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A Muslim group is going around Damansara Flora, a mixed suburb of Kuala Lumpur, with a message to non-Muslims that alcohol, drugs, prostitution and un-Islamic dress will not be tolerated in the neighbourhood. They argue that these things are contrary to Islam and, therefore, have no place in the neighbourhood.

In a video of the incident, which has since gone viral, non-Muslims are told that failure to abide by these demands will be taken as a sign of disrespect for Islam and the Malays.

Sharia-compliant neighbourhoods?

The leader of the group insisted that they have the right to set standards of dress and behaviour in the neighbourhood because Muslims are, apparently, in the majority in Flora Damansara.

In other words, the majority has the right to impose its standards and value systems on the minority.

Drugs and prostitution are, of course, illegal and unwelcome anywhere but these are matters that should be discussed with the police rather than with non-Malay residents unless, of course, it is felt that somehow these are problems associated with non-Muslims.

To be sure, residents have a right to be concerned with the safety and well-being of their neighbourhoods; in a multiracial society such as ours, however, this is best done by the whole community working together rather than by individual groups trying to impose their standards on the rest.

In any case, going by the remarks of the group’s leader, their primary focus did not appear to be about safe neighbourhoods but about making the neighbourhood Sharia-compliant. 

The tyranny of the majority

The idea that the majority has the right to impose its will, its standards and its beliefs on the rest of society certainly appears to be gaining traction across the country.

Malay-Muslim groups frequently remind minorities to be more sensitive of the majority religion or race while they themselves, more often than not, remain callous and indifferent to the sensitivities and feelings of others.

Is sensitivity a one-way street in Malaysia? Does the majority not have a corresponding obligation to be mindful of the rights and feelings of the minority?

Already, there are administrative injunctions against the building of non-Muslim places of worship, even cemeteries, based on the majority principle. Groups like PAS have also taken to the streets to protest Christian events, beer festivals and concerts which they claim offend the religious sensitivities of the majority.

What we are now seeing is the gradual application of this “majority principle” to neighbourhoods and beyond. Unless there is a firm and unequivocal political stand against it, other Muslim groups will soon start agitating for Sharia-compliant neighbourhoods.

Will we soon see a Taliban-style department for the promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice, and religious police and vigilante gangs roaming our neighbourhoods to enforce Islamic law and dress codes on both Muslims and non-Muslims alike?

And, if developments in other Muslim countries are anything to go by, we can expect that this will be followed by demands to further limit non-Muslim places of worship, the removal of religious idols from public view and a ban on public non-Muslim religious and cultural celebrations that might somehow confuse or offend the majority. A precedent has, after all, already been set in Brunei.

Whether it realises it or not, the Flora Damansara group has now taken these issues out of the hands of Parliament and state legislatures (where they are subject to the vagaries of politics) and into our neighbourhoods where local groups can mobilize to enforce Islamic decrees.

It is tantamount to building an Islamic state one neighbourhood at a time, imposing by local fiat what lawmakers have not been able to agree upon.

The beginning of the end

And we know how this issue will play out: PAS and other extremist groups will quickly jump in to champion their cause, organize demonstrations and make all sorts of threats if they don’t get their way.

UMNO, ever fearful of being outdone by PAS, will respond by giving them what they want. The MCA, powerless to do anything else, will inevitably blame the DAP. Even Muslim opposition leaders will find it politically expedient to keep silent.

The sad fact is that fewer and fewer of our politicians truly believe in the sanctity of our Constitution and fewer still are willing to do political battle in its defence.

Clearly, the shared values, the common understanding, the mutual respect and tolerance that once held us together as a nation is fraying. We are dividing into camps with irreconcilable agendas, retreating behind walls of distrust, suspicion and animosity.

And there is no one with the stature, the moral authority and the commitment to the Malaysia we once knew to stop it.

All that is left to ponder is when the dream of a united multiracial, multirelgious, multicultural Malaysia will finally run its course.

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 24th September 2017