Malaysia’s Prime Minister talks of tolerance in Rome but doesn’t “walk the talk” back home

by Natasja Sheriff

In a rare meeting in July, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Pope Benedict XVI agreed to establish diplomatic relations between Malaysia and the Holy See. It was a historic meeting of national significance for Malaysia, which until this week was one of only 17 countries in the world that had not formed diplomatic ties with the Vatican.

In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Najib urged the international community to embark on a ‘Global Movement of Moderates,’ inviting “all faiths who are committed to work together to combat and marginalize extremists who have held the world hostage with their bigotry and bias.” Some argue that it’s this type of politicking, the international face of Najib, that has contributed to a view of Malaysia that is “idealised (and outdated).”

At home the actions of the Barisan Nasional government appear to tell a different story of racial and religious politics. Relations between the government and Malaysia’s Christian community have rarely been warm, but divisions have deepened during the last 18 months. Early in 2010, a spate of firebomb attacks on churches around the country shocked Malaysians. The attacks came shortly after a High Court ruling that permitted The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, to use the word Allah for God in the Malay language section of the paper. The government condemned the attacks, but did little to ease the anxiety of Christians, many of whom feel disenfranchised and discriminated against in the Muslim-majority country.  The Home Ministry later appealed the High Court decision. The debate was revived earlier this year when the government seized shipments of tens of thousands of Bibles, written in the Malay language and using the word Allah, causing further discontent amongst Christians, as Zeinab Yusuf Saiwalla reported here.

As Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, said in a statement in March, “The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) is greatly disillusioned, fed-up and angered by the repeated detention of Bibles written in our national language, Bahasa Malaysia. It is an affront to them that they are being deprived of their sacred scriptures. Many are wondering why their scriptures are considered a threat to national security. All these actions in relation to the detention of the Bibles continue to hurt the Malaysian Christian community.” In light of these events, Najib’s diplomatic overtures to the Vatican are seen by some as an attempt to appease Malaysia’s Christian voters, who make up around 10% of the population.

But it is the timing of the Rome visit that gives the greatest cause for concern, coming barely a week after rallies for electoral reform brought an estimated 50,000 people onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The government’s heavy-handed response to the rally, condemned by international human rights groups, has no doubt damaged the government’s international image, and further soured relations with Christian groups. Government rhetoric around the rally, staged by the reform-minded Bersih movement–Bersih means “clean” in the Malay language–threatened to stoke ethno-religious tensions—a common strategy of intimidation used by the government.

The government-backed Malay language newspaper, Utusan Malaysia,claimed that Christian organizations were backing the Bersih rally as part of a conspiracy to usurp Islam. The same newspaper later warned that Bersih provides an opportunity for Jewish infiltration into Malaysia, although the government has distanced itself from the claims. Religious rhetoric was also leveled at the head of the Bersih committee, Ambiga Sreenevasan, who critics accused of being “against Islam.”  Yet the Bersih movement has been praised for its inclusiveness, with participants joining from the full spectrum of religious and ethnic communities.

Religious freedom is protected under the 1963 Malaysian constitution, which states that “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” While there is indeed a great deal of respect for the many religions that coexist in relative harmony in Malaysia—to an outsider, the celebration of all major religious festivals is striking—tolerance exists primarily at the societal level. Najib’s ‘1Malaysia’ has emerged not because of his pro-unity policies, but in spite of them.

In an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, 365 members of the Catholic and broader Christian community in Malaysia raised a number of concerns about their democratic and religious freedoms, focusing particularly on the events surrounding the Bersih rally.  Yet the letter also clearly illustrates the frustrations and contradictions experienced by all Malaysians, and condemning “the shameful conduct of some of our political leaders who have unabashedly manipulated ethno-religious sentiments all these years, and mobilized on ethno-religious grounds in order to stay in power.”

The meetings in Rome received relatively little media coverage in Malaysia, perhaps reflecting either a preference to maintain focus on domestic issues, or disillusionment with high-level talks that lead to little concrete improvement for Malaysians. Commentators do seem to agree that the meeting in itself will do little to solve religious tensions in the country, without continued efforts by the government to engage in genuine interfaith dialogue and to pursue religious and ethnic equality.

Certainly the discontent of the Christian community has not been eased since Najib returned from Rome. In what seems to be a gross misreading of the current standing between Christians and Muslims, the Prime Minister said in speech to a gathering of BN supporters,  “We wish to tell our friends, the Malaysian Christians, if they respect us, we will also respect them. The government will engage with Christian groups here that love peace and respect the country’s Islamic leadership” reported the Malaysian Insider.

His remarks have left Christians baffled. “It is as if the loyalty of Christians to the constitution of the country which states that Islam is the official region of the federation is in doubt and the sincerity of Christians in their desire to dialogue with Muslims is subject to proof,” Catholic Bishop Dr Paul Tan Chee Ing told the news site Malaysiakini. “Begging the prime minister’s pardon, I feel matters are the other way round. It is his government’s fidelity to the freedom of religion guarantees in the constitution that is in doubt, not Christians’ respect for Islam.”

Natasja Sheriff is a journalist and graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program. She lived in Malaysia from 2006-2010.