By Muzliza Mustafa
When one of Malaysia’s powerful sultans recently slapped the religious affairs minister with a rare rebuke for saying Muslims shouldn’t participate in a Japanese cultural festival because it had un-Islamic elements, the incident cast a spotlight on growing intolerance here.
“Hands off,” the Sultan of Selangor indicated. “[U]nderstand the difference between religion and culture,” he said via Facebook in publicly scolding Minister Idris Ahmad, of the Islamic Party PAS, which is a partner in the country’s ruling coalition.
A potential diplomatic to-do was averted, but the incident has left observers worrying about a climate of fundamentalism in this religiously and racially mixed Islamic-majority nation. The mood in Malaysia is filled with a pandemic-driven economic malaise as the country faces the prospect of a general election months away or next year.
There is cause for concern, says Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director at market advisory firm Bower Group Asia.
“Malaysia is regressing, and the intolerance that we see here is worrying. We are becoming far too right [wing] nowadays,” Sani told BenarNews.
“In Malaysia, religion and race are being used to gain political mileage by some parties. … Today is about Bon Odori, what will be next?”
Malaysia is nearly 64 percent Muslim and slightly more than half of the population is ethnic Malays, who generally practice Islam. Other communities include ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians.
Bon Odori is a Japanese cultural event with roots in Buddhism, but experts quoted in Malaysian media say the tradition, celebrated in Malaysia since the mid-1970s, has shed its religious meaning. Celebrations of Bon Odori are scheduled for next month in Shah Alam, Selangor state, and in Penang.
Earlier this month, Minister Ahmad, from the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), advised Muslims to not join the festival because, he said, it contained elements from other religions. Despite the Selangor sultan’s admonition to Ahmad, his and PAS’ stance on Muslim attending the festival remains the same, local media reported on Thursday.
In some other cases, PAS has not even needed to step in, and fellow ideologues have done the job. Take the case of Ramli Ibrahim, a Malay Muslim and renowned practitioner of the Indian dance form Odissi, which conservative Muslims frown upon as un-Islamic.
In June 2021, the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia canceled Ramli’s talk on art transcending race, after the campus’s Islamic Center advised against it.
The dancer said the center was an arm of the federal Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), which plays a key role in the planning of Islamic affairs and is part of the Prime Minister’s Office.
In a Facebook post, Ramli lashed out at the center, known as Pusat Islam in Malay.
“The Pusat Islam is the moral policing/vigilante body for many of the government and even quasi-government institutions. They represent the effective arm of JAKIM to control/define what is permitted to be ‘fed’ to the populist/students/staff etc.,” he wrote.
“An Islamic/fascist body, controlled by little Napoleons, it filters the level of intelligence and what the rakyat [public]/students/audience can endeavor to be exposed or strive to learn from.”
Political analyst Bridget Welsh described JAKIM as having “an annual budget of approximately $300 million and thousands of staff involved in monitoring social behavior.”
The academic with the University of Nottingham Malaysia and other critics say JAKIM is responsible for creating religious schisms in Malay society.
“The state’s administration of Islam has been seen to encroach on the rights of non-Muslims and many Muslims, especially in Muslim minority sects that have been targeted by state authorities,” Welsh wrote in an August 2020 publication for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“At the same time, the growth of the country’s religious bureaucracy has created a constituency with a vested interest in promoting religion, particularly the conservative interpretations of the faith predominant among state clerics…,” she wrote.
Ramli described the climate as a decline into medievalism.
“Malaysia is regressing in certain aspects … This intolerance is worrying,” Ramli said.
“JAKIM is controlling cultural activities of many educational institutions in Malaysia and I find that also as a form of regression.”
Ramli and Welsh both blame the state education system.
“In public education, religious classes often take up almost half the school day, and students are segregated by religion for these courses, creating resentments,” Welsh wrote.
“The number of Islamic religious schools has grown exponentially, with many students growing up without friends from other communities.”
Few political parties will touch such issues because they involve the Muslim Malay majority, especially their rural constituencies that tend to be more conservative.
Hamidin Abd Hamid, an academic at the University of Malaya, says a fallout of Minister Ahmad’s Bon Odori comments could be that it may “slowly attempt to influence other [parties] to follow their path,” especially in what could be an election year.
Abd Hamid says PAS came out with its Bon Odori “advice” “to play the conservatism card to appeal to the Malays.”
Sani of Bower Group Asia concurred.
“We cannot deny that it likely has to do with the election,” Sani said.
“This probably is them making noise to strengthen their support base.”