Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In the name of Allah, Malaysia's conservatives cling to power

The church attacks reflect deep and long-running tensions in Malaysia.
It seemed to come out of nowhere, it ran its course within a fortnight, and the damage inflicted was mild compared with religious conflicts in other parts of the world.

But this month’s attacks on churches in Malaysia, which petered out last week leaving one gutted by fire and nine others vandalised, is a sinister development, a portent of great changes afoot in what used to be one of South East Asia’s most stable and peaceful democracies.

On the face of it, the attacks were provoked by a simmering and – to many outsiders – absurd controversy about the use of the word Allah. But below that, they suggest deep and long-running tensions in a country which has successfully bottled them up for 40 years.

The row – over whether Christians should have the right to use the word Allah to refer to their own God in Malaysian-language Bibles and liturgy – is just the latest in a series of manifestations of a rising current of conservative Islam.

In other incidents last year, a 32-year old mother was convicted for drinking a can of beer, and Muslim demonstrators outraged Hindu opinion by marching with the head of a dead cow, an animal sacred to Hinduism, to oppose the construction of a proposed temple.

Malaysia’s success since its independence from Britain in 1963 has been to neutralise the rivalry and mutual dislike between its small majority of Malays (who by law are Muslim) and its Chinese and Indian minorities (who are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh). Relations between Malays and Chinese, in particular, have been marked over the years by outbreaks of mutual antipathy rooted in racial dislike which in Malaysia’s neighbour Indonesia have intermittently erupted into deadly violence.

In the Chinese racist stereotype, Malays are lazy, stupid, uneducated, unhygienic and feckless. The equivalent Malay view sees Chinese as clannish, patronising, greedy, dishonest and opportunistic. In May 1969, these resentments boiled over in race riots which killed scores, and perhaps hundreds, of people in Malaysia.

The Government’s response was to establish the New Economic Policy, based upon a system of positive discrimination for Malays, who were given favourable access to education, and to business and property subsidies. For years, the resentment among the minorities of such official discrimination was offset by an understanding that it was also a guarantee of long-term racial harmony.

The racial character of Malaysian politics was engraved in the name of its rulers. The Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, which has held power since independence, is a coalition of parties based upon ethnic identity – one Indian, one Chinese, and, dominating all of them, the United Malay National Organisation (Umno).

But in the past ten years, the racial texture of Malaysian life and society has altered, and politics is struggling to keep up. Better educated, better off, and increasingly cosmopolitan, young Malaysians of all backgrounds are less prone to identify themselves purely in racial terms.

Opposition parties have been successful campaigning on an inclusive, non-racial platform. After making huge gains in the last general election in 2008, they are now in a position to drive the Barisan Nasional out of power at the next.

The result has been confusion among Umno and its partners. Since the retirement of Mahathir Mohamad, the towering figure in Malaysian politics since the 1970s, the party has lacked a convincing leader.

Umno is not essentially a party of fundamentalist Islam, but as its racial base erodes it has – inconsistently and without much strategic planning – attempted to curry favour with ultra-conservative Muslims in the hope that religion may fill the ideological gap left by Malay nationalism.

A shrewder leader, such as Dr Mahathir, would not have let the Allah row – a ridiculous dispute over a word used without comment by Christians in countries such as Indonesia and Syria – assume the dimensions which it has.

But his successor as Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has stoked it. When a court ruled on December 31 that the ban on the use of Allah by Christians was unconstitutional, he had an opportunity to drop the whole thing.

Instead, his Government appealed against the decision, and the attacks followed. The police have made no arrests. The physical damage which the attacks have caused may have been minimal. But the damage to the cause of racial harmony in Malaysia is impossible to calculate.

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