Marina: Saudis to blame for Malaysia’s ‘Arabisation’, loss of local culture

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PETALING JAYA: Marina Mahathir has pinned the deepening trend in Malaysia where hardline Islamic policies and thinking are allowed to take root at various levels of government and society to the influence of Saudi Arabia.

The founding member of Sisters in Islam said the phenomenon was contributing to the disappearance of local cultural elements in place of those from the Middle-East.

“There’s this idea that the more like Arabs you are, the better Muslim you are. That’s the very real obliteration of our cultural heritage,” she was quoted as saying by Asia Times today.

“Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,” said the social activist, who is the eldest daughter of PPBM chairman and former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The Asia Times report said there were indications that Prime Minister Najib Razak was leveraging his relationship with Saudi King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud to boost his Islamic credentials in an attempt to appeal to religious hardliners, far-right Malay groups and conservative rural Muslim voters.

It said critics had accused him of overseeing an “Arabisation” of Malaysia, which included allowing PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang to table the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act (Act 355) in the Dewan Rakyat to intensify shariah criminal punishments.

In a report on her preliminary observations during a visit to Malaysia from Sept 11 to 21, the United Nations’ special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune had noted a contradiction between the government’s vocal rejection of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism, and “the growing Islamisation of Malaysian society and polity based on an increasingly rigid and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.”

“It is critical to ask what accounts for this striking discrepancy between rhetoric and lived reality recounted by many and what its consequences are for the enjoyment of cultural rights,” she said.

Bennoune said she had also heard reports of the difficulties human rights defenders and others faced when they tried to challenge fundamentalism, defend the diversities of Muslim culture and promote cultural rights.

The Asia Times report said Bennoune had alluded to the long reach of Saudi cultural influence made possible by decades of oil-financed proselytisation via mosques and madrassas that promote the Saudi fundamentalist doctrine of Wahhabism.

It also cited the growing role of Saudi-trained Islamic scholars recruited into Malaysia’s civil service and religious establishment.

In July this year, Najib had announced the government’s decision to earmark a 16ha piece of land in Putrajaya to build a new “centre for peace” named after the Saudi king.

The King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) followed a highly publicised visit by the Saudi ruler to Malaysia last March, as well as Najib’s participation in a summit in Riyadh attended by US President Donald Trump.

It was reported that the Muslim World League (MWL), an organisation heavily funded by the Saudi government to prop up the kingdom’s Islamic image worldwide, was also involved in the new centre.

MWL had for decades acted as Riyadh’s chief mouthpiece through the publication of Islamic materials and the financing of mosques and Islamic centres from Asia to Europe.

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