The owner of a self-service laundrette in the historic town of Muar in the Malaysian state of Johor likely had little inkling of the hornet’s nest he would stir up by putting up a sign barring non-Muslim from using his services. Yet, the sign that went viral on social media reignited debate about the nature of Islam and Malaysian culture in a country struggling with creeping Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism.

By implication, the owner, who declined to be identified, adopted in justifying his decision concepts of puritan interpretations of Islam inspired by Wahhabism and Salafism, understandings of the faith propagated by Saudi Arabia.

“For Muslim customers only. Leave your shoes outside,” read the sign in front of the launderette.

“If we look at the issue from an Islamic perspective, cleanliness is very important to us and something we must strive for at all times. 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 operator, who denied being a racist, said.

Mixed responses to the launderette owner’s decision, particularly in Johor, a state whose sovereigns have been in the forefront of voicing opposition to Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, laid bare deep divisions in Malaysian society that inform policy at both the federal and local level.

Eager to burnish its Muslim credentials, Malaysia has been together with Bangladesh and Turkey in the vanguard of those coming to the defense of Rohingya Muslims forced to flee Myanmar. An estimated 430,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks.

In a rare show of disagreement among members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia this week disassociated itself from a measured statement on the Rohingya crisis because it did not identify the Rohingya by name and constituted a "misrepresentation of the reality of the situation." Malaysia had wanted the statement to be more condemnatory of Myanmar operations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.

Islamic militants, ultra-conservatives and political leaders eager to capitalize on an issue that evokes deep-seated emotions in the Muslim world have led the charge against Myanmar. While political leaders like Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have condemned Myanmar, Islamic militants have called for the dispatch of fighters to Rakhine State to defend the Rohingya.

Malaysia, in a further gesture to conservatives, this week briefly detained Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish journalist, intellectual, and author at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on suspicion of giving a lecture on Islam despite not having proper credentials.

Mr. Akyol, who was released after a night in detention, had been invited to give a lecture at Nottingham University’s Kuala Lumpur campus on his recently published book, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.

Malaysia, long viewed as a model of multiculturalism in a Muslim-majority state has increasingly adopted a harsher view of Islam highlighted by the banning of the use of the word Allah by Christians and repression of the country's miniscule Shiite community.

Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat and prominent intellectual, noted already two years ago a "significant and continuing narrowing of the political and social space for non-Muslims" in Malaysia. Mr. Kausikan blamed the emergence of a harsher interpretation of Islam on "Arab influences from the Middle East (that) have for several decades steadily‎ eroded the Malay variant of Islam...replacing it with a more austere and exclusive interpretation."

Saudi Arabia has spent an estimated $100 billion in the last four decades to propagate its austere vision of Islam in a bid to establish itself as the leader of the Muslim world and to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of US influence in the Middle East.

In the latest manifestation of the influence of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, religious authorities in Johor came to the defense of the laundrette owner.

"If someone wants to do it, then it is a good thing because some Muslims hold doubts over laundromat services.  It is better for Muslims to be free of such doubts when it comes to cleanliness as it will help Muslims fulfil religious obligations," said Johor Mufti Datuk Mohd Tahrir Samsudin.

Johor Islamic Religious Affairs Committee chairman Abd Mutalip Abd Rahim added that “as Muslims who live in a multi-racial society, we cannot be too rigid in upholding such matters, but at the same time, should not belittle this effort taken by the operator of the laundromat either."

In contrast to the religious figures, Johor prince Tunku Idris Sultan Ibrahim, following in the footsteps of his father, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Sultan Iskander, who last year confronted Saudi-inspired purists head-on, said he was “appalled” by the laundrette’s move

In a series of postings on Instagram, Prince Tunku Idris, described the owner’s decision as ‘extreme” and noted that "the Quran says, 'speak good to people' - it doesn't say 'speak good only to Muslims'." Prince Tunku Idris said further that “Islam has taught me about tolerance and respecting people of other faith. Not about supremacy over others.”

Similarly, the prince’s straight-talking father didn’t mince words when he last year denounced Wahhabi and Salafi practices by calling on Malaysians to uphold their country’s culture and not imitate Arabs. The sultan decried what he described as creeping Arabization of the Malay language by insisting on using Malay language references to religious practices and Muslim holidays rather than Arabic ones.

“If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the sultan said.

The sultan spoke out after his state’s public works department had put up a notice warning women that they would be hung by their hair in hell if they failed to cover up. The notice, which also circulated on social media, was quickly taken down on the ruler’s orders.

“Since when is JKR (the public works), whether at state or district level, being put in charge of religious matters? Their main job is to make sure the roads are properly maintained and not worry about women’s hair. It is not the business of government departments to worry about people’s dressing. Just do what you are paid to do and mind your own business,” Sultan Ibrahim said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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