January 11, 2010
KUALA LUMPUR – With much of the Islamic world beset by violence, majority Muslim Malaysia had prided itself on its “clean” record, with no major episode of terrorism on home soil.
That badge of distinction was forfeited early on Friday when three Kuala Lumpur-based Christian churches were firebombed in apparent response to a New Year’s Eve court ruling that allowed a local Catholic newspaper to use the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian god.
“Allah”, an Arabic word meaning “one god”, predates Islam and is used by Christians in a number of other Muslim countries without controversy.
Five more Christian churches were attacked over the weekend into Monday, leaving the ruling United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) to fend off accusations that it should bear some responsibility for the attacks after years of being accused of stoking racial and religious hatred for political mileage among the country’s majority Malays. The predominantly Muslim ethnic group makes up 60% of the population and has in recent years lurched towards more religious conservatism.
Prime Minister Najib Razak sharply denied that the race-based party instigated the unprecedented outbreak of anonymous violence. “Do not point the fingers at UMNO or anyone else. We have always been very responsible,” he said at a press conference.
Najib launched the concept of “One Malaysia” shortly after taking office last year so that, as he has put it, “Malaysia will be the sum total of all [its] races” governed by “mutual respect and not just tolerance”. But a number of his administration’s actions and statements have run counter to the catchy slogan’s spirit of unity.
Around the time that Najib introduced “One Malaysia”, he appointed his cousin, Hishammuddin Hussein, as home affairs minister. It was a curious choice, considering Hishammuddin’s history of inciting racial tensions, including most notably when as education minister he waved a traditional Malay dagger at an UMNO annual assembly in a threatening gesture towards the country’s two main minorities, the ethnic Chinese and Indians.
Since his appointment, he has opposed human-rights rallies but has defended Malays who last year paraded a severed cow’s head, a direct affront to Hindu beliefs that view cows as sacred, in protest against the construction of a Hindu temple.
No major UMNO leader called for restraint in the days leading up to the planned protests against the “Allah” court ruling, while the cousins – who have typically opposed freedom of expression on the putative grounds that it would threaten national stability – went as far as to defend the planned protest.
No one has yet been arrested in connection with the church attacks, and the government has pointed at unidentified hooligans without producing evidence to back those claims. Hishammuddin, who is also an UMNO vice president, said the attacks were aimed at creating chaos and inciting hatred towards the government, insinuating that the attacks were a conspiracy against UMNO.
Racial double standards
Yet it can be said that the government’s race-based politics have fed notions of superiority and given tacit license to the upsurge of intolerance now plaguing sections of the Malay community.
“The irresponsible conduct of fanning the emotions by UMNO leaders has brought about this dangerous situation,” said a Malay opposition politician, Zaid Ibrahim, in a press statement on Friday. “What we see today confirms that this country is being governed not by engagement, consultation, sophistication or persuasion, but by brute and mob force.”
The last major instance of racially motivated violence occurred in 1969, when clashes between Malays and Chinese left up to 2,000 people dead over a two-and-a-half month span. Yet recent history has arguably emboldened UMNO, which has dominated domestic politics since the country achieved independence.
Blessed with a docile citizenry, the party has conducted its communal brinkmanship without fear of major consequence or reprisal. Now it finds itself in the unenviable position of having to rein in a situation that eerily hints at the tipping point that many moderate Malaysians have long feared: a brazen spate of race-based violence that begets more of the same.
At a minimum, the face-saving myth of racial harmony that Malaysian politicians have claimed to international audiences is now in tatters. That sanitized notion came by way of sloganeering, a tightly controlled media, and billions spent on eye-catching infrastructure projects intended to make Malaysia appear both modern and progressive.
With that myth now laid bare, some expect tourist numbers to drop. The violence may also force Malaysians to look more squarely at the social rot in their midst and take a more proactive approach to repairing damaged race relations. There are some hopeful signs.
Some 130 Muslim non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have reportedly volunteered to help ensure the safety of Christian churches around the country. The Muslim chief executive of one local bank has donated 100,000 ringgit (US$$30,000) on behalf of his institution for church reconstruction. And the government plans to hold an inter-faith dialogue, after having shot down the idea in the past.
Even so, beyond the media’s glare, there are indications that Malaysians are retreating into the pattern of ignoring, rather than talking through, unsettled issues that cut across ethnic lines. That tendency had helped maintain a tenuous peace, but deeply ingrained racial resentments appear to have played a hand in the recent spate of attacks.
Three years ago, this correspondent queried Najib in his capacity as deputy prime minister about the deep-seated stereotypes and antagonisms Malaysia ‘s three main ethnic groups – the Malays, Indians and Chinese – shared for each other. Najib said that was fine, so long as each group kept their resentments within the four proverbial walls of their respective community.
His reply was indicative of UMNO’s tendency to treat the symptoms rather than the root of the problem. It was inevitable that one day one of those walls would come crashing down; that day of reckoning apparently arrived on Friday with the attacks on a number of Christian churches. UMNO and Najib will now have to look past their “four walls” for real solutions.