Muslim protesters demonstrated outside a small church in Kuala Lumpur on 21st April, claiming that the cross on the church would challenge Islam and sway the faith of young people. The church responded by taking down the cross. Now the authorities are ordering a probe into the incident.
Yet the government itself laid down the foundations that made this incident possible.
Kuala Lumpur has made no secret of favouring Malay Muslims through its bumiputera policies, It is a form of affirmative action for the Malay Muslim majority, granting them advantages in education, the economy, entrenching Malay Muslim dominance, During Valentine’s Day, the morality police conduct sweeps to detain unmarried Muslims in the same room, upholding the principle of khalwat — an Islamic law that forbids unmarried Muslims being alone and in close proximity with someone of the opposite sex. And there was the case of Alvin Tan, whom the police arrested after he had the audacity to post on social media a picture of him enjoying pork during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The Malaysian has consistently enforced Malay Muslim norms and culture through its policies. This signals tacit approval for citizen action that would further advance Malay Muslim supremacy. That the authorities ordered the probe suggests one of two things. Either the probe is merely a perfunctory action to soothe ruffled feathers and nothing will come of it, or else the government sees itself as the only entity allowed to pursue racialist agendas and will crack down on non-state actors who try to do the same.
Both outcomes will chip away at the notion of a democratic multicultural multiracial Malaysia. So long as the Malaysian government continues to lay down and enforce race- and religion-based policies it has no moral grounds with which to suppress non-state actions that advance the supremacy of their favoured race.
If the probe leads to no charges being filed or a slap on the wrist, it is another signal that the Malaysian government treats non-Malay Muslims as second-class citizens as best. In an era of increasing globalisation, it is another signal that everybody else is not welcome in Malaysia, even if they were born-and-bred Malaysians. If the Malaysian government tacitly favours non-state actions that support bumiputera, there will be citizen backlash. The most benign form will be increased emigration from Malaysia. But if these policies continue, expect protests, counterprotests, more vibrant online debates, and electoral losses or lack of voter turnout. It can only get worse if the state cracks down on non-bumiputera backlash with a heavy hand, by proving once and for all that there is no such thing as a Malaysian Malaysia, only bumiputera and everybody else.
Conversely, should the state clamp down on these Muslim protesters, more astute observers will point out that the state is not interested in the interests of Malay Muslims, only in populism and in entrenching their political positions. This will chip away at the moral underpinnings of the UMNO party, the predominant party of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, as its stated mission is to protect Malay culture.
The latter scenario is more insidious. The Islamic State, Daesh, brands itself as the only viable political entity that practices a literal interpretation of the Koran, and in so doing claims to have the purest strain of Islam. Other terrorist groups offer similar ideologies. Malay Muslims, raised to honour their faith and culture, will see a hypocritical government that claims to protect the Malay culture — and with it Islam — but will only do so to preserve its power. Disillusioned, they will turn to more radical causes that promise true Islam, including Daesh. And from there it’s a short step for Daesh recruiters to tell their new recruits to bring holy war back to their home countries.
This isn’t a Malaysian problem. It is the problem of every Muslim-majority state that pursues racialist and religious policies to entrench the power of the Establishment. So long as states like Malaysia are caught between secular power and religiosity, they are vulnerable to being undermined by extremists, radicals, fundamentalists and dissidents. In a world dominated by information communication technologies, the state can no longer discount the ability of ordinary people and non-state actors to rapidly communicate, organise and pursue their own agendas.
The solution is simple. Either move Malaysia towards an explicit Islamic state, or transform into a strictly secular one. Either option clears up the state’s brand identity, eliminating the perceived hypocrisy that provides hooks with which extremists can enter and weaknesses that dissidents can exploit.
These choices all carry costs. An explicitly Islamic state would drive out or oppress everyone who is not Muslim. An avowed secular state will alienate the traditional religious power base BN has relied on for so long. But by doing nothing and retaining its mixed identity, by using cultural and religious norms to shore up secular power, the government, and by extension the state, opens itself up to being undermined by everyone.
The Malaysian government has to make a choice. I am not optimistic enough to believe that it has as much time as most observers would like.