FEATURE: Rulers' harmony message a boost for Muslim moderates in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (The Straits Times/ANN) - A statement released by the Conference of Rulers condemned "divisive" acts in the name of Islam, which have been putting at risk the social cohesion in the multi-ethnic country.

Malaysia's monarchs have emboldened progressive Muslims after Tuesday's (Oct 10) statement by the Conference of Rulers condemning "divisive" acts in the name of Islam, a religion they said should be "respectful, moderate and inclusive".

With Islamic conservatism on the rise, backed by an aggressive Islamic bureaucracy that outlaws anything it deems deviant, the statement by the conference - which includes nine rulers who are custodians of Islam in their states - is seen as representing those who feel social cohesion in multi-ethnic Malaysia is breaking apart.

"This injunction by the Malay rulers reaffirms the dignity of every Malaysian," said Human Rights Commission chairman Razali Ismail, who called for an end to acts "against the spirit of tolerance" that cause disunity.

Singling out operators of Muslim-only launderettes which made headlines in recent weeks, the rulers said their actions "have gone beyond all acceptable standards of decency, putting at risk the harmony that currently exists within our multi-religious and multi-ethnic society".

"The rulers are of the opinion that the damaging implications of such actions are more severe when they are erroneously associated with or committed in the name of Islam," Keeper of the Ruler's Seal Syed Danial Syed Ahmad said in a statement on behalf of the conference. "As a religion that encourages its followers to be respectful, moderate and inclusive, the reputation of Islam must not ever be tainted by the divisive actions of certain groups or individuals which may lead to rifts among the people."

Cultural expert Eddin Khoo told The Straits Times that the statement was "clearly not just about launderettes, but divisiveness".

"They are reasserting their role as a compass for our democracy and governance," he said of the statement by the rulers, who are widely influential among the Malay Muslim majority, especially in their own states. "They represent a wider consciousness, and so would only make a statement if it appeals to a large public, because these values are embedded among the people, even though these people may have so far been silent."

Aside from the launderette controversies, the past month has seen the authorities ban a slew of books by Muslim intellectuals and translations of the Quran. The Islamic authorities have also ignored civil court orders, while pressure from Muslim hardliners caused beer festivals in the Klang Valley to be cancelled.

ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Wan Saiful Wan Jan said the rulers were right to comment on national harmony, "but they left out the biggest elephant in the room, that is how Malay politicians are sowing distrust against Malaysian Chinese in order to attract votes from the Malays".

"When (ruling party) Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia keep suggesting the dangers of losing Malay political power, the implication is that non-Malays cannot be trusted," he said.

The two parties have pursued increasingly Malay Muslim-centric strategies of late, ahead of an election due in less than a year. After the rulers' statement, Malaysians on social media have questioned the government's silence when faced with intolerance by hardline Muslims.

But analysts say despite the monarchs not specifically chiding the government, their statement could spark a pushback from a previously silent Malay ground.

"It gives confidence to those in margins, who are not sure whether they can be critical. But now that the monarchs have come out, more moderate Malays can stand up and be counted instead of fearing action by the religious authorities," said Rajaratnam School of International Studies' senior fellow Johan Saravanamuttu.

He added that this was already evident within the Islamic bureaucracy, which has been silent in the face of the rulers' statement.

"Instead, the police chief has said the preacher who criticised the Johor Sultan for condemning the Muslim-only launderette may be charged with sedition," Saravanamuttu said.

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