KUALA LUMPUR - A Japanese cultural dance festival that has been celebrated for over four decades in Malaysia has come under the spotlight after the Islamist party in the ruling coalition asked Muslims to steer clear of it, once again raising questions about cultural tolerance and diversity in the Muslim-majority country.
Religious Affairs Minister Idris Ahmad, who is from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), on June 6 advised Muslims not to attend the Bon Odori Festival next month, claiming it was "influenced by elements from other religions".
This drew a rare response from Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who is the head of Islam in Malaysia's most developed state. He said that although the festival started as a religious celebration, it has evolved into a largely cultural celebration over the past few decades, and he urged Datuk Idris to attend the celebrations.
"Your Majesty does not want certain parties, especially politicians, to use issues that are religiously sensitive for their own personal benefit or to score popularity points," Sultan Sharafuddin said last Thursday.
He added that he had attended the festival in 2016 and did not notice any religious elements in it.
He also ordered the Selangor Islamic Religious Department not to stop the festival from taking place. The event is supported by the Selangor state government led by federal opposition Pakatan Harapan.
The festival has been held in Malaysia since 1977 as a way to celebrate Japanese culture. Jointly organised by the Japanese Embassy, Japanese School of Kuala Lumpur and Japan Club of Kuala Lumpur, the celebration attracted 35,000 participants every year before the pandemic.
The first of the two Bon Odori celebrations this year will take place in Shah Alam, Selangor's state capital, on July 16. The other one will be in Penang on July 30.
Mr Idris has refused to speak about the matter following the Sultan's public remarks.
PAS leaders, however, have continued to speak up against the festival, with Selangor PAS chief Ahmad Yunus Hairi suggesting last Friday that the Selangor state government ban Muslims from attending the festival.
On the same day, Perlis state mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin suggested that the festival's name be changed to "avoid confusion" over religion and culture.
Dr Jeniri Amir, a senior fellow at the Malaysian Council of Professors, said the controversy stems from PAS' refusal to see issues outside of its own perspective.
"They fail to understand multiculturalism, that they can't impose their values unto others," he told The Straits Times, while emphasising that the Selangor ruler's remarks represented a rebuke for Mr Idris.
Dr Jeniri warned that PAS' views might harm multiculturalism in Malaysia and could also tarnish the country's reputation abroad.
Last year, controversy erupted over the name of a local whiskey Timah, after several Muslim politicians - mostly PAS leaders - claimed that the name resembled the name of Prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatimah.
The controversy abated only after the intervention of two federal ministers, and the manufacturer Winepak managed to retain the name with a disclaimer that it referred to tin ore in the Malay language.
Late last year, the PAS-led Kedah state government banned all 4D lottery shops, although they remain operational because their licences were valid until the end of this year.