Malaysia and the Myth of Islamic Tolerance

A spate of attacks on Christian churches reveal the dark side of this “moderate” Muslim nation.

Malaysia is often held up as the model of what a modern Muslim-majority nation can be. The ruling class, the [bumiputra]( (literally “princes of the earth”) are largely, though not entirely, Muslim. But when Malaysia’s High Court ruled in late December to lift a government ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah,” Christian churches became the targets of fire-bombing attacks. This eruption of violence suggests that there is trouble brewing just beneath the surface even in this supposed paradise of Islamic moderation.

At last count, eleven Christian churches and one Sikh temple have been attacked in Malaysia. That makes twelve attacks against places of worship in half a month’s time. What does it say about Islamic values when the impetus for these attacks was the use of a particular word?

Everyone agrees that the word “Allah” pre-dates the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. In Malaysia, as in most of the Muslim of the world, Allah simply means God, the same God that, according to the Quran itself, both Christians and Jews worship. Nonetheless, use of the word Allah among non-Muslims has long been prohibited by law in Malaysia. A December 31 ruling by a Malaysian court overturned that law, a move that upset many of the nation’s Muslims, who make up about sixty per cent of the populace. They claim that non-Muslims will use the word to corrupt Muslims into accepting infidel beliefs.

Once again, we are presented with evidence of Islamic intolerance and insecurity. To his credit, Malaysian Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib condemned the attacks, which undermine both his “One Malaysia” policy and his re-election prospects. But no matter how much tolerance the leader of this nation may preach, the actions of his co-religionists speak much louder. Emboldened by an increasingly aggressive, violent, world-wide Islamic resurgence over the last few decades, this episode reveals what expatriates who have lived in Malaysia have long claimed: that the supposed harmony of Malaysia is nothing but a glossy veneer that barely covers up the inequities and prejudices of this society.

The Malaysian constitution grants special privileges to the bumiputra, or as they are called in the constitution, Malays. Malays are defined as those citizens who profess the religion of Islam, habitually speak the Malay language and conform to Malay customs. The constitution directs the King of Malaysia (Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy) to safeguard the special position of the Malays and to ensure that a certain percentage of public services and scholarships and other similar educational privileges are reserved by the federal government for the benefit of Malays.

The bumiputra enjoy other advantages as well. A certain percentage of stock in publicly-traded companies is reserved for the bumiputra. Traditionally, they pay less for real estate than other Malaysian citizens. This is clearly a separate and unequal society. Which is not to say that Malaysia is not governed in a more liberal fashion than reactionary Muslim nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Western clothing can be found on the streets of Kuala Lampur. Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, if less than equal compared to their Muslim masters, are at least allowed to practice their faith in relative peace.

Or rather they were allowed to worship in relative peace. The government of Malaysia has officially condemned the attacks, even as it tries to have the troublesome court ruling that set off the firestorm reversed. Troops have been dispatched to protect non-Islamic houses of worship, but it seems unlikely that many of the 2.3 million Christians who live in Malaysia feel safe going to church.

Even in this most mainstream of Muslim-ruled nations, supposed Islamic tolerance has been once again shown to be a matter of style, not substance.