Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
On Dec. 25, the Malaysian government announced that it had accepted the withdrawal of two Israeli windsurfers from the International Sailing Federation world youth sailing championships, due to begin two days later.
Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said that Malaysia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, “is guided by the existing policy of the Malaysian government.”
The athletes had rejected demands which would have forbidden them from carrying Israel’s flag or wearing any symbol on their attire and surfboards showing their country of origin.
These kinds of incidents have been par for the course for decades. But why this animosity towards a far-off state with which Malaysia has little contact?
This has to be seen in the wider context of Malaysian politics, which is bound up with deep ethnic and religious divides between the Muslim Malays, 60 per cent of the population, and the minority Chinese and Indian communities.
Malaysia is a federation of 13 states, nine of which have Muslim sultans who take turns to occupy the post of king for the country. Islam is the official religion and Muslims are governed by sharia law, while the other ethnic groups practice non-Islamic faiths such as Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Malaysia has a long history of tensions over issues ranging from dietary differences to the economic preferences enshrined in Malaysian law for the Malay Muslim majority, and these issues have sometimes spilled over into violence.
Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has governed the country in a coalition known as the Barisan Nasional since independence but nearly lost power in the May 2013 general election to an alliance that included the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
To fend off extremists, the government has encouraged, facilitated, and enhanced the role of the Islamic religious establishment in Malaysian society.
But now there are worrying signs that the sort of ideology that fuels jihadi violence in the Middle East is reaching Malaysia, especially in the wake of recent efforts by PAS to implement hudud in Kelantan, a state which it governs. It is the sharia law that provides penalties such as amputation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for adultery.
In September 2014, militants from Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia fighting in Syria formed a military unit for Malay-speaking Islamic State fighters. Unofficial guesses are that as many as 400 have left for the Middle East although some put the figure as high as 1,000.
The ruling UMNO fears that PAS may outflank it among devout Muslims, so attacking Israel helps it retain its loyalists. Support for the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict appeals to the Malay Muslim electorate.
Malaysia’s current prime minister, Najib Razak, has reiterated Malaysia’s strong support for the Palestinian cause, and visited Hamas-ruled Gaza in January 2013.
Might things eventually improve? There was one hopeful note recently: In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last Oct. 1, Najib called for the “dawn of a much needed revised relationship between Muslims and Jews.”
He quoted the Torah in his speech, and also met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s a start.