Bombs tarnish Malaysia's terror record
By Ioannis Gatsiounis
KUALA LUMPUR - With much of the Islamic world beset by violence, majority
Muslim Malaysia had prided itself on its comparatively clean record of no major
episodes of terrorism on its home soil.
That badge of distinction was tarnished early on Friday when three Kuala
Lumpur-based Christian churches were firebombed in apparent response to a New
Year's Eve court ruling that allowed a
local Catholic newspaper to use the word "Allah" to refer to the Christian god.
"Allah", an Arabic word meaning "one god", predates Islam and is used by
Christians in a number of other Muslim countries without controversy.
Five more Christian churches were attacked over the weekend into Monday,
leaving the ruling United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) to fend off
accusations that it should bear some responsibility for the attacks after years
of being accused of stoking racial and religious hatred for political mileage
among the country's majority Malays. The predominantly Muslim ethnic group
makes up 60% of the population and has in recent years lurched towards more
Prime Minister Najib Razak sharply denied that the race-based party instigated
the unprecedented outbreak of anonymous violence. "Do not point the fingers at
UMNO or anyone else. We have always been very responsible," he said at a press
Najib launched the concept of "One Malaysia" shortly after taking office last
year so that, as he has put it, "Malaysia will be the sum total of all [its]
races" governed by "mutual respect and not just tolerance". But a number of his
administration's actions and statements have run counter to the catchy slogan's
spirit of unity.
Around the time that Najib introduced "One Malaysia", he appointed his cousin,
Hishammuddin Hussein, as home affairs minister. It was a curious choice,
considering Hishammuddin's history of inciting racial tensions, including most
notably when as education minister he waved a traditional Malay dagger at an
UMNO annual assembly in a threatening gesture towards the country's two main
minorities, the ethnic Chinese and Indians.
Since his appointment, he has opposed human-rights rallies but has defended
Malays who last year paraded a severed cow's head, a direct affront to Hindu
beliefs that view cows as sacred, in protest against the construction of a new
No major UMNO leader called for restraint in the days leading up to the planned
protests against the "Allah" court ruling, while the cousins - who have
typically opposed freedom of expression on the putative grounds that it would
threaten national stability - went as far as to defend the planned protest.
No one has yet been arrested in connection with the church attacks, and the
government has pointed at unidentified hooligans without producing evidence to
back those claims. Hishammuddin, who is also an UMNO vice president, said the
attacks were aimed at creating chaos and inciting hatred towards the
government, insinuating that the attacks were a conspiracy against UMNO.
Racial double standards
Yet it can be said that the government's race-based politics have fed notions
of superiority and given tacit license to the upsurge of intolerance now
plaguing sections of the Malay community.
"The irresponsible conduct of fanning the emotions by UMNO leaders has brought
about this dangerous situation," said a Malay opposition politician, Zaid
Ibrahim, in a press statement on Friday. "What we see today confirms that this
country is being governed not by engagement, consultation, sophistication or
persuasion, but by brute and mob force."
The last major instance of racially motivated violence occurred in 1969, when
clashes between Malays and Chinese left up to 2,000 people dead over a
two-and-a-half month span. Yet recent history has arguably emboldened UMNO,
which has dominated domestic politics since the country achieved independence.
Blessed with a docile citizenry, the party has conducted its communal
brinkmanship without fear of major consequence or reprisal. Now it finds itself
in the unenviable position of having to rein in a situation that eerily hints
at the tipping point that many moderate Malaysians have long feared: a brazen
spate of race-based violence that begets more of the same.
At a minimum, the face-saving myth of racial harmony that Malaysian politicians
have claimed to international audiences is now in tatters. That sanitized
notion came by way of sloganeering, a tightly controlled media, and billions
spent on eye-catching infrastructure projects intended to make Malaysia appear
both modern and progressive.
With that myth now laid bare, some expect tourist numbers to drop. The violence
may also force Malaysians to look more squarely at the social rot in their
midst and take a more proactive approach to repairing damaged race relations.
There are some hopeful signs.
Some 130 Muslim non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have reportedly
volunteered to help ensure the safety of Christian churches around the country.
The Muslim chief executive of one local bank has donated 100,000 ringgit
(US$$30,000) on behalf of his institution for church reconstruction. And the
government plans to hold an inter-faith dialogue, after having shot down the
idea in the past.
Even so, beyond the media's glare, there are indications that Malaysians are
retreating into the pattern of ignoring, rather than talking through, unsettled
issues that cut across ethnic lines. That tendency had helped maintain a
tenuous peace, but deeply ingrained racial resentments appear to have played a
hand in the recent spate of attacks.
Three years ago, this correspondent queried Najib in his capacity as deputy
prime minister about the deep-seated stereotypes and antagonisms Malaysia 's
three main ethnic groups - the Malays, Indians and Chinese - shared for each
other. Najib said that was fine, so long as each group kept their resentments
within the four proverbial walls of their respective community.
His reply was indicative of UMNO's tendency to treat the symptoms rather than
the root of the problem. It was inevitable that one day one of those walls
would come crashing down; that day of reckoning apparently arrived on Friday
with the attacks on a number of Christian churches. UMNO and Najib will now
have to look past their "four walls" for real solutions.
Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, is a Malaysia-based freelance
journalist and author whose recently released debut of fiction, Velvet
and Cinder Blocks, details a planned attack on a Christian landmark in Malaysia.
His blog is breaklines.wordpress.com