KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Like its bigger neighbor Indonesia, Malaysia has mostly had the reputation of a Muslim-majority country that does not oppress its religious minorities. It’s live-and-let-live disposition is far removed from the rigors faced by Christians in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where churches cannot be built nor Mass said; or Pakistan, where Christians are expected to adhere to a strict anti-blasphemy law that critics say favors Islam over other faiths; or Iraq and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled war and ensuing attacks by Islamist militias.
At St. John’s Cathedral and other churches in Kuala Lumpur, a modern and lively city of around 2 million people, worshippers gather every Sunday for Masses in English and in Tamil, the main language of Malaysia’s 7% minority descended from South-Asian settlers who migrated during British colonial rule, as well as in Tagalog, the language of many of the tens of thousands of Filipino migrant workers living in wealthier-neighbor Malaysia.
But despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s praise for Malaysia in late 2015, during an official visit to the country, describing it as “a majority-Muslim country that represents tolerance and peace,” there are signs of a growing Islamization in politics in this country of 30 million people, where around 60% of the population is Muslim.
Non-Muslims have been barred from using the Arabic term “Allah” to denote God, with authorities confiscating Bibles containing the proscribed word, after the local Catholic Church lost a legal challenge to allow non-Muslims to keep using the word, which was a long-established linguistic practice.
The Malaysian Islamic Party — or PAS, to use its Malay-language acronym — has long sought the extension of sharia (Islamic law) in Malaysia. Currently, sharia only applies to Muslims and with civil-law issues such as family disputes and inheritance, while most cases are handled by civil courts.
But PAS wants to implement hudud, sharia-sanctioned punishments that include amputation and stoning, beginning in Kelantan province. This northern region of Malaysia has long been home to a stricter version of Islam than the rest of the country, with the local government run by PAS for most of the time since Malaysia won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957.
Kelantan borders the southern provinces of Thailand, where the majority of the people are Muslim-ethnic Malays, kinfolk to those across the border in Malaysia, and where more than 6,000 have died in more than a decade of rebellion against the Thai government.
PAS’ drive to implement hudud received a significant boost in May, when the governing coalition, known as the National Front, agreed to introduce the proposal in Parliament. That deal came just before the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, during which believers are expected to fast daily from dawn until sunset, and just before two crucial special elections in which the National Front tested the impact of recent financial scandals affecting Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The governing parties easily won the special elections, which were held in Malay Muslim-majority constituencies, despite the interventions of Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister who strongly criticized the hudud proposals. The proposals would not be applied to non-Muslims, prompting some Muslim critics such as Mahathir to argue that this is unfair.
“Muslims, if they steal, they get their hands chopped, but non-Muslims only get jailed for two months. This is not Islam! This is not fair,” he said at a June 11 press conference.
Mahathir was prime minister for 22 years and, despite being 91 years old, remains active in politics, frequently taking the government to task over its perceived failings; he is now aligning with the country’s 25% ethnic Chinese minority against the Malay-dominated government. The government includes some minority representatives who have criticized the push to implement hudud.
Religious minority leaders, including Bishop Sebastian Francis of Penang in northwestern Malaysia, have warned that, if implemented, hudud would discriminate against minorities, who would be “in jeopardy,” according to a May 30 statement by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST), which Bishop Francis signed. The statement is posted on the website of the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.
Describing the hudud proposal as contrary to Malaysia’s constitution, the statement concluded that “we must cherish the unity we have now and not embark on political adventure which can rock and undermine our unity.”
Separately, dozens of Malaysians are estimated to have joined the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, raising concerns that “lone wolf” attacks could be carried out in Malaysia by IS terrorists filtering unnoticed back to their homeland, replicating some of the recent IS-claimed attacks in Europe.
A recent murderous Islamic State propaganda video showed what was claimed to be a Malaysian fighter, whose identity was subsequently confirmed by Malaysian police, taking part in the decapitation of three captives, with a warning that Malaysia is a target for IS.
And in neighboring Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf group — a self-described jihadist organization operating on the archipelago’s remote southern islands, but long dismissed as a group of criminals interested in kidnap for ransom — recently declared allegiance to IS and beheaded two Canadian captives, who had been taken from eastern Malaysia.
The second of the beheaded Canadians, 68-year-old Robert Hall, was executed last week, after the Canadian government refused to pay a ransom. His remains were placed by militants outside of a Catholic cathedral on the island of Jolo.
Simon Roughneen filed this report from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.