Islamic state label sparks controversy in Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Bitter debate in Malaysia questioning whether the mainly Muslim nation is an Islamic state has exposed religious and racial faultlines ahead of a widely expected early general election.

As Malaysia prepares to celebrate its 50th year of independence with a nationwide party next month, comments by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak asserting the country has never been a secular state have upset many non-Muslims.

"Islam is the official religion and we are an Islamic state," state news agency Bernama quoted Najib as saying last week.

"We have never been secular because being secular by Western definition means separation of the Islamic principles in the way we govern a country."

Race and religion are touchy issues in multi-racial Malaysia, where ethnic Malay Muslims form about 60 percent of a population of roughly 26 million, while Hindus, Buddhists and Christians dominate the ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities.

Since ethnic Malays are Muslim by definition, politicians' comments about Islam usually aim to appeal to the largest chunk of potential voters, analysts say.

Najib's remarks drew such stinging ripostes from lawyers, opposition parties and religious leaders, who accused the government of ignoring Malaysia's history and constitution, that authorities finally ordered mainstream media to drop the subject.

Malaysia's constitution does not explicitly say it is a secular state, although it says Islam is the official religion.

"You can't settle it because politically it's going to be difficult," political scientist Chandra Muzaffar told Reuters.

"There is no way the government can come out and say it is a secular state, because Muslims in this country and many other parts of the world feel the term 'secular state' means that religion has no place in public life."

But Malaysia's non-Muslims would also be unhappy with the idea of living in an avowedly Islamic state, he added.


One Christian grouping saw Najib's comments as a bid to stir racial tension.

"We appeal to the government in general and to the deputy prime minister in particular, to refrain from using 'Islamic state' as an official description of the country to stir up racial tension," the Council of Churches of Malaysia said.

Many Malaysians are still haunted by the memory of racial riots between poor ethnic Malays and wealthier ethnic Chinese that killed almost 200 people in 1969, and eventually led to an affirmative action program to improve the lot of Malays.

The government ordered mainstream media to stop discussion of Najib's remarks after two days of heated debate, but it continues to be a live topic on Web sites.

"There is no official ban, but we have asked the newspapers to cooperate with us," said one government official who declined to be identified.

With Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi expected to call polls by early next year, analysts say months of political posturing lie ahead from members of his United Malays National Organisation, which leads the ruling coalition.

Against the backdrop of Malaysia's highly politicized debate on religion, Najib's remarks reinforced the perception that Malay identity was being equated with religion, said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

"Najib is putting on record his position vis-a-vis the role of religion in society, and I think he is doing it not just for elections, but he is going with the flow that has been the direction within UMNO," said Welsh, a specialist on Malaysia.

Najib received some support from former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who first deployed the 'Islamic state' label in 2001, to disconcert political opponents in a hardline Islamist party.

"Whether it is stated in the constitution or not, this is a Muslim country, because we follow Muslim teachings and Muslim injunctions," Mahathir told reporters.