By Rashaad Ali
April 19, 2016
Last year, controversial Malaysian blogger Alvin Tan posted an online video of himself doing a rendition of the azan, or Muslim call to prayer — shirtless and playing a keyboard.
Claiming to be a free speech activist, Tan — who is not Muslim and is a fugitive living in the United States — stated that Muslims who criticise his actions lack the credibility to do so, as Islam itself fails to respect human rights. His video had more than 400,000 views within days of being posted.
While Tan was roundly criticised for his actions from all sections of society, this incident highlights a larger problem within Malaysia: A growing anti-Islamic, anti-Malay sentiment in the past few years.
In Europe, Islamophobia manifested itself as a reaction to an imminent “Islamic threat”, and is a fire stoked by right-wing groups to galvanise society against Muslim minorities.
In Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, Islamophobia is the by-product of a struggle for political survival, pro-Malay Muslim ethnic policies and a state continually divided along racial lines.
Since the 2008 general election, Malaysia has experienced an upsurge in Islamic religious conservatism, which has only become stronger after the 2013 elections.
Both electoral contests saw unprecedented losses to the ruling government, comprising primarily the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) — the incumbent party since independence. For the first time in recent years, Umno faces a credible challenge from the opposition and has responded by increasingly appealing to its core Malay voter base to safeguard its political survival.
Umno leaders have stepped up rhetoric emphasising Malay identity and bumiputra privilege, alongside a renewed Islamic vigour that in contemporary times has become associated with “Malayness”.
The purpose of this is to use Ketuanan Melayu or “Malay dominance” to evoke ethno-nationalist sentiment and galvanise Malay support for the party while dividing the populace along ethnic lines.
Media reports of “Islamisation”, soft challenges to Malay dominance, ethnic mob violence and other ethnic issues have become commonplace in Malaysian public life. The renewal of the Malay-Muslim identity of Umno has, unfortunately, come at the expense of further alienating the non-Muslim population from the government.
Malaysia has already had a controversial history with multicultural management, most notably the deadly race riots of 1969 and the ensuing New Economic Policy, which favoured bumiputras for everything, from housing to education to business opportunities.
As the Malay-Muslim identity becomes increasingly important, it has also become increasingly defended and upheld against perceived threats.
In Malaysia, various flashpoints have emerged. In one incident, a student had a cross-shaped necklace confiscated by a disciplinary teacher for violating “school rules”. In another case, a group of Malay-Muslim protesters gathered outside a new church to demand it remove a cross on its outer wall, as the symbol was an affront to Muslims in the area.
Perhaps most famously, the government confiscated a shipment of Malay-language Bibles and banned the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. These flashpoints, especially in the era of social media, have become increasingly commonplace in daily Malaysian life.
Umno portrays itself as a defender of Malays, Islam and bumiputra interests. Hence, dissent from non-Muslim, non-Malay minorities can at times take on a racial or anti-religious tone.
Alvin Tan may be an extreme public example of Islamophobia. But similar sentiments are expressed among non-Muslim minorities in Malaysia, especially online, outside the strictures of government-controlled print and broadcast media.
This Islamophobia is different from other Islamophobic experiences in the world. Unlike in most instances in Europe where Muslims constitute a minority group, anti-Islamic sentiment in Malaysia is not expressed by right-wing groups in a social or political mainstream.
Furthermore, since political groups such as Umno have co-opted the Malay-Muslim identity, seemingly Islamophobic expressions could just as well be criticism of the government.
These negative comments are generally restricted to online news portals, articles and social media. Examples of this include comments on a The Malaysian Insider article in December 2015 about an “anti-Christian” seminar in a local university.
Comments asked for the tables to be turned against Malay-Muslims, while others suggested that Donald Trump’s anti-Islamic views should be implemented in the country.
A more recent example can be seen in an article published by Sin Chew Daily, a Chinese newspaper, last month. In a report of a Malay woman who was injured by a wild boar, online comments included suggestions that the woman would have been able to avoid the attack if she ate the boar, and that she was no longer Halal on account of the attack and injury.
As Umno focuses on strengthening its Malay support while its Barisan Nasional allies, the Malaysian Chinese Association and Malaysian Indian Congress, look on, its strategy is exclusive and the result is inevitable — a polarisation of people in society along political and ethnic lines.
Little work is done by both political parties and civil society on both sides of the political divide to bridge this gap.
One can easily observe that news articles with anti-Islamic or religious undertones are widely shared and ridiculed online, from mulling over an idea for Halal trolleys at supermarkets to being refused government service because one’s dress is deemed too short.
The content of the article or issue being debated is of no consequence; all that it represents is another purported attempt by the government to impose itself on the people or a group of Malay conservatives asserting “Malayness” as the intrinsic national identity.
While most urban non-Muslims are able to tell the difference between a politicised episode and actual religious bigotry, a gap nevertheless exists within Malaysian society and is also further exacerbated by the threat of global terrorism.
What is certain is that a multicultural Malaysia cannot afford to alienate sections of its population, whether actively or passively.
Growing anti-Muslim sentiment is, to some extent, a backlash against an authority that is exclusive rather than inclusive. Umno must take steps to appeal to its non-Muslim members of society, especially if it wants to continue in government. In the years to come, relying on Malay support may prove insufficient. — TODAY