Malaysia and Islam: Ioannis Gatsiounis

The interethnic chaos Malaysia has long feared moved closer to reality this month when 10 churches were at-tacked around the country. The attacks followed a civil-court ruling on New Year's Eve declaring that a law prohibiting non-Muslims from using the word "Allah" to describe their God was unconstitutional. Strangely, though, Christians have been using "Allah" for "God" in East Malaysia since the 1920s without much controversy. So why the sudden spate of violence in a nation long viewed as a model of tolerance in the Muslim world?

The answer is that beneath Malaysia's outward glow of progressive moderation, racial and religious consciousness has risen steadily among Muslim Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population. That creeping conservatism has been fanned by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), seeking to revive support that is slipping amid rampant corruption and other forms of misrule. Rather than trying to quell misgivings among Malays who felt that the use of "Allah" to describe the Christian God would sow confusion, the government appealed the decision, saying that Muslim sensitivities must be respected to protect the fragile ethnic balance. Then UMNO leaders, including Prime Minister Najib Razak, said the government could not stop planned protests against the ruling, though he has often opposed the exercise of free speech in the past. Critics charge the government with institutionalizing racism and emboldening Muslim hardliners. Whatever the case, the church attacks are the clearest sign yet that Malaysia's racial-religious compact is unraveling.

During the 1980s and 1990s Malaysia transformed itself from an agrarian-based economy to a manufacturing one. More recently it has struggled to shed its low-value-added, low-wage structure. Private investment, now at 11 percent of GDP, is down more than two thirds since the late 1990s at least in part because of investor concern about the social tension. Efforts to create a high-tech innovation economy have been set back by the flight of talent: opposition leader Lim Kit Siang says 300,000 "top brains" have fled to Singapore since the last general election. Now Malaysia's reputation for stability is under threat, and investors are jittery amid reports that Malaysia saw the biggest foreign-exchange outflows in Asia last year. Though some an-alysts give Najib high marks as a liberalizing economic reformer, sectarian unrest won't help, and could well thwart the country's aim of becoming a fully developed nation by 2020.

The church attacks also threaten regional stability. Indonesia's Muslim leaders have cautioned Muslims there not to take their cue from Malaysia. The U.S. government issued a travel advisory warning that the court ruling could trigger criminal or terrorist attacks on foreigners in Malaysia's eastern Sabah province, which borders the southern Philippines, home to the Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf. And so it is that in a few short weeks Malaysia has gone from pointing the way for Muslims in neighboring countries to joining the list of regional hot spots.

Last week the government took a step to undo the damage, saying Christians may use "Allah" in the states of Penang, Sarawak, and Sabah, and in the Federal Territory, which includes Kuala Lumpur. That, along with Malaysians' tendency to avoid racial confrontation, may stave off wider violence. But it hardly addresses the festering racial resentments that precipitated the attacks.

Almost 40 years ago the government introduced a policy of positive discrimination for Malays, a move that helped reduce income disparities between the Malay majority and the big Chinese and Indian minorities. But it also heightened communal identification, restricted educational and economic opportunities for non-Malays, and bred dependency among the Malays. Until now, all that was hidden by political sloganeering, tightly controlled media, and billions spent on eye-catching infrastructure projects in-tended to make Malaysia appear both modern and progressive. But the at-tacks have blown the cover off the myth of racial harmony. Now Malaysia must get down to the nitty-gritty of building a truly pluralistic society. As the church bombings make clear, it can't afford not to.

Gatsiounis is a Malaysia-based journalist and author, most recently, of Velvet & Cinder Blocks, a story collection detailing a planned attack on a Christian landmark in Malaysia.