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Sarawak starts feeling the heat of peninsula feud over religion


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Over the past few years, the non-Muslims in Sarawak – particularly the majority Christian community – have seen some disturbing trends among their youth, say Sheridan Mahavera and Desmond Davidson.

Photograph: The Malaysian Insider

Christian schoolchildren were coming home and telling their parents that their Muslim classmates had started pressuring them to change their faith.

In universities in Kuching, there was a sudden bloom of girls wearing niqabs, the Arab-style head-to-toe dress that covered everything except the eyes. This is even though the Education Ministry has forbidden niqabs.

And during Gawai and Chinese New Year open houses, there were fewer Muslim friends coming over. The ones that did come over supposedly did not want to touch the food even when their hosts told them it came from halal sources.

Such changes in attitude reflect a creeping extremism that is infecting Sarawak’s Muslim community – one that is often held up as an example of tolerance and inclusivity that their brethren in the Malay peninsula should learn from.

There is now a growing worry that such attitudes – imported from across the South China Sea – threatens to rupture the social glue that has bound Sarawak’s diverse community.

This is even while Sarawak’s Muslim leaders continue to insist that their minority community is still moderate and able to embrace its more populous non-Muslim neighbours.

Bad imports

Sarawakian Muslims and non-Muslims say there are a few factors behind these trends.

But one thing they agree on is that these trends came from the Malay peninsula. The dominance of social media also helped these beliefs spread even wider than before.

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One of the most disruptive has been the placement of religious teachers from the mainland in local schools to teach Muslim kids.

In separate interviews, a teacher from Kuching and Sarawak’s top official for religious affairs claimed that the most problematic have been teachers from Kelantan.

“We had an uztazah (female religious teacher) from Kelantan who used to run down Christianity in her classes,” said the Kuching-based teacher.

“The students would come out of her class and try to preach to Christians about how they should change their religion to Islam,” said the teacher who related how the Christian children complained to her.

At the well-known Universiti Sarawak Malaysia campus, students believed to be from Muslim youth groups caught the attention of officials with their ultra-conservatism.

In March, they tried to get Unimas to ban a seminar by prominent former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia sociologist and activist Professor Noraini Othman.

A Unimas official with knowledge of the protest said the seminar went on but members of the group tried to disrupt it by haranguing Noraini and calling her names.

“Instead of debating on the points she presented, they just labelled her un-Islamic and deviant. This type of protest has never happened before,” said the official who requested anonymity.

Another Unimas official, Dr Faisal Syam Hazis, said he noticed that more and more younger Sarawakian Muslims were becoming more conservative than their parents.

The younger generation are more exposed to the ideas and beliefs of Muslims from the Malay peninsula, said Faisal, possibly because of social media.

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But such attitudes are also adopted by the older generation.

“If it was not for the Muslims in the peninsula, we do not know what would become of us Muslims in Sarawak,” said a mosque official based in Kuching, throwing his hands up in a gesture of futility.

“We are only 30 per cent of the population here. But the Muslims in the peninsula are dominant. That is good,” said the official who declined to give his name.

He also claimed that Muslims in Sarawak do not want non-Muslims to use the name Allah – a stance contradictory to the one taken by Sarawak’s Muslim politicians.

Native strength

Datuk Daud Abdul Rahman admits that these trends are present. But the minister in charge of religious affairs believes they are minor strains in a larger mainstream that is moderate and open.

“In Sarawak, we practise the middle path. We are different from Muslims in the peninsula in our approach to Islam,” the former engineer told The Malaysian Insider.

In the Allah issue for instance, Daud said in meetings with religious officials from the Malay peninsula, he would repeatedly stress that Sarawak would exempt itself from the ban.

“The Christians have used the term for over 100 years and Sarawak Muslims have never been confused with it. There has been no Muslim who converted because of the term Allah.”

The administration he claimed has also attempted to remove teachers “who spread negative views among schoolchildren”.

“But whenever we try to bring a case, no one wants to come forward.”

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At the end of the day, he said, there will always be pockets of extremism, such as Sarawakians who want to form a local branch of Perkasa for instance.

But he has faith that Muslim Sarawakians can look to themselves to chart their own destinies without having to look across the seas for inspiration.

“Sarawak Muslims have to rely on themselves. They can’t rely on Muslims in the peninsula or anyone else.

“They have to draw strength from themselves and they must realise that they must work together with non-Muslims.”

Some of this native strength can already be seen as the silent moderate majority speak up when it matters the most.

When the Allah issue was hotly debated in social media circles recently, moderates spoke out against the ban, said Rezlan, a Muslim professional in his mid-20s.

“The constant underlying theme is simple. If you are already strong in your faith, then there is nothing to worry about.”

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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