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The Myth of A Moderate Malaysia

The Myth of A Moderate Malaysia

Author: Sadanand Dhume
Publication: Forbes.com
Date: August 31, 2009
URL: http://www.forbes.com/2009/08/30/malaysia-islam-religion-opinions-contributors-sadanand-dhume.html

Canings, cows' heads and ethnoreligious apartheid.

If you're looking for an image that captures the conflict between fervent Islam and basic human decency, look no further than the Malaysian city of Shah Alam, about 15 miles west of Kuala Lumpur.

On Friday, a group of about 50 men, agitated by plans to relocate a 150-year-old Hindu temple to their neighborhood, made their feelings clear by staging a protest march from a mosque to a government building. Amidst the usual cries of "Allahu Akbar" and "takbeer," the protesters deposited the freshly severed head of a cow--an animal sacred to Hindus--before the building's gate. The group's leaders made threatening speeches and, perhaps caught up in the spirit of the moment, hammed it up for the cameras, stepping and spitting on the cow's head. The police--who have been known to arrest people for such crimes as attending a candle light vigil or wearing black in support of the opposition--stood by and watched.

Ironically, those scanning the globe for a Muslim-majority country that inspires neither dread nor despair often alight upon Malaysia. Until a few years ago, the Southeast Asian nation boasted the world's tallest building, the iconic 88-story Petronas Towers. Powered by electronics, palm oil and petroleum, Malaysia is the world's 20th-largest exporter, ahead of Sweden, Australia and India. Per capita income, about $14,000 in purchasing parity terms, is about the same as in Argentina. Apart from the obvious prosperity of downtown Kuala Lumpur, the casual visitor notices the comforting trappings of a British colonial past--a parliament, a judiciary, a professional police force.

But most strikingly, Malaysia (along with next-door Indonesia) can claim something increasingly rare in the Muslim world: a large non-Muslim population. About four in 10 Malaysians are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu , Sikh or Confucian. (By contrast, Turkey, the poster-child for an Islam at peace with the 21st century, is 99.8% Muslim.) Recognizing the power of this statistic in our multicultural age, Tourism Malaysia promotes the country's allegedly harmonious blend of Malay, Chinese and Indian communities with an odd but nonetheless catchy slogan: Malaysia, Truly Asia.

The reality, of course, is a lot less sunny. Unlike neighboring Singapore, which shares the same colonial past and ethnic mix--albeit with a Chinese rather than a Malay majority--Malaysia has rejected secularism in favor of a kind of ethnoreligious apartheid that belongs more in a medieval kingdom than in a modern democratic republic.

In Malaysia, Islam is the state religion. Higher education, the bureaucracy and vast swathes of the economy are operated as a kind of spoils system almost exclusively for Malays, whom the state defines as Muslim. Race and religion determine everything from your odds of getting into medical school to the amount you're expected to put down for an apartment. The conversion laws, based on sharia, bring to mind the Eagles' classic "Hotel California": You can check in (to Islam) any time you like, but you can never leave. Over the past 30 years, encouraged by the government and influenced by the Middle East, Malaysia's growing prosperity has gone hand-in-hand with a heightened piety. But instead of making the country more humane, this has had the opposite effect. Friday's protest was part of a larger pattern. A 32-year-old Malaysian Muslim model, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, faces a sharia-prescribed caning, suspended at the moment on account of Ramadan, for the crime of drinking a beer. Muslims have been barred from a Black Eyed Peas concert next month sponsored by Guinness. Two years ago, a Muslim-born woman, Lina Joy, failed in her famous eight-year quest to convert to Christianity to marry the man that she loved. (Interfaith marriages are forbidden.) In another high-profile case, Revathi Masoosai, a practicing Hindu, was forcibly separated from her husband and infant daughter and sent to a religious re-education camp after it was discovered that technically she had been born a Muslim.

Taken together, these cases illustrate two issues--both central to the debate about Islam and modernity--that Malaysia is struggling to come to terms with. Can a Muslim majority live with a non-Muslim minority as equals, or must the former be explicitly dominant--in law as well as in day-to-day life? And can Muslims reconcile piety with a culture where the rights of the individual (say, to order a beer) are given precedence over communal beliefs?

To be sure, not all Malays, perhaps not even a majority of the sharia-minded, approve of the acts of boorishness committed in the name of their faith. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has ordered police to take action against the Shah Alam protesters, and members of parliament have cut across racial and party lines to condemn the incident. The English-language Malaysian blogosphere is alight with outrage, much of it Muslim. Nor are questions about secularism and individual rights absent in non-Muslim societies. In recent years, thuggish Hindu groups have developed a penchant for roughing up women in bars and castigating young couples for the high crime of celebrating Valentine's Day. America has yet to come to terms with a woman's right to an abortion.

Nonetheless, only in Muslim-majority lands are religious bigots given such broad leeway by their secular co-religionists. An Indian feminist is apt to laugh in the face of a pious Hindu who tells her that gender relations need to be ordered by the ancient laws of Manu. In America, the so-called new atheists--most prominently Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins--don't need to think twice about ridiculing religious beliefs or savaging the most powerful priest or pastor. But in Malaysia, as elsewhere, secular liberals tend to tip-toe around Muslim religious sensibilities. They wield the word "un-Islamic" as an insult rather than as a compliment. Unless this changes, unless Malaysians can find a way to treat Islam like any other set of ideas, scenes like those in Shah Alam on Friday aren't about to disappear.

- Sadanand Dhume is a Washington-based writer and the author of My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).

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