“A rope of three strands takes some breaking,” a Malay proverb says. Tali lega lembar tak suang-sunang putus. Does that fit a once-unthinkable interfaith gathering, last week, in Kuala Lumpur, after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) disappeared?
The imam cupped his palms to invoke Allah for the 239 passengers and crew. “The prayer was not unusual,” wrote Associated Press’ Eileen Ng. But “the setting was”—a Damansara Perdana shopping mall. Last Tuesday’s rites “would have been inconceivable,” before March 8 in a country of 29 million people “where religious bigotry (was) often openly displayed.”
Ethnic Malays form two-thirds of Malaysia’s population; Chinese and Indians, 22 percent and 7 percent, respectively; and Christians, about 9 percent.
“Today is a rare occasion for us to bring unity and harmony,” prayed a Buddhist monk. “We are all in tears waiting for you,” said Shantha Venugopal, the Hindu representative. The Taoist priest beseeched for divine intervention, while the Sikh leader pleaded for closure. A Catholic read from the bible.
Yet, in January this year, authorities confiscated 300 bibles in Selangor State. In late 2009, it impounded 15,100 bibles imported from Indonesia. “Two Bible Society officials were investigated for breaking a state law that bans non-Muslims from using the word Allah,” BBC reported.
At the storm’s vortex is Catholic weekly Herald editor Lawrence Andrew, a Jesuit priest. He said Christians in Malaysia and other parts of the world used “Allah” long before the country’s formation in 1965. Lawrence is not the only one shellacked. Conservative Catholics flayed the then new Pope Francis for Holy Thursday’s 2013 rites. There, he washed the feet of 12 prisoners—including two Muslim women.
As in any other country, there is the political angle. Kuala Lumpur’s Prime Minister Najib Razak won a hair-thin majority last time around, parliamentarian Yusof Rawa wrote. The parties play the “radical and religious card” to woo votes.
Did MH370 defuse this controversy? “In the shared sadness of loss, the tragedy has revealed and reinforced a strong sense of community,” wrote Bridget Welsh, a political scientist from Singapore Management University. “If anything, this is a silver lining of the tragedy.”
“For Malaysians the sight of non-Muslims bowing respectfully as Imam Hilman Nordin said prayers was an incredible step toward unity.” There have been interfaith prayers before. A Muslim representative always failed to show up—until now.
This is a waft of fresh air in what New York Times Thomas Fuller claims is “an ethnically polarized society.” Talent often does not rise to the top of government because of patronage politics within the ruling party dominated until now by the United National Malays Organization.
A system of ethnic preferences blocks minorities, mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, from government service. Ethnic Malays corner nearly all top government positions and receive a host of government preferences.
Authoritarian laws help keep an ascendant opposition in check, as opposition’s Anwar Ibrahim found in recycled sodomy charges. “The government is accustomed to getting its way. When you are not challenged in any meaningful way, you get complacent,” the Times quotes observers. The MH730 crisis “highlighted a lack of competence related to deference to authority and reluctance to take initiative.”
The local press is muzzled by licensing laws. “There has always been a kind of wait-for-instructions-from-the top attitude. Malaysia never faced pressure to perform like this,” the Times adds. “Now, international eyes are on them. And they have nowhere to hide.”
As of 2012, at least 17 nations (9 percent worldwide) have police that enforce religious norms, according to a new analysis of data, says the Pew Research Center.
“In Malaysia, state Islamic religious enforcement officers and police carried out raids to enforce sharia law against indecent dress. (They) banned publications, alcohol consumption and khalwat (close proximity to a member of the opposite sex), according to the US State Department.”
Kuala Lumpur’s row over a single word “Allah” tarred the country’s image for tolerance. Some sermons identified Christians and Jews as enemies of Islam. Hardline Muslims have called for bible bans, and in January, firebombs were hurled into a church compound. Some stomped on the severed head of a cow outside a Hindu temple. Cows are sacred to Hindus.
Have such differences been set aside for good? Or is this just a temporary respite? Did MH370 sear into the Malay Muslim mindset the indelible need for broader freedoms?
Perhaps part of the answer lies with the young Malay Muslims who are far better educated than the previous generations. They have access to worldwide information, despite the censors. “Young, educated, urban Malays, in particular, are deserting this brand of politics in droves,” wrote Waleed Aly. “They’re becoming increasingly skeptical of their own privileged status. Upwardly mobile, they are unlikely to be swayed by a Mecca-oriented compass.”
Not the “old guard.” They confront the fact that “the privileged position they’ve held for the first 50 years of independence won’t hold for the next 50. Now they’re lashing out, as if trying to resist the death throes of their own supremacy.”
Did Waleed Aly write that in Malaysia? Of course, that would have never seen print there. But the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia published it.
“Because of the (MH370) tragedy, we stand as one and respect one another’s religion,” AP quotes Nurul Arfarina Nasir, a 28-year-old housewife who wore a headscarf and held a white balloon. “I see this as Allah’s wisdom behind this tragedy to reunite all Malaysians.”