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Rise of strict Islam exposes tensions in Malaysia

Image caption Women in Malaysia are under no legal compulsion to wear the headscarf - though many feel pressured to cover up.

Muslim women without headscarves are a common sight on the streets of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

But engaging them in a discussion about the hijab is difficult.

Norhayati Kaprawi is a Malaysian activist whose recent documentary Aku Siapa (Who Am I) deals with the issue of how women in Malaysia should dress. She found some women unwilling to show their faces in her film - not on religious grounds, but because they feared reprisals.

This is a damning reflection on Malaysia's Muslim society, says Ms Norhayati.

"It's full of fear. If you don't follow the mainstream you will be lynched."

According to the activist, the pressure to wear the hijab grew after the Iranian revolution in 1979, and it is now the most visible sign of Malaysia's rising Islamic fundamentalism.

Muslims account for over half the population of 28 million people and are mainly ethnic Malays. Malaysia often prides itself on being a moderate Muslim nation, which allows other religions freedom of worship.

And while there are no laws forcing women to wear the hijab, Ms Norhayati says many Muslims feel compelled.

Crime and punishment

Increasingly, there is a greater emphasis on Islamic codes of conduct.

For the first time last year, Malaysian authorities caned women under Sharia law. The three women sentenced were found guilty of having sex outside of marriage.

And a part-time Muslim model was sentenced to the same punishment in 2009 for drinking beer in public. Islamic authorities eventually reduced Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno's sentence to community service last year after the story made international headlines.

Analysts say this emphasis on Islamic practice is superficial. They blame it on the competition for Malay-Muslim voters between the ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), both of which are trying to position themselves as defenders of Islam.

The youth wing of the PAS has often lobbied the government to ban Western pop artists from performing in Malaysia, deeming them to be un-Islamic.

Since 2008, when elections delivered a record number of seats to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, of which the PAS is a member, the party has tried to moderate its stance.

Although the PAS has not abandoned the goal of making Malaysia into an Islamic state, PAS Member of Parliament Khalid Samad says non-Muslims have nothing to fear.

"We do not think Islam is all about cutting off hands and stoning adulterers," he says.

"That's a very minute aspect of the Islamic law. What's more important is the question of good governance."

In a move to show it can work with non-Muslims, the PAS is planning to open up membership to them.

"Nobody can say if we come to power, [that] we cannot govern a multi-religious and multi-racial nation," says Mr Khalid.

Cause for concern?

But a resurgence in Islam has many non-Muslims concerned.

Islamic officials in Selangor state entered a Methodist church without a warrant in early August, breaking up a fundraising dinner. They recorded the details of several Muslims who attended the function.

The Islamic authorities have said they acted on a tip-off, but have refused to reveal the nature of the complaint.

Religious officials are wary about Muslims attending church-organised events. There are fears these are attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity - something that is illegal in Malaysia.

"This action sets a dangerous precedent and makes a mockery of the sanctity and inviolability of all religious places in our beloved country," said the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hindusim, Sikhism and Taoism in a statement.

Ongoing row

The fear of conversion has already strained relations between Muslims and the Christian minority, who make up around nine per cent of the country's population and are typically ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Over the last two years, churches have been firebombed and Bibles have been seized in an ongoing row between Christians and Muslims over the use of the word 'Allah'.

The religious minority insists that they have been using the term for centuries in the Malay language to refer to the Christian god.

But in 1986, the government banned non-Muslim from using the word 'Allah' in publications. This ban was not usually enforced until recently when the government began to act upon it at the behest of some Muslim groups.

In a move seen as a bid to win Malay-Muslim votes, the government argued that for non-Muslims, calling their gods 'Allah' would be confusing to the Muslim-majority and threaten national security.

As a result, Malay-language Bibles have been impounded by customs officials. Some Muslim activists fear that Christians are using the Bibles to convert Muslims.

Attacks on places of worship came after the High Court in Kuala Lumpur ruled in December 2009 that the word 'Allah' is not exclusive to Islam. The government has appealed against the decision but no hearing date has been set yet.

In the meantime the prime minister's department has made some concessions in recent months and released some 35,000 seized Bibles. The cabinet has also set up a committee for religious leaders from all faiths to resolve the "Allah" issue.

Reverend Dr Thomas Philips is one of the committee members. He says the meetings have been sporadic but he is optimistic they can reach an understanding.

"I'm convinced Malaysia is a moderate Muslim country," he says.

Norhayati Kaprawi agrees, but fears that the mainstream opinion has been silenced.

"People who hold more progressive or alternative views," she says, "don't dare to speak up in public."

Malaysia Direct is a series of reports and articles, online and on TV on BBC World News, which runs until September 4, 2011.