Malaysia's government spots a vote-winner: 'Defending' Islam

Malaysia's government spots a vote-winner: 'Defending' Islam
The Putra Mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia.
PHOTO: AFP

As Malaysia's ruling Pakatan Harapan government contends with a marriage of convenience between the two largest opposition parties, pressure is mounting on it to show it can defend the interests of Malay-Muslims, who make up 75 per cent of voters.

Enter a new initiative to crack down on insults against Islam. On March 7, the Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), the country's most powerful Islamic affairs agency, set up a special unit to police insults against Islam on social media and other platforms.

Each complaint would be scrutinised and legitimate ones reported to the police or the communications regulator, said Deputy Minister Fuziah Salleh, who is overseeing the unit.

In just a week, the complaints body received 10,000 reports and as of Wednesday, it had 13,498 reports.

The agency's creation came soon after a 22-year-old Malaysian, whose details were withheld by the authorities, was given an unprecedented sentence of 10 years for posting content online that insulted Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, a decision that lawyers said went against the rule of law.

And police are investigating the organisers of the International Women's Day March under the colonial-era Sedition Act, on the back of public accusations that the presence of LGBT activists at a Women's Day parade on March 9 glorified behaviour not in accordance with Islamic teachings.

In Muslim-majority Malaysia, same-sex relations are banned, and sedition laws have been used against those who express dissent or excite disaffection against state institutions.

Observers such as Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs have pointed out the irony of these developments. Pakatan Harapan, led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, won office on promises of legal reform and improved human rights for all Malaysians.

But it is now moving to stem the growing appeal of an alliance between former ruling party the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) - the former championing Malay rights and the latter milking pro-Muslim sentiments. Umno-PAS' attractiveness to voters has been heightened by the government's struggle to realise its election pledges of higher salaries and a lower cost of living.

"The Malay parties in Pakatan Harapan have to pander to the conservatives by regressing to religio-racial supremacy in order to maintain a foothold in the Malay vote bank, especially in view of their successive crushing defeats in recent by-elections," Oh said.

Political economist Terence Gomez, along with prominent local activists, also criticised this political "trend" of political parties capitalising on perceived insults to religion to gain popularity.

"In the application of laws prohibiting insulting religion, we must strive for a rational and liberal balance with the protection of the freedom of expression while being mindful of the religious sensitivities of our multi-religious communities. Hence open mindedness and moderation should be the norm in the interpretation and application of the existing laws," the group said.

It added that criticising issues such as child marriage or female circumcision - permitted under Malaysia's sharia laws - was "perfectly defensible".

Fuziah said the complaints received by the unit regarded insults to Islam and the Prophet.

"One touches on insulting the Agong," she said, referring to Malaysia's ruler and head of state. She did not comment on whether any police reports had been filed.

But so far only 28 links had been sent to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, which is supposed to take them down. Another 15 complaints were being investigated, Fuziah said.

The commission told the South China Morning Post it had not received any reports as of Wednesday, but would "provide assistance to Jakim as required".

When the new Jakim unit was launched, Fuziah told local media she was aware some insults online were published by those with fake accounts. Some were also "unhealthy retaliations", she said, sparked by comments by opposition politicians against non-Muslims.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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