Ramadan: From harmony to discord in Malaysia

New Islam-centric policies emphasize the difference and bias in community relations
Ramadan: From harmony to discord in Malaysia

Malaysian Muslims break their fast on the first day of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan in Kuala Lumpur on June 6. (Photo by AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia
July 4, 2016
Millions of Malaysian Muslims across the country are heading back to their hometowns and villages to celebrate Ramadan the biggest festival in the Islamic calendar after fasting from dawn to dusk for the last 30 days.

The yearly ritual, to be celebrated this year on July 6, has been growing in prominence for years now rivaling Chinese New Year, arguably the biggest festival in this multi-ethnic country.

But as it grows in pomp and spectacle, some question if it has come at the expense of tolerance.

James, a retired Christian schoolteacher, remembers the simple modesty and feeling of peace and unity of past Hari Raya celebrations, as the festival is known here.

"It was quiet and simple affair back in the 1950s and 60s," said the 76-year-old retiree as he watched Muslim families breaking fast a dusk at an open-air market in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah on Borneo island.

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"Back then it was mostly a family and friends affair. I remember as a young teacher going to visit Muslim friends at their homes. We were invited. It was a tradition in those days. A colleague would invite you to their parents' homes and we would go.

"Most of them lived in the kampongs and it was a big honor for them if you, a non-Muslim, attended.

"They would have prepared their special dishes the previous day … they were very proud and happy (that we came)," reminisced James who says he doesn't believe this is true now.

"Relations then (among Muslim neighbors) were very good," he said.

Jennifer, a middle-aged housewife living in Ipoh, Perak remembers as a young girl accompanying her now deceased father to visit Muslim friends and how their hosts would serve him beer.

"It's true … it was not a problem then. Now they'll be thrown in jail," she says about Malaysia's Islamic laws that allow punishment for religious infractions.

Those relaxed, carefree times are a thing of the past, she says. Barth Chua, a businessman agrees when I ask him later.

"Now there is so much tension. When you go visit Muslim colleagues or friends you are conscious of the differences (between non Muslims and Muslims)," he says.

Chua, active in church affairs until recently, faults the government's affirmative actions policies for some of the more radical demands by some Muslims such as the implementation of Sharia law in the country.

Such demands alarm non-Muslims and only serve to push people apart, says 78-year-old Chua and others like him who have seen a more accommodate Islam as practiced in pre-independent Malaysia and the stricter form now.

Muslims officially form over 60 percent of the population of about 30 million. The remaining are mainly Buddhist 19.8 percent, Christian 9.2 percent and Hindu 6.3 percent.

Though few admit growing negative sentiment towards Islam among the non-Muslims the challenge of sustaining stability in the face of religious differences is increasing.

New Islam-centric policies, directives, prohibitions and court rulings emphasize the difference and bias in community relations.

The latest example was a ruling by a Mufti (Muslim legal expert) labeling non-Muslims "infidels" who could be killed out of hand. 

His comment alarmed many. The Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) said it was greatly alarmed by the assertion by the mufti.

"It is to date, one of the most divisive and provocative statements made by a state official, which creates suspicion and disunity in a multiracial society," said CCM general-secretary Hermen Shastri.

"In a country which seeks to uphold the rule of law and declares that all Malaysian citizens are equal before the law, this statement is wholly inconsistent with that objective," he said.

The Christian Federation of Malaysia called the mufti's statement "incendiary" and urged Prime Minister Najib Razak to crack down on such rhetoric. 

"It is regrettable that a state mufti, the most senior Islamic cleric of a state and who is also a public servant, uses the term without a thought as to what it may conjure up in the minds of Malaysians," said CCM chairperson Eu Hong Seng in a statement.

Ethnic Chinese hold economic power and are the wealthiest community while the Malays remain the dominant group in politics. The Indians and the indigenous communities are among the poorest.

Political tensions add to the siege mentality among the non-Muslims especially Malaysia's Christian community.

After the formation of Malaysia in 1963, successive government's have pursued Islamization in every aspect of life from education to economics and governance. The rational is that it is the state religion even though the country is constitutionally secular.

Government-sponsored mass conversion drives to Islam have been a feature in rural areas especially among the indigenous populations.

Non-Muslims chafe at what they see as policies directed against them.

"Biased policies are creating a breeding ground for fear, suspicion and prejudice. Politicians are exploiting this to keep control. It is not only threatening all our civil rights in this country but also relationships between people," said a Catholic catechist who asked not to be named.

He believes hostility to any religion especially in the Malaysian context with its multi-ethnic make-up is a manifestation of racism, because race and faith become conflated.

He is disillusioned about the festival and its message of forgiveness.

"Ramadan? Yes, I will visit my Muslim friends but I doubt they will fight for my rights even though we are friends."

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