Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has said multi-racial harmony in his country is under threat by State-sponsored Islamic puritanism that has damaged the constitutional rights of other faiths in the Muslim-majority southeast Asian nation - writes Michele Green.
In a recent speech at a regional forum in Singapore, Anwar also suggested that the Malaysian government was using Islamic puritanism to win votes in a general election expected to be held later during 2008.
"The real issue is what I would describe as State-sponsored Muslim puritanism borne more by racist sentiments than religious principles," Anwar told a gathering at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "It is this kind of theology that leads to the rejection of constitutional freedom of other faiths."
About 60 per cent of Malaysia's population of 25 million are Muslims. Christians and Buddhists, who are mostly from the country's minority Chinese community, make up about 25 percent of the population, and Hindus of Indian origin make up about 10 percent.
Racial harmony between Malaysia's ethnic and religious groups has recently begun to show some strains as minorities have complained of their rights being encroached upon by court decisions and government policies favouring Muslims. Earlier in January, Malaysia's government banned minorities from using the word "Allah" in publications to describe the God of their non-Muslim faiths. Anwar called the ban "ridiculous nonsense".
"Today, this sense of inclusiveness is under serious threat," he said. "I'm convinced that Muslims, many Malaysian Muslims too, are equally appalled by this display of narrow-mindedness and intolerance."
Anwar is a former government minister who was groomed to lead Malaysia, but was fired in 1998 by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad over allegations of corruption and sodomy. Anwar denied any wrongdoing and said the charges against him were trumped up by Mahathir who had begun to see him as a political threat. He was acquitted of the sodomy charge in 2004 by Malaysia's highest court.
A ban against Anwar holding public office or running in general elections because of the conviction for corruption will expire in April 2008.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]