Liberal and Tolerant Malaysia Heading Down the Islamist Path?

I sometimes struggle to understand why Malaysia should be moving steadily up the rankings in the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith. In the 2016 list Malaysia is ranked at No. 30 – classified as moderate persecution – compared to No. 37 last year and No. 40 in 2014.

I live in Australia and have travelled to Malaysia several times – my wife and I took our three sons there on holiday some years ago when they were young – and have always found it pleasurable, open and extremely friendly.

We have many Malaysian migrants in Australia, and every church I have attended seems to have its quota of Malaysian worshippers (mainly of Chinese background). They sometimes travel back to their home country, and – as best as I can tell – attend church in Malaysia with complete freedom.

A young missionary friend found himself sent to do administrative work at one of his mission group’s regional offices. It was in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. He loved the vibrant life there. His wife’s parents, when they visited, used to take advantage of the excellent dentists to have major procedures done at less than half the Australian cost.

The former minister of a church I attended now has a roving ministry, teaching at seminaries around Asia. He bases himself in Kuala Lumpur. He sometimes preaches at the Anglican cathedral there.

Now aged in my sixties, I receive occasional newsletters aimed at retirees. Go and live in Malaysia, they sometimes urge. Enjoy an Aussie lifestyle at half the cost of Australia.

So it is hard for me to envisage Malaysia as a country where Christians experience moderate persecution. And certainly not on the scale of, say, the Central African Republic, China or Algeria, all of which Open Doors ranks similarly to Malaysia.

Indeed, even Open Doors concedes, “Malaysia is still known as probably the best role model of a liberal and tolerant Islamic country in the world.” But then it adds ominously that “this image is increasingly fading, especially given incidents that have occurred over the past year.”

What incidents? “One example of this is the effort to introduce Sharia penal law (hudud) in the federal state of Kelantan. Its implementation requires amendments to the federal law, so the introduction is still pending, but it clearly shows an increasing Islamic conservatism.”

So even in “liberal and tolerant” Malaysia we witness the spreading tentacles of radical Islamism. We have seen this already in neighboring Indonesia, where an aggressive fundamentalist movement increasingly pressures the authorities to place restrictions on Christian worship, with dire results.

Violence is one of the tactics that is used, and so it is little surprise to find this warning to travellers, on the website of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “Terrorists may be planning attacks in and around Kuala Lumpur. Attacks could be indiscriminate and may target Western interests or locations frequented by Westerners.”

Last year, observing the escalating persecution of Christians in Indonesia I wrote: “This is exactly what Christians in Muslim countries fear – the growing belligerence of a violent and intolerant minority who intimidate the majority into passive silence. If ‘moderate’ Indonesia is unable to stand up to this minority, the outlook for Christians in much of the Muslim world is grim.”

It is nothing less than tragic that we can now see the same trends in liberal and tolerant Malaysia.

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