By Jalil Hamid
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Chinese Malaysians who have embraced Islam are testing the government over a mosque issue that analysts say highlights a racial divide in the multi-ethnic country.
Malaysia, which boasts of religious diversity and where just over half of its population are Muslims of Malay descent, has spurned applications by Chinese Muslims to open their first mosques, officials said.
The authorities argued that having separate mosques would segregate Muslims and could anger the majority Malays, who by definition are Muslims.
Mohamad Ridhuan Tee Abdullah, a convert championing the cause of his fellow 70,000-strong Chinese Muslims, said Malaysia must show that Islam transcends race and culture.
“We have to change the perception that Islam only belongs to a particular race, for example the Malays and the Arabs,” the 42-year-old Islamic scholar told Reuters.
“We have to show the universality of Islam by allowing Chinese mosques,” he said at the weekend. “The authorities have to do away with the stereotypes.”
The issue goes to the heart of what Islam means in Malaysia, and shows how race continues to shape life in Malaysia 50 years after independence, analysts said.
“There is fear that the Malay identity will be lost if Islam is practiced in languages other than Malay,” Canadian Muslim, Moaz Yusuf Ahmad, wrote in the New Straits Times recently.
Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, which currently heads the world’s largest grouping of Muslim nations, but other religions can be practiced.
Malays form just over half of Malaysia’s 26 million people. The sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities are mostly Christians, Buddhists or Hindus.
Malaysia has no shortage of mosques, many with Moorish-styled domes and minarets. Mostly funded by the government, the mosques cater almost entirely to the Malays and provide Friday sermons in the Malay language.
There is not a single mosque for Chinese Muslims, although Indian Muslims are allowed to have their own mosques.
Ridhuan, a vice-president of the Malaysian Chinese Muslim Association, said his association was proposing to build mosques that would reflect Chinese design.
“We would like to portray mosques that are based on Chinese architectures,” he said. “It’s to show that we are still Chinese but the mosques will be opened to all Muslims.”
The mosque issue is not the only problem, Ridhuan and other Muslims said.
There is the popular notion that becoming a Muslim means “masuk Melayu” (becoming a Malay), adopting the Malay culture at the expense of his or her Chinese identity, they said.
The converts also have to take on Arabic names, such as Abdullah, and change identity cards to reflect their new religion.
They also face deep-rooted prejudices, said Mohamad Asri Zainul Abidin, a young firebrand Muslim cleric who has came out in support of the Chinese mosque proposal despite the government’s reservations.
“Malays assume they are the only pure Muslims, although Chinese Muslims may have stronger faith,” Asri, himself a Malay, said in a commentary published in the New Straits Times.
Some Chinese Muslims have also been rebuked by Malays for celebrating Chinese New Year.
Ridhuan, married to a Malay, also had a painful experience.
“They (the Malays) want us to become a Malay. Three or four years after conversion, my father passed away. They didn’t allow me to go back, they say if I go back, I will revert to become a Chinese but I defied them.”