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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 May 2006, 23:59 GMT 00:59 UK
Pressure on multi-faith Malaysia
Demolition work in Malaysia
A church in Johor was demolished recently
Malaysia is considering its multi-cultural credentials after a crowd of Muslims on Sunday broke up a meeting called to defend the rights of religious minorities.

The country's leaders condemned the disturbances, but the BBC's Jonathan Kent in Kuala Lumpur says non-Muslims feel increasingly beleaguered.

"I'm becoming an alien in Malaysia, in my own country," says Dr Jacob George.

The president of the Consumers Association of Subang and Shah Alam in Selangor State has been helping to organise efforts to stop the local authorities in the ethnic Malay-Muslim dominated city of Shah Alam from demolishing a 107-year-old Hindu temple.

Earlier in April another 19th-Century temple was demolished a few kilometres away in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

The authorities said in both cases the temples' founders did not have permission to build them. But the demolitions are surprising because Malaysia has forged for itself a reputation as a successful multicultural society.

There's a creeping Islamicisation in our society and this isn't appropriate because we're a multi-religious, multi-racial country
Fong Po Kuan, MP

In living memory it has had only two serious outbreaks of inter-communal violence; in 1946 and 1969. But lately, non-Muslims in Malaysia have expressed fears that the delicate balance between themselves and the majority may be shifting.

Malaysia is one of Asia's great melting pots. Sat at the crossroads of the continent, trade and migration have left the country with a rich mix of races, cultures and religions.

It is a secular democracy where Islam is the official religion. Just over half the population is ethnic Malay and, by law Muslim; while the rest is a mix of ethnic Chinese, Indian and indigenous peoples who are mostly Christians, Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, Sikhs and animists.

The country has a far better record of multicultural harmony than most of its neighbours.

Hands held in Kuala Lumpur
Some local authorities want to prosecute couples for hand-holding

But the recent demolitions are not without precedent.

Last year the compound of a cult known as the Sky Kingdom was levelled by the authorities, weeks after an attack by a Muslim mob. Many of the cultists are now on trial.

And just before Christmas a newly completed church of an indigenous community near Skudai in Johor state was reduced to rubble, closely monitored by Islamic department officials and the police.

In all cases the Muslim-dominated local authorities say the buildings were illegal. Many such buildings are deemed as such because they pre-date land records. Others are put up illegally because some local authorities seem reluctant to grant permission for temples and churches, but worshippers build them regardless.

In contrast, the issue of illegally built mosques rarely arises because many local governments are generous with both land and money for their construction.

Nor are the demolitions non-Muslims' only cause for concern.

The police recently ordered non-Muslim policewomen to wear Muslim headscarves for their annual parade, something that many non-Muslims felt set a worrying precedent.

And then there have been moves by some local authorities to ban or restrict dog ownership - conservative Muslims see dogs as unclean - and prosecute couples for holding hands or kissing in public.

"During our parents' time there was no problem when you hold hands in the park," says Fong Po Kuan, a non-Muslim opposition MP.

"There's a creeping Islamicisation in our society and this isn't appropriate because we're a multi-religious, multi-racial country."

Political background

That Islamicisation partly stems from the 1980s and 90s when government and opposition both tried to play up their Islamic credentials to win the battle for the Malay vote. But now even some Malay Muslims are starting to look at events with concern.

"Many of these issues that have generated controversy were not handled in a way that was thoroughly thought out," says Dr Mazeni Alwi, Chairman of the very conservative Muslim Professionals Forum.

He suspects that those responsible may come from backgrounds where they've rarely mixed with people from outside their own community and so suffer from "a lack of empathy and of understanding of other people's needs for their religion".

Even Teras, a vociferous Malay rights - and by definition, Muslim - group, has called for more understanding.

"There should be a discussion and we should approach things sensitively," says its president, Mohamad Azmi.

Another prominent Malay leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, widely seen as an architect of Malaysia's Islamicisation, thinks that local government and religious officers have been given too much freedom and not been held to account.

"There's been a failure of leadership," he says.

One senior state religious officer suggested off the record that the issue was not necessarily about faith at all.

"Some people see Malays and Muslims as one and the same thing. Some Malays feel they're much worse off economically than the other communities and want us to take their side on everything," he says.

"We have to be very careful not to get dragged into race problems."

Sky Kingdom cult
The inter-faith Sky Kingdom, or teapot cult, has suffered attacks

Indeed several sources suggest that it is indeed less an issue of Muslim intolerance and more one of right wing Malay ethno-nationalism.

But the people who I'd hoped to ask about such charges - politicians from the Malay Umno party which leads the government - were not forthcoming. Several calls to Mohamad Khir Toyo the Chief Minister of Selangor state, to Shah Alam MP Aziz Shamsuddin and to Malaysia's Islamic Affairs Abdullah Mohamad Zin elicited no response.

It must be noted that the man who many non-Muslims put their faith in to protect their rights is Umno's leader Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi; both a Malay and a devout Muslim.

"I believe that the rights of non-Muslims are actually expanding under the Prime Minister's liberal leadership," says Reverend Wong Kim Kong, head of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship.

While Mr Abdullah's predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, maintained the balance between Malaysia's communities with an iron fist, the consensual Mr Abdullah has avoided a showdown over these religious issues.

Many who value Malaysia's multiculturalism will be hoping that the soft spoken approach of a leader often dubbed "Mr Nice" won't be taken for weakness.

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