Malaysia has long been viewed as model for a moderate and tolerant
Islamic state. Now that image is being challenged by Muslim
fundamentalists who have staged protests and enforced harsh penalties
for what they say are breaches of the Islamic law.
Nazarudin Kamaruddin has become the latest Muslim to be ordered caned and jailed drinking alcohol in Malaysia.
sentence follows a decision by authorities to review the punishment
imposed on a Malaysian model who also drank beer. The review has
postponed the sentence an Islamic court imposed on Kartika Sari Dewi
Shukarno, the first woman in Malaysia to face caning.
forbids the consumption of alcohol but in Malaysia, only three out of
13 states make it a punishable offense for Muslims. The recent attempts
to administer the cane have prompted moderates to call for an end to
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 28 million
people are Muslims. They are subject to Sharia laws, while secular laws
govern ethnic Chinese, Indians and other minorities.
Muslims in Malaysia are moderates, but in recent years, religious
parties have gained influence. And the Sharia courts have become more
assertive. As result, there have been more incidents in which
government action has come in conflict with Malaysia's moderate
Nick Lawes is a Malaysian businessman. He notes
that religious fundamentalism has influenced politics in many
countries, including the United States, and says Malaysia, a young
democracy, has made great strides as a pluralistic society.
if Malaysia wants to forge ahead then it has to learn to cope with
these fundamentalists. I think it's such a pity that such a small
minority could spoil it for Malaysia," he said.
analysts in Malaysia say there is a growing conflict between moderate
and conservative Muslims in the country, including many occupying
positions in the government and judiciary.
The conflict worries
minority groups, who fear they are threatened. There have been several
recent cases in which non-Muslims complained that Sharia courts
discriminated against them.
More concerning, many Malaysians
say, have been public acts aimed at creating discord. Malaysians of all
backgrounds were shocked when 50 Muslims recently took the bloodied
head of a severed cow to the central Selangor state government office
and trampled on it.
The protesters said they opposed the relocation of a Hindu temple to a Muslim-majority neighborhood.
people are allowed to walk around with the severed head of a cow which
is a sacred animal to the Hindus and the police allowed it to happen.
This is something very surprising," says Ansari Abdula, an official of
the opposition PKR party.
The government itself sends mixed
signals; it backed down after it tried to ban Muslims from attending a
rock concert because it was sponsored by a beer company.
pop stars Beyonce, Rihanna, Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne have all
been instructed to tone down any provocative performances here. Other
international performers have shunned Malaysia all together; Beyonce
canceled a concert in 2007, but recently announced she would perform in
Malaysia next month.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has gone to
great lengths to promote unity since taking office in April,
particularly through his heavily promoted One Malaysia campaign.
critics such as Abdula say the make-up of the Barisan Nasional, the
coalition that governs Malaysia, is part of the problem. The coalition
parties are divided along religious and ethnic lines.
Abdula says this has resulted in middle-ranking politicians fueling extremism in return for votes in Muslim-dominated districts.
This concerns Abdula, who says it goes beyond trying to gain political power by dividing the public.
have been taught as a Muslim, that you know you should respect you know
other religions. You should respect the gods that have been worshipped
by other people so that they will return their respect. The moment you
put down somebody's respect or religion then they will retaliate," says
His sentiments are echoed by Patrick Sindu, who as a
justice of the peace, an independent ombudsman and a consumer advocate,
is deeply concerned that Islamic extremism is frightening others into
He says non-Muslim Malaysians see migration as a
possible way out, with many leaving for the United States, Australia,
Canada and Europe.
As a grandfather whose family members include
Catholics and Muslims, he says it is important for madrassahs to preach
a moderate brand of Islam, and that people need to focus on their
traditional ties to the land and their families.
"My advice is
not to emigrate, not to run away from this problem," he said. "We must
face with patience and of course togetherness. You cannot, we cannot
just simply run from this. In Malaysia it is better to stay on because
this is our land."
That is the only way, Sindu and Abdula say,
that moderates will be in a position to ensure that Najib's One
Malaysia policy and the country's international reputation for
democratic tolerance are not only upheld but thrive.