Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak gives the keynote address during the his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) annual assembly in a file photo. Reuters/Olivia Harris
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak gives the keynote address during the his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) annual assembly in a file photo. Reuters/Olivia Harris

A string of racial and religious incidents in Malaysia has brought concerns of rising Islamic conservatism to the fore, widening the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims as the government plays on identity issues ahead of what is expected to be a jarring and contentious election season.

Two annual beer festivals were recently cancelled following political objections raised by leaders of the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which claimed it has a “social responsibility” to oppose alcohol festivals and that the events would turn Kuala Lumpur into “the largest vice center in Asia.”

The ‘Better Beer Fest’, an annual craft beer showcase held without incident since 2012, was cancelled weeks before it was scheduled to take place. Police maintain their decision to bar the event was due to threats of a militant attack, though organizers believe authorities intervened due to political pressure.

An annual Oktoberfest celebration held at the 1 Utama Shopping Center in Selangor, a wealthy opposition-held state with a large upper-middle class non-Muslim population, was forced to cancel hours before the event was set to start. The cancellation, also due to alleged security reasons, resulted in financial losses of more than US$70,000 for the organizers.

To be sure, an attack on a venue targeted for perceived vice would not be without precedent in Malaysia. Eight people were injured last year when a local terror cell attacked a Selangor bar with a grenade. Police later confirmed Islamic State’s involvement in the incident.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks about the threat of terrorism at the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, April 27, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

Still, Oktoberfest events are now quietly being held with less fanfare elsewhere in Malaysia, such as in opposition-held Penang, though the closures have highlighted a growing intolerance towards activities regarded by some Muslim groups as insulting to Islam.

Jamal Yunos, a ruling United Malays National Organization member and leader of the nationalist right-wing “Red Shirts” movement, made headlines by smashing crates of beer with a sledgehammer in protest of the events outside the gates of the opposition-led Selangor state government building.

Though Jamal was arrested under laws related to illegal assembly, the rise of right-wing activism has placed pressure on ruling Muslim politicians not to offend the sensibilities of conservative Malay groups that hold rising sway over both rural and urban voters.

Religion has become increasingly central to Malaysian public life in the past decade, as religious institutions steadily expand their jurisdictions in favor of a narrow interpretation of Islam and Muslim identity. Though long part of the political landscape, the politicization of Islam has increased in recent years, observers and analysts say.

Against this backdrop, Prime Minister Najib Razak has been accused of coddling Islamic hardliners and fringe groups once considered extreme. Despite his efforts to cultivate a global reputation as a moderate Muslim leader in the fight against Islamic extremism, Malaysia’s reputation as a moderate and tolerant Islamic country has ebbed under his leadership.

A Malaysian protestor stomps on an Israeli flag as Muslim people gather outside of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for an Al Quds Day demonstration on June 23, 2017. Photo: AFP/Aiman Arshad

Indeed, Najib has been largely silent amid polarizing religion-related discord. Last month, a self-service laundromat in the southern state of Johor caused a social media uproar when it attempted to ban non-Muslims for hygienic concerns.

Photographs of the laundromat’s signboard, which read: “For Muslim customers only. Muslim-friendly. Leave your shoes outside”, went viral over social media.

Religious leaders in the state had initially voiced support for the laundromat’s owner until the province’s monarch, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, a staunch supporter of moderation and multiculturalism, publicly admonished the sign as “extremist” in a scathing criticism that ordered the proprietor to cease the discrimination or face closure.

While the matter was hotly debated around the country, Najib was mum for days and only commented after the Sultan’s views were published in local media.

Najib later called for acceptance of the laundromat owner’s apology, while saying his government would “remain committed to upholding the true Islamic teachings while protecting the interests of the other communities as demanded of Islam.”

The incident raised hackles among the political opposition. “It shows a clear lack of leadership that a sitting Sultan had to intervene before Najib as prime minister spoke about the issue,” remarked Charles Santiago, an opposition parliamentarian.

Malaysian Muslims attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on June 5, 2016. Reuters/Aiman Arshad

Analysts have associated the recent uptick of religion-related controversies with UMNO’s attempts to rally the majority Malay community ahead of polls. They say the party is playing up a siege mentality and fears of the erosion of Islam, the loss of Malay political power and the Muslim community’s position in society to win votes.

“[Muslim] members of Malaysian society are choosing to wall themselves off from their fellow Malaysians, alienating groups from one another,” said Rashaad Ali, a research analyst at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Ethnic Malay Muslims and other indigenous groups known collectively as bumiputera make up around 68% of the national population, while Chinese and Indian communities comprise roughly 23 % and 7%, respectively. The minority groups are mostly Buddhist, Hindu and Christian, according to official census data.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, visited Malaysia at the invitation of the government in September and expressed concern over the involvement of religious authorities in policy decisions, which she said was a “significant break with the past.”

“Fundamentalist movements in many contexts often seek to impose a form of religion at odds with local forms of practice,” Bennoune said in a statement after her visit.

“Allowing religion to be homogenized under a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula undermines the cultural rights of Malaysians,” the statement said, alluding to the rising role of Saudi Arabia-trained Islamic scholars recruited into Malaysia’s civil service and religious establishment.

Malaysia has had strong bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia for decades, though Najib is believed to have cultivated strong personal ties to the Saudi royal family.

When money laundering accusations related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal erupted in 2015, Malaysia’s Attorney General maintained that the US$681 million found in Najib’s personal bank accounts was a personal donation from a Saudi prince.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman speaks with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya, Malaysia February 27, 2017. Reuters/Edgar Su

In February, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Saudi Aramco announced a US$7 billion investment in an oil refinery and petrochemical project owned by Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned energy company. Saudi Investment in Malaysia and Indonesia has been linked to the prevalence of Saudi-funded missionaries and madrassas that promote Wahhabism, a puritanical interpretation of Islam.

Riyadh’s economic clout and reputation as the custodian of Sunni Islam has resulted in growing numbers of Muslims in both countries conflating conservative Arab culture and Islamic religious practices.

Some observers believe religious moderation has been made untenable by Najib’s administration, which many see as being dependent on a strategy of appeasing hardliners and far-right Malay groups to consolidate domestic Malay Muslim support ahead of general elections that must be held by August 2018.

Yet Malaysia’s sultans issued a rare collective statement airing concerns about the erosion of national unity and harmony due to recent religious controversies. While academics have cautioned against reading the statement as an indictment of Najib and his government, it was clearly a stern reminder of the importance for his administration to maintain national unity.

But there is no indication yet the sultans’ warning will ease pressure on events, displays and festivals Muslim hardliners perceive as un-Islamic, a growing trend organizers and others say has already impacted on Malaysia’s attractiveness as a destination for international entertainment, tourism and investment.

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