Why It Matters

Moderate Islam key to Malaysia

Muslim-only launderettes in Malaysia's northern and southern-most states became a lightning rod for the country's clash between puritanical and progressive Islam this past month.

While the royals in Perlis and Johor condemned the outlets, forcing them to reverse their policies, it was only after the Conference of Rulers' rare intervention last week accusing such practices of being damaging to the religion and social harmony, that moderate Muslims became emboldened to push back against an increasingly aggressive Islamic bureaucracy.

The conference is made up of Malaysia's nine hereditary Malay rulers who are heads of Islam in their own states, and the four governors of states without royalty. Such a concerted move by the influential institution has been met with silence from the ruling establishment, which is accused by progressives of running a government that is driving Malaysia towards intolerance.

The government has also been accused of encouraging - or even employing - preachers who disparage non-Muslims.

One such speaker is cleric Zamihan Mat Zin, who said Muslim-only launderettes are necessary as clothes of Chinese people would be soiled with pork and other substances deemed unclean in Islam.

This week, the group of prominent Malay elites known as the Group of 25 decided to challenge the government's ban on a book that they say promotes moderate Islam. And while other such moves can be expected, the debate over Islamic conservatism has not ended here.

Malaysia's Muslim majority must now decide which path to pursue in a multiracial country where nearly 40 per cent of its 32 million people are non-Muslim. Multiracial Malaysians have lived and played side by side in peace for centuries. Not every country in the world - or even region - can say that.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'Moderate Islam key to Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe