states. State governments impose Syariah law on Muslims in some cultural and social matters, and generally do not interfere with the religious practices of non-Muslim communities. However, there is ongoing debate regarding certain states incorporating elements of Syariah, such as khalwat (close physical proximity with an unrelated member of the opposite sex), into secular civil and criminal law.

The effectiveness of the state religious authorities in playing their roles and keeping their responsibilities has been increasingly questioned of late. The religious awakening among Muslims since the 1970s has raised their expectations of Muslim affairs. Some have chosen to support the religious authorities despite their flaws, while others have called for their total abolishment and for religious matters to become an individual matter.

Many educated Muslims remain critical of the religious authorities, especially in matters related to family disputes where the courts are seen as either being too male-dominated or inefficient in dispensing justice. Hence, when the Selangor religious authority made a groundbreaking decision by appointing seven female Syariah court judges, it was welcomed by many.

However, the discourse about Islam and Islamic law is a highly inflammatory and explosive one, and has to be managed appropriately as it is potentially divisive, even among Muslims. Reactions and counter-reactions; and rivalries and hostilities between the pro-establishment and the critics have fuelled conflict within the country’s Muslim community.

To appease the Malay-Muslim majority, the state and federal governments actively sponsor activities and programmes aimed at defending the religion, and fronting themselves as the protectors and champions of Islam. They recruit and co-opt conservative religious scholars (Ulama), religious bodies, and state and federal religious institutions for this purpose.

This has motivated some Muslim individuals to demand the de-Islamisation of the state and federal religious institutions. To the supporters of the establishments, such critics are seen as “liberals” who are songsang (deviant), or a greater evil than the ruling government.

There may be a widespread perception that many current leaders are corrupt, but the “conservative discourse” portrays the ruling government to be the lesser evil when compared with the liberals, because these leaders are at least sincere about the cause of Islam, and it shows in the Islamic activities funded by the state.

Proposal 1: Reforming the office of the mufti

At the state level, the mufti has a crucial and powerful role. He is both the adviser of the rulers on religious matters and the reliable reference for common folk on religious issues.

In many contexts, he is seen as the state’s most-learned religious scholar. Such influence requires that the office of the mufti itself be wisely studied and reformed in all states.

Muftis who are academically more qualified are more diplomatic in their public announcements, and are more willing to engage in inter-faith dialogue. Examples of such muftis are the mufti of Perlis, the mufti of Penang and the recent mufti of Wilayah Persekutuan (WP) — all of whom are university graduates.

Tellingly, the mufti of Perlis, Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, has actively addressed issues such as khalwat, child custodianship, and the ineffectiveness of Zakat distribution, with opinions that many see to be contradicting the expressed thought of mainstream religious authorities. Both the mufti of WP and Penang have held discussions at work with leaders of other faiths. All this amounts to a major milestone in Malaysia’s inter-faith discourse. It should also be added that proficiency in the English Language — and international exposure, especially in non-Muslim countries — clearly bring more sophistication in thought and action.

Proposal 2: Popularise an inclusive Islamic discourse

For a deeper and more lasting effect, there is also a need for an inclusive Islamic discourse to be practised, and for universal values and ethics to be embraced. It should be quite clear to Muslims that the call of Islam is not towards the homogenisation of society into a single culture, identity or faith, but for the observation and practice of good conduct and civility so as to ensure that diversity will nurture peace and serve the common good.

Religious hegemony and intolerance in a pluralistic society will invariably result in conflict and nullify the claim that Islam is a religion of compassion, peace and freedom. Logically, therefore, mutual respect and the recognition of other believers and their beliefs should be sacred to Muslims. Peaceful co-existence and harmonious cohesion with other religious communities are well documented in Islamic history, beginning with the Prophet’s call in Mecca.

To realise this vision, for a start, a neutral non-governmental and non-political platform is required to encourage Muslim scholars, intellectuals and like-minded academics with a background in Islamic studies to embrace this discourse.

Malaysia has many moderate, open-minded Islamic scholars, intellectuals and academics, but they have not enjoyed the space or the opportunity to bring into the mainstream their inclusive discourse of Islam.

Proposal 3: Nurture mutual respect

One major obstacle to understanding and tolerance across religious divides is, in fact, ignorance of or the lack of exposure to Malaysian society’s multi-faith and multi-racial essence. This has easily led to misconceptions, prejudices and distrust, which is a recipe for racial and religious discord.

If “Introduction to religions and cultures in Malaysia” is made a core subject in schools and campuses, young minds would become aware of the plural nature of Malaysia and be sensitive to other faiths, and be respectful of them. It was not very long ago when the multi-ethnic composition of classrooms in the country facilitated a spirit of togetherness and muhibbah (Arabic for goodwill) among various communities.

Other practical approaches to improve mutual understanding early in life among Malaysian schoolchildren from various communities include inter-school projects such as student exchange and teacher exchange programmes, friendly sports, and cultural, intellectual, communal and other jointly organised events.

Twinning programmes between schools with different orientations and between schools from different localities (rural-urban) would also be practical and effective options.


Maszlee Malik is Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This is adapted from a longer piece in ISEAS Perspective.