Interfaith Tensions in Malaysia

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Tensions are building in Malaysia between Muslims and Taoists over the erection of a statue depicting Mazu, goddess of the sea.


“The construction of the world’s tallest Taoist Goddess of the Sea statue has set off the latest row over religious freedom in Malaysia. The 36-metre (108-foot) statue of Mazu, known as Tin Hau in Hong Kong, should be erected in the fishing village of Kudat on Borneo Island. So far only the platform has been set; the statue itself is waiting some 200 km away in the port town of Kota Kinabalu. Local authorities had approved construction in December 2005 but Sabah state authorities stopped construction saying that the statue was ‘offensive to Muslim sensitivities.'”

Apparently the statue is deemed “offensive to Islam” because it is “too close” to a mosque. A Taoist official has resigned in protest, and religious minorities are voicing fears of “Islamisation”. Local Taoists are puzzled by the sudden hostility towards one of their most beloved goddesses.

“All we want is for Mazu Goddess to protect us when we are at sea and our Muslim countrymen have nothing against”

Malaysia’s official State religion is Islam, and the country has strict rules concerning the ‘propagation’ of religions other than Islam. In addition to the blocking of the Mazu statue, Hindu activists have been jailed after a mass-rally protesting discrimination against ethnic Indians, and the government temporarily banned a Catholic newspaper from using the term “Allah”.

Articles like these starkly show the problems of establishing a state (or “official”) religion. When a single religious viewpoint dominates politically (especially if that religion claims to be the only true path), there is always the risk of the government being overrun by extremists. One hopes these growing tensions in Malaysia will not degrade into all-out violence, but the country’s Muslims seem hesitant to enter into any sort of interfaith compromise. As for Mazu, there is legal action pending, and it remains to be seen if the statue will ever be installed.