By: Mariam Mokhtar

Malaysia has been thrown into a royal shambles by a growing rivalry between the country’s nine religiously moderate sultans and its conservative mullahs, considered by many to be “nouveaux royals” vying for the attention of ethnic Malay Muslims.

Political and social observers believe that if the controversy is left unchecked, it could undermine the position of the corruption-scarred prime minister, Najib Abdul Razak.

On Oct. 10, the royals, who serve as the hereditary titular heads of nine of Malaysia’s 13 states and who even today have a deep reserve of loyalty from feudal rural Malays, called for unity and religious harmony after what they described as “excessive actions” in the name of Islam, a rare intervention into the public arena.

“It is feared that the excessive actions of certain individuals of late can undermine the harmonious relations among the people of various races and religions,” said the statement, signed by the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal, Syed Danial Syed Ahmad, according to a report in the state-run news agency Bernama.  “The Rulers feel that the issue of harmony has deep implications if any action is associated with and undertaken in the name of Islam.”

Najib is normally swift to act against members of the Malaysian public who condemn the royal households, the Islamic institutions, or his administration. But last week, after the Malay rulers issued the royal rebuke, Najib was silent.

Leaders of the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest ethic political party, understand the potency of conservative Islam to manipulate ethnic Malays, who make up about 60 percent of the population. The other 40 percent are comprised of Chinese, Hindus, East Malaysian ethnic Bumiputeras, and others.

The nine royal households, who by tradition and the Constitution are the guardians of Islam in their respective states, are believed to oppose the implementation of hudud, or harsh Islamic law, and a bill before the parliament to enlarge the power of the Syariah Courts. They are also said to be alarmed about recent events like the banning of certain books and the arrest and deportation of authors and speakers including the Turkish academic, Mustafa Acyl.

A series of religious-related incidents has pitted the mullahs and the government against the royal households. Last month, the Kuala Lumpur City Council cancelled the annual Oktoberfest event, a Germany-inspired celebration of the passing of the seasons and of beer-drinking, and told the organizers that the event was a sensitive issue. They did not say who considered it sensitive or how it would affect Muslim sensitivities.

Days later, a launderette in Johor issued a statement saying that its services were only for Muslim patrons. The owner deemed that items belonging to non-Muslims would “contaminate” items of clothing worn by Muslims and invalidate their prayer.

The public were outraged by this act and the Sultan of Johor Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar waded in, warning the owner that the business would face closure by him if it did not stop operating as if it was in the Taliban portion of Afghanistan. After the dressing-down, the launderette owner apologized for his action and offered his services to people of different faiths.

The royals have thrown the ball into Najib’s court, but he has refused to play. His relationship with the Sultans is increasingly tenuous, but his reticence to make a stand is regarded as weakening his own position.

The nature of the sultans’ intervention is regarded as an indication that the royals are fed up and irritated as in fact are many of the country’s urban Malays by the erosion of community integration, as are many professionals among the Malay population, who say they are at the end of their tether with Najib and fundamentalist Islam. At a recent wedding, some even said they wouldn’t mind if a Chinese were to become prime minister, an astonishing heresy in the country. Many said they are openly encouraging their children to migrate. Nonetheless, the opposition as a political force remains splintered and a long shot against Najib and UMNO in an expected general election which must be called before the middle of 2018.

“The royals, too, feel their position is threatened. They may be Malay and act as the guardians of Islam, but many, when away from prying eyes, lead a very western lifestyle,” a political analyst told Asia Sentinel. “Some royals spend an appreciable amount of time in the west and enjoy a lifestyle that many of their Malay subjects can only envy. With rising Islamic conservatism, the ordinary Malays cannot emulate this western lifestyle in Malaysia.”

The royals are compelled to speak out before extremism takes root and undermines their royal status, another social critic said. “In Islam everyone is considered equal, and only in Saudi Arabia are kings above the law. The Malaysian royals are taking the initiative and acting before their own existence is questioned by the extremists.”

As an example, he said, in April 2016, the Sultan of Terengganu, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin stripped the state’s chief minister Ahmad Razif of all state-awarded titles because Razif had presented a controversial Indian zealot, Zakir Naik, with three islands.

Najib is not known for issuing retractions, denials or affirmations, as he has normally depended on a coterie of loyal supporters, most of whom belong to his inner circle, to lash out on his behalf.

However, the royal dressing down has thrown Putrajaya, the seat of government, into disarray and political observers wonder if Najib will order an immediate shakeup of the Department for the Development of Islam in Malaysia, known by its Malay-language initials JAKIM.

Several other religious experts including two influential muftis, Asri Zainul Abidin of Perlis and Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri of the Federal Territory also admonished the launderette owner in Muar and another “Muslim-only” launderette operating in Perlis.

In an unprecedented move, however, an Islamic preacher, Zamihan Mat Zain, fired back at the Johore sultan and the Perlis and FT muftis for their stance, claiming that Muslims were only trying to lead good lives.

In a YouTube video, Zamihan termed Malaysia an “Islamic state” and said that being clean was Islamic. He was shocked, he said, that the small issue of the Muslim-only laundrette had been blown out of proportion, and become a worldwide sensation.

At a graduation ceremony at the Tun Hussein Onn University, the Johor Sultan called Zamihan “an empty tin with no brains,” adding that he was “very arrogant,” “haughty” and someone who believed he was the only one who had the right to scorn people of other races.

The Sultan of Johor’s criticism was swiftly followed by a similarly worded statement from the Perlis crown prince, Tuanku Syed Faizuddin Putra Jamalullail. The other Sultans delivered the Oct. 10 royal rebuke, saying Malaysians should focus on tolerance, moderation, and inclusivity for life in a diverse, multicultural Malaysia.

The statement, signed by the keeper of the ruler’s seal, Syed Danial Syed Ahmad, said, “The rulers are of the opinion that the damaging implications of such actions are more severe, when they are erroneously associated with, or committed in the name of Islam.”

In a further development, the royal rebuke has finally forced Jamil Khir Baharom, the minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (PMD), who also heads JAKIM, into the open. JAKIM is under the control of the prime minister’s department, with an annual budget of RM1 billion (US$236.7 million). Calls for the accounts to be audited and made transparent have been ignored.

Jamil was silent when the issue of safety, teaching quality and the mushrooming of illegal tahfiz, or religious schools cropped up, but Zamihan, who took potshots at the Sultan, has forced Jamil to seek an audience with the Johor Sultan, who in turn ordered the state religious authority, JAIJ, to sever ties with JAKIM.

Zamihan initially denied he was attached to JAKIM, but it was revealed that he is an “Islamic affairs officer” who has been seconded to the Home Ministry’s publications and Koranic text control division. His videos and talks are often inflammatory. It is also alleged that preachers are paid about RM20,000 per month.

Anyone who thinks that this battle royal is just another religious incident that will soon blow over is wrong. Najib knows that clipping the religious preachers’ wings would seriously erode his powerbase, but he is caught in a dilemma of his own making. Rural, feudal Malays are making it crucial that Najib’s political future be determined by his ability to conciliate the royal households and the demands of the power-hungry, conservative Islamic clerics whom he has fostered. Najib has unleashed a hydra which he may be unable to control.  

Mariam Mokhtar is a liberal political commentator in Malaysia