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
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.
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.
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
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.
2008 general election, Malaysia has experienced an upsurge in Islamic religious
conservatism, which has only become stronger after the 2013 elections.
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
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”.
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.
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
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
Malay-Muslim identity becomes increasingly important, it has also become
increasingly defended and upheld against perceived threats.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
since political groups such as Umno have co-opted the Malay-Muslim identity,
seemingly Islamophobic expressions could just as well be criticism of the
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
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.
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.
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.
is done by both political parties and civil society on both sides of the
political divide to bridge this gap.
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.
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.
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.
certain is that a multicultural Malaysia cannot afford to alienate sections of
its population, whether actively or passively.
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