When Malaysia’s urbane Prime Minister Najib Razak travels abroad he invariably touts his country’s widely accepted reputation for moderate Islam, but that image is taking a beating at home.
Increasingly strident Islamist pressure, often initiated by Najib’s own government, is causing deepening dismay in the traditionally tolerant multi-faith country.
The trend is rooted in the decades-old regime’s attempts to strengthen its weakening grip amid repeated electoral setbacks, as a formidable opposition taps into broad sentiment for liberal reform.
However, the ruling establishment is setting the country on an uncertain path, critics say.
“The government spends a lot of money promoting the label ‘moderate.’ Of course [Malaysia is] not moderate. We are far from that,” said Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister in the regime.
Malaysia has enjoyed uncommon racial and religious harmony, with a politically dominant Muslim ethnic Malay majority largely coexisting with sizeable Chinese and Indian communities. Speech or actions that inflame religious sensitivities can result in jail.
However, Islamic pressure has accelerated this year as the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) falls back on its Muslim base.
In a deeply emotive dispute, government and religious officials have upped pressure on Malay-speaking Christians to cease using the Arabic word “Allah” for the Christian God, as they have done for generations. Authorities have angered Christians by seizing Bibles containing “Allah.”
Official Friday sermons and religious edicts have increasingly warned of creeping liberalism and other threats to Islam, critics say, while prominent moderate-Muslim groups have been branded “deviant” by religious authorities.
An animal activist triggered a frenzy last month with a campaign encouraging his fellow Muslims to touch and be kind to dogs, which are considered unclean by Islam. The activist was sharply denounced and received death threats.
Pressured by powerful conservatives, the mild-mannered Najib, 61, is accused by moderate critics of looking the other way.
His government has charged dozens of regime critics with sedition recently and is attempting to jail opposition leader and former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim on much-questioned sodomy charges.
However, provocative threats by a range of increasingly vocal Muslim groups — believed to be aligned to the ruling regime — go unpunished. Last month, the government essentially defended a prominent Malay nationalist who had called for Bibles to be burned.
“This is all definitely a very damaging trend because once you let this genie out of the bottle, it is very hard to get back in,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of Malaysian political think tank IDEAS. “We are heading toward a very disunited Malaysia.”
Following 1969 race riots, UMNO has reined in religious passions as it transformed the former agrarian backwater into a successful modern economy.
However, its controls have loosened, and today’s Islamic calls resonate with many.
Farida Ashari, 39, a civil servant living in an upscale part of Kuala Lumpur, said many Muslims are reacting against globalization.
“It’s like an invasion. There is pornography on the Internet. Do I want my son to see that?” she said.
In years past, many Malaysian Muslims were less devout, she said, and her mother never wore the tudung head-covering donned by women to project modesty.
However, Farida, like many women today, began wearing it a decade ago and wants her children raised more strictly Islamic.
“It is a modern world, yes, but we are Muslim, and this is our country,” she said.
Abdul Rahman Abu Bakar, deputy head of Malay supremacist group Perkasa, said conservatives are mobilizing to “protect our country and our religion” from liberal forces, a term typically aimed at the multi-ethnic political opposition that promises to dismantle UMNO’s strict rule and crony capitalism.
However, the Muslim card is being played at a delicate time, with dozens of Malaysians men and women reportedly joining the war in Syria led by the Islamic State group. Authorities fear jihadis will return radicalized. At least three dozen people have been arrested for jihadi links, including members of an alleged plot to carry out bombings in Malaysia, police say, and pro-jihad sentiments ripple across Malaysian social media.
“Even though I know I can die, I still want to go [to Syria]. It is wise to go and wage jihad for Allah,” said Nur Syuhada Jamalludin, 19, a student at a girls-only Islamic school in Kuala Lumpur, her cherubic face tightly swaddled in a pink tudung.
“I think my parents would say: ‘Yes, you can go to defend Islam,’” she said.
Despite its own claims to moderation, Malaysia’s diverse three-party opposition bears some blame. The conservative Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party has appealed to its own base with stepped-up calls for harsh Islamic law in rural areas it controls, where a range of strict Muslim codes already prevail.
Marina Mahathir, a leading moderate Muslim and daughter of authoritarian former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, said Malaysians remain too tolerant for lasting damage to be caused, but said it was imperative that the government act.
“It is a question of our leadership. It can move us this way or that way. It can say ‘stop this nonsense,’” she said.
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