Malaysia er i ferd med å forandres som samfunn. Likestillingen mellom folkegruppene er ikke lenger selvsagt. En mer aggressiv islamsk politikk reduserer ikke-muslimer, i første rekke kinesere, hinduer og kristne, til annenrangs borgere.

Folk lever mer og mer adskilte liv. Tidligere satt man sammen på cafeer og restauranter. Nå søker man til sine egne.

Malaysia er offisielt islamsk, men har hatt en romslig oppfatning av hva det betyr. Nå bli rammene trangere. Religiøst politi driver nidkjær kontroll med umoral i provinser hvor de står sterkt. Bøtene for å sitte sammen med en av motsatt kjønn er uforholdsmessig høye.

Samtidig blir det stadig vanskeligere å konvertere fra islam til en annen religion. En tidligere kristen kvinne forsøkte, men fikk avslag i rettssystemet og måtte rømme.

Takiyuddin Hassan er førsteminister i delstaten Khota Bahru:

Mr Hassan’s party boasts a different set of achievements: banning mini-skirts, chastising unmarried couples and renaming Kota Bharu’s favourite beauty spot. They also closed down nightclubs, banned nearly all bars except a few Chinese restaurants, where no Muslims are allowed, and refused to let a proposed cinema open unless there were separate sections for men and women.

In a sign of their clout, the American pop diva Gwen Stefani has agreed to wear traditional costumes in her Malaysian concert next week after conservative Muslim youths protested at the «indecent dressing and obscenity» of her skin-baring act. An Islamic opposition party demanded that her show next Tuesday should be cancelled.

The platinum blonde star has agreed to cover up in the hope of heading off further protests.

As it celebrates 50 years of independence on August 31, Malaysia is once again debating just how Islamic it should be. Older Malays bemoan a younger generation that has become puritanical, self-righteously declining to attend social functions where alcohol is served. Headscarves, rare 20 years ago, are worn by almost all Malay women now, although often in combination with tight jeans.

As for Mr Hassan, a moderate who was once a lawyer, he is proud of his party’s achievements in Kota Bharu. He says that it has kept the rustic capital of Kelantan state upright and clean-living. The biggest building in the city is a gigantic headquarters decorated with concrete Korans where the moral enforcement department is based. Its bearded officials spend much of their time prowling parks in Kota Bharu in search of amorous young sinners.

Mr Hassan is sensitive about the mocking nickname of «Taleban lite» sometimes levelled at his party from Kuala Lumpur, where bars do a roaring trade and the cinemas are full of dating couples. Yet he is sure that the moral example set in Kota Bharu will some day win over his lax compatriots to the south. «Malaysia is a Muslim state. We hope we can change the mindset of our people in Kuala Lumpur so they can live according to Islamic principles too,» he said. Not all parties agree.

Den etnisk-religiøse-nasjonalistiske stemningen i Malaysia er med å separere folkegruppene, og de ikke-muslimske får beskjed om å stille i annen rekke. Noen yrker er forbeholt malayere.

Some fear that assertive Islam threatens to upset the delicate balance between the 60 per cent Malay Muslim majority and the nonMuslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, which have managed to coexist, sometimes uneasily, since the troubled birth of the country in 1957, at a time of civil war and ethnic tension.

At the time many feared that the new nation was doomed to failure. It has instead built a strong economy and an imperfect democracy, dominated for 50 years by the United Malays National Organisation, which has survived without the coups or upheavals that have plagued her neighbours.

Ronnie Liu, of the Democratic Action Party, said: «Socialising between Malays and the other ethnic groups is much rarer than it used to be. You go into coffee shops and restaurants now and they no longer cater to an ethnic mix of customers. It wasn’t like that before.» Some nonMuslim Chinese and Indians feel increasingly treated like second-class citizens. They complain, usually privately, that Islamic religious schools are much better funded than theirs and that a system of affirmative action favours Malays when it comes to university places.

Islam has always had a prominent place. It is the official religion of Malaysia and the Constitution states that anyone born Malay is Muslim.

The debate over the parameters of its role, an old argument in Malaysia, was given a new outing when Najib Razak, the Deputy Prime Minister, broke a taboo to declare that the nation was an Islamic one. He said: «We have never been secular because being secular by Western definition means separation of the Islamic principles in the way we govern the country.»

The Council of Churches of Malaysia afterwards accused him of stirring up racial tension.

Minority religions are particularly worried about a series of apostasy rulings. Chinese or Indians who want to marry a Malay must convert to Islam, causing great problems if they divorce or are widowed and want to return to the religion of their birth.

In a notorious case this year a Malay woman called Lina Joy attempted to have Malaysia’s courts recognise her conversion to Christianity, but failed and was hounded and fled into hiding. Some hardliners have even called for the execution of apostates.

Hver eneste delstat har sitt religiøse politi som overvåker moralen, i første rekke forholdet mellom kjønnene. Det religiøse politiet virker monomant opptatt av sex.

Every state has a religious department with Saudi-style moral enforcers and nowhere are they more active than in Kota Bharu, a city of mosques along a muddy river that bustles during the day but falls silent at nightfall.

Unmarried couples found sharing hotel rooms are hunted down by the enforcers. Couples caught sitting too close together on park benches are fined 2,000 ringgit (£285) in the city’s shariah court under a provision called khalwat » loosely translated as «close proximity». Couples have been forced into marriage after being caught together and moral enforcers sometimes pick on foreigners.

NonMuslims as well as Malays also sometimes fall foul of the enforcers in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere and there are claims that instead of being paragons of Islamic virtue the enforcers are prone to bribery and have recruited vigilantes into their ranks.

Islam’s war on sin dims bright lights in a nation torn between cultures

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