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Religious affairs minister Datuk Idris Ahmad’s advice to Muslims not to participate in the Bon Odori festival to be held in Shah Alam on July 16 because it could “affect our religion and beliefs”[1] has been greeted with shock and dismay, another example of Malaysia’s growing religious extremism.

The mullahs, as we all know, are obsessed with imposing their own brand of religious orthodoxy on the nation. They have made a fuss about almost everything. Remember Ponggol, the Tamil harvest festival? Or the time when they declared that Muslims shouldn’t wish Christians merry Christmas? Or that absurd ruling about hot dogs? Or the tiresome attempts to impose dress codes on everyone?

They say it’s about safeguarding the faith of Muslims whom they seem to think are easily confused and lead astray. Muslims themselves vehemently disagree. Siti Kasim, for example, wryly noted that “Normal every day Muslims have no problem being together with non-Muslims in their festivals and celebrating them”.[2]

Sisters In Islam, the respected Muslim women’s advocacy group had this to say: “PAS, Jakim, and religious figures are not confident that Muslims in Malaysia can discern between their faith and appreciation of cultural practices, performances and festivals. It seems that Muslims in Malaysia must be policed at all times, in thought and practice. Only PAS and Jakim know what is best for us Muslims in Malaysia.”[3]

G25, another highly respected group expressed confidence “that among Malaysian Muslims who participate in these festivals (which today are purely cultural and not religious), their “akidah” or faith is not affected in any way.” [4]

In fact, if anyone is confused, it is the mullahs themselves. In 2019, the PAS-controlled state government co-hosted a Japanese festival replete with the Bon Odori dance.[5] No worries about confusing Muslims or reports of anyone being led astray then. Suddenly, however, Bon Odori is a threat.

The Mufti of Perlis suggested that the organizers change the name of the festival to “avoid confusion.”[6] If simply calling the same event something else makes it acceptable, it suggests that their objections are without much merit. In any case, who do these mullahs think they are to demand that an ancient Japanese cultural festival that has been celebrated in Malaysia and other parts of the world for decades must now change its name?  

But, of course, they have gotten away with this kind of nonsense for so long that they now think they are infallible. This time, however, they were met with strong resistance. The Sultan of Selangor, who was recently appointed Chairman of the National Council of Islamic Religious Affairs by the Conference of Rulers[7]immediately made his displeasure known. 

A statement  by the Selangor Religious Affairs Department (JAIS) said that the Sultan “does not consent to any decision or stance on a matter such as this which is concluded in haste without in-depth study and analysis.” It went on to say that “His Majesty is of the opinion that there are many cultures that have links with religion, but it is not necessarily so that the religion (aspect) is present in the culture.”[8]

The Selangor Sultan’s statement was soon followed by a speech by the Sultan of Perak who urged Malaysians to “maintain the values that have brought post-independence prosperity to all its communities.” Continuing, the Perak ruler said that “Malaysia must champion and remain an exemplar of multiculturalism.” Although he did not mention Jakim or Bod Odori, his message was clear.

Even Prime Minister Ismail Sabri felt obliged to say something about the issue. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the national Quran recital contest, he said there should be an attitude of acceptance and mutual respect for the various religions and cultures practised in the country. He went on to speak about the concept of ‘tasamuh’, an Arabic term meaning tolerance or open-mindedness. 

The UMNO-linked New Strait Times, in a hard-hitting leader, called it a “clash between democracy and theocracy” and went on to say that “For far too long, the religious authorities in Malaysia, and the politicians behind them, have tried to exercise their will upon the people by trying to get Muslims to submit to the clergy’s will, in the guise of submitting to God’s will.”[9]

No doubt PAS and Jakim now find themselves isolated on the issue. Worse still, they are seen as defying the authority of the Malay rulers in whom the Federal Constitution vests ultimate authority on Islamic matters. In Malaysia, it is the rulers not the mullahs who have the final say on religious maters. If Bon Odori ends up becoming a turning point of sorts in reining in the mullahs perhaps all Malaysians ought to celebrate it.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | Wednesday 16th June 2022]

[1] Muslims advised not to participate in Bon Odori Festival – Idris | Bernama | 06 June 2022

[2] Bon Odori: JAKIM is easily confused – Siti Kassim |Malaysia Gazette | 08 June 2022

[3] ‘PAS sidelining Bon Odori like it did to Mak Yong in Kelantan’ | Malaysiakini |10 June 2022

[4] Selangor lauded for liberal attitude on Bon Odori festival | Malaysiakini |09 June 2022

[5] All things Japanese at Kelantan fest | NST | 20 August 2019

[6] Change Bon Odori’s name to avoid confusion: Perlis mufti | The Vibes | 10 June 2022

[7] Selangor Sultan’s position as MKI Chairman in line with recommendations | Bernama | 12 March 2022

[8] Don’t stop anyone from attending Bon Odori, Selangor sultan orders Jais | The Vibes | 08 June 2022

[9] NST Leader: Bon Odori | June 10 2022