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.
His 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.
Islam 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 that punishment.
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.
Most 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 reputation.
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.
"But 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.
Political 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.
"These 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.
American 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.
However, 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.
"We 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 Abdula.
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 submission.
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.