Saturday, January 5, 2008

Malaysia sliding into religious intolerance

JANUARY 4, 2008
Malaysia: Sliding into Religious Intolerance

Many recent events in Malaysia seem to point to the possibility that Malaysia, a country which often prides itself on the cultural and religious diversity that can be found within its borders, is slipping slowly into intolerance and religious favoritism. A conservative view that favors Islam over the religious traditions of the countries substantial religious minorities is beginning to grip the country.
Numerous incidents that have occurred over the past several months have sparked concern among the countries Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and traditional Chinese religious adherents that their rights of religious freedom enshrined in Malaysia’s constitution are increasingly being violated and subordinated to the will of Malaysia’s Muslim community. These groups collectively comprise about 40% of the country’s population.

The most prominent of these incidents was the government’s recent decree that only Muslims may use the term Allah. This is in spite of the fact that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God and has been for time immemorial, before the time of Muhammad’s revelations. Allah is also the word for God in Malay in both Islam and Christianity. Christian communities around the world in countries, such as, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Indonesia refer to God as Allah without a problem. The government threatened to revoke the publishing license of a Christian newspaper if it did not stop using the word Allah as a reference to God. The Malay government is actually beginning to interfere in terminology of other religious communities. Where does this oversight end? Will the Malay government next claim monotheism or prayer are exclusive to Muslims and so hence cannot be practiced by any other group? Only time will tell but in any case it is the beginning of a potentially dangerous slide into interfering with the practices of a particular religious group. The government has recently backed off of its threatened ban recently, but this is still an ominous sign for the country’s religion minority populations.

Christians aren’t the only ones who have the increasing oppression of intolerance in Malaysia. Hindu groups regularly complain that their followers are discriminated against in all sectors of public and private life. There are regular reports of destruction and desecration of Hindu temples, statues, and holy sites in Malaysia at the hands of the government. Recently, an already approved construction project of a statue to the Taoist Goddess of the Sea was halted by authorities, in part, because it was thought it may offend Muslims. The Sharia courts are beginning to creep into the affairs of non-Muslims in some alarming ways. Sharia courts have recently begun to issues decrees and rulings on issues such as people attempt to leave Islam, a converted Hindu’s divorce case against his Hindu wife, and a custody dispute between a Muslim and a Hindu.

It is imperative that the Malaysia begin to live up to its guarantees of religious freedom for minorities and tolerance that it has long prided itself on. The Malaysian people and the world at large cannot afford for the Malaysian government to continue on this path. If Malaysia continues on this path of increased religious oppression, there is a good chance these minority religions will become disenfranchised and seek extrajudicial means in which to rectify these perceived slights. The area can ill afford religious violence like that plagues its neighbors of Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Malaysia needs to stop this backslide into religious oppression not only because it is the right thing to do morally, but is a necessary thing in order to protect the stability and economic progress that Malaysia has striven to achieve since its independence.

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