The dispute appears to stem from an eruption of Malay integrism rather than from purely religious reasons.
(The following republishes, with notes, our August 14, 2008 post “Catholic newspapers embattled in Malaysia” in view of its renewed topicality, with apologies for our lack of time to write more on the issue.)
“I was surfing about for news on Christians in other countries when I read a report on The Star Online (here) that a Malaysian Catholic newsletter, the Herald, was being threatened with revocation of license for publishing an editorial on a coming election. Its editor protested that the Malaysian Home Ministry had not read the editorial–for he had only asked people to pray for honest elections–but the Home Ministry was adamant, for The Herald had dared to publish articles dealing with politics. Now, says anilnetto.com, another paper, Catholic Asian News, has received the same warning for the same “offense”: writing about politics.
“At first, I though this was part of the worldwide assault on Christian values and institutions, but further reading told me that this was not the case, the Malaysian situation being light years away from, for instance, the strange Canadian persecution of Christianity (see Lifesite for an example). Instead–but please correct me, Dear Reader, if I’m wrong, as I’m just an overseas observer–, I think there are 2 other ways to interpret the situation.
“First, it may simply be an attempt to curry favor with strict Muslims given upcoming polls. This might be plausible given the controversies surrounding the Herald, particularly its attempt to use the Arabic word ‘Allah’ for ‘God’ (blessed be His Name), but I still have my doubts [which have since largely vanished].
“To begin with, I find it hard to credit the Malaysian authorities with any form of State “extremism” or “fundamentalism” (to use the ill-used terminology of Western media) beyond what is strictly enjoined by the Qu’ran and Hadiths. Muslim Malaysians adhere to the relatively unrigorist Southeast Asian schools of Sunni Islam [to which the studies of Anthony Reid, among others, amply testify]; and in any case, (though Christians may not know this) many Muslim countries, including Malaysia, have accorded Christians a good degree of fairness and security. They were many times deprived of full equality, but those rights of Christians that were recognized were religiously enforced.
“At most, therefore, the emerging policy could me merely an opportunistic attempt to attract the Islamic vote, in which case it could backfire: For it is my belief that Southeast Asian Muslims, whether or not they advocate State enforcement of shariah, are generally not followers of al-Wahhab, and will likely look askance at an attempt to suddenly adopt a rigorist policy against non-Muslims. [Unfortunately, this may be less true now than in the past; for the rise in prominence of strict Islamic schools since the 1980s has not left Malaysia unaffected, especially given the decline of older ideological contenders like Nasserism and Kemalism.
Nonetheless, it may be inappropriate to view the increased influence of Wahhabi interpretati0n as the sole cause of the dispute. Rather, it appears to be a phenomenon allied to an eruption of Malay integrism, both leading to and feeding from it. The firebombing of nine churches shows that this is a potentially violent mix, albeit Malaysia will not yet see anything of the intensity of Indonesia’s pogroms. ]
“The second and, I think, more likely interpretation is that the threats are simply a lashing out at a vulnerable minority by an increasingly paranoid State that, for instance, recently re-arrested then quickly re-released former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim for obviously ill-conceived reasons. This seems conceivable in light of the situation of Malaysian politics, which has been in flux since the (nominal) departure of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of the nationalist UMNO.
“To be sure, the policy seems irrational because, as Mustafa K. Anuar rightly points out, all religions call for right acts and, therefore, personal and social justice, but maybe that’s the real problem. Put in social justice into the equation, and you would have a clear clash between its State-sponsored and Religion-supported visions; the monopoly of power of a State and its ruling party/faction would be challenged by a factor more ideological, and hence more dangerous, than mere pragmatic politics. In such a case, unless they’re made up of fair-minded people like Konrad Adenauer, the State and its ruling party/faction will be sorely tempted to use its coercive power to remove the challengers from the field and force them to become nicely Liberal irrelevancies that vote politely at elections and don’t ask questions in between.
“From a Christian viewpoint, the fact that Catholic papers are targeted may seem doubly unfair, but it is an injustice that, sadly, authentic Christians should expect. For one, we are a minority; and more, some form of persecution should be expected even in nominally Christian nations. Quite simply, the one true Church stands as one of the great (and annoyingly visible) barriers to the Hegelian apotheosis of the omnicompetent Total State and its ruling party/faction. Her faith in an authority above, and not represented by, the State; her transnational organization manned by well-educated clergy; her willingness to oppose even governments in the name of faith and morals–all these make her an alternate power base that invites repression. Tito’s Yugoslavia, Diocletian’s Rome, Bismarck’s Germany all persecuted her for this reason; and in a fluctuating political environment with populations to mobilize, the Church is simply too tempting a target.
“Hence, Malaysians in general, and Malaysian Christians in particular, may be justified in fighting the threatened sanctions if they are–as I fear they may be–part of an irrationally conceived but all-too-usual bid for more party or social power. It often starts with a drive against political and religious minorities; it nearly always ends with heavier chains on all the People; and it it is my firm belief that no country, particularly a nation of our fellow Malays, deserves to be thus victimized by arbitrary acts of misgovernment. However, if I am wrong, I would heartily welcome due correction.
“May God in His justice and mercy bless us all.”