Laundrette sign translates as: "For Muslim customers only. Leave your shoes outside.”
Laundrette sign translates as: “For Muslim customers only. Leave your shoes outside.”

With less than a year to go until Malaysia’s next general election, inter-religious tensions have resurfaced over a “Muslim-only” laundrette and a book written by a Christian parliamentarian.

Fifteen Muslim non-governmental organisations (NGOs) filed a complaint with the police on 24 September against Selangor State Assembly speaker Hannah Yeoh for “trying to preach Christianity” through her autobiography, ‘Becoming Hannah: A Personal Journey’, which has been available in bookstores nationwide since 2014.

“She called Christians to come back and build the Kingdom of God. What does she mean by building the Kingdom of God? Which God is she referring to? We believe it is an attempt to spread the Christian beliefs to others. The authorities must take action,” said Mohamed Hafiz Mohamed Nordin, the chairman of one of the NGOs, Jaringan Muslimin Pulau Pinang (JMPP).

In response, Yeoh told FMT News, “The Kingdom of God was mentioned many times in the Bible about His righteousness governing our hearts and minds. He says to love Him, to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, to reject corruption, to walk humbly, to do justice, to look after the orphans and widows. That, my friend, is what the Kingdom of God looks like.”

Thomas Muller, a researcher for the World Watch Research unit of Christian charity Open Doors, met Yeoh and read her book.

“[It] is nothing else than her personal journey,” he said. “A testimony, if you like. There is nothing which should be construed as evangelising. If a Muslim reader really wonders about this journey and the very personal God displayed, so be it. But it was not written for that purpose. And even if [it were]: should a mature society not be able to stand this?”

Yeoh told FMT the critics are trying “to distract attention from real issues like 1MDB [the corruption scandal surrounding Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak], the higher cost of living, declining standard of education…. Is this really how the next election is to be fought? Why keep stirring religious and racial lies to cover up corruption and incompetency?”

‘Not a Taliban state’

During the same weekend, a social media post went viral, showing a self-service laundrette with a sign outside saying, “For Muslim customers only. Leave your shoes outside”. The post triggered widespread and mixed responses, reigniting “debate about the nature of Islam and Malaysian culture in a country struggling with creeping Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism”, according to Dr James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The owner of the laundrette, in Muar, Johor state, whose name was withheld, told FMT that he respects other religions but that “cleanliness” is very important to Muslims, who make up 95% of his clientele.

“It is something we must strive for at all times,” he said. “There are other laundrettes available nearby. So, it wouldn’t be a problem for non-Muslims if they needed to find another place to wash their clothes.”

The Sultan of Johor, Ibrahim Ismail, was quick to rebuke him and threatened to shut down the launderette, saying “Johor is not a Taliban sate and as the head of Islam in Johor, I find this action to be totally unacceptable, as this is extremist in nature.

“I want to put a stop to such extremism. Extremism has no place in my state. We take pride in being Bangsa Johor [Johoreans] and I want to know where the owner of this launderette learnt his Islam? Islam teaches the faithful to be tolerant and respect other people and faiths.”

The laundrette’s owner “went against the vision of a united, harmonious, moderate, tolerant Johor”, the Sultan said, adding that he should leave the state if “he still insists on carrying on the Muslims-only practice”.

Following the rebuke, the owner reportedly replaced the sign “Muslim only” with one stating “Muslim friendly”, but the Sultan said this was “still the same” and that he shouldn’t “mess around with [his] narrow-minded religious prejudices”.

Two days later another self-service laundrette in the town of Kuala Perlis, in Perlis state, which had put out a similar sign, changed its policy and agreed to serve all customers and not just Muslims after a visit from both the local mufti and the state crown prince.

‘Very bold statement’

Open Doors’ Muller said the intervention of a religious leader like Johor’s Sultan, publicly denouncing the policy, was “an encouraging sign” and that “the sharpness with which he rebuked it is remarkable. In an atmosphere of increasing tensions with religious minorities, at a time where political parties capitalise on ethnic and religious rifts for electoral gains, this is a very bold statement”.

Muller, however, pointed out that “the shop owner placed this sign at the request of his customers, which shows a growing societal bias against non-Muslim minorities”.

Dorsey, in a contribution for the Huffington Post, said the “uproar about a launderette owner’s decision to bar non-Muslims from using his service has focused a spotlight on broader discriminatory attitudes in Malaysian society, as well as elsewhere in Asia, that are reinforced by Saudi-inspired, ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam”.

He said the debate sparked by the recent incidents “goes to the core of concern across Asia about a rising threat of jihadism as the Islamic State [IS] loses its territorial base in Syria and Iraq and looks for new pastures in South, Central and South-eastern Asia. An IS-affiliated group has been battling security forces in the Philippine city of Marawi for the past three months, while Islamic militants are blamed for sparking the latest Rohingya crisis in Myanmar”.

Turkish author Mustafa Akyol was recently in Malaysia for a series of lectures on Islam, reason and freedom, when he was arrested by “religion enforcement officers” who told him that he couldn’t speak on religious freedom without proper authorisation.

Akyol said the officers also told him to cancel his next talk. “We heard that you will speak about commonalities between Islam, Judaism and Christianity,” one officer reportedly said. “We don’t like that kind of stuff.”

On his way home, at the airport, he was once more harassed, held in a police cell and taken to a Sharia court. He said he was eventually let go following pressure by the Turkish government.