Cultural tolerance under scrutiny in Malaysia amid Japanese festival controversy

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KUALA LUMPUR – A Japanese cultural dance festival celebrated for more than four decades in Malaysia has been thrust into the spotlight after the Islamist ruling coalition party urged Muslims to avoid it, once again raising questions about cultural tolerance and diversity in the country. Muslim majority country.

Religious Affairs Minister Idris Ahmad of the Islam SeMalaysia Party (PAS) on June 6 advised Muslims not to attend the Bon Odori festival next month, saying it was “influenced by elements of other religions”. .

This prompted a rare response from Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who is the leader of Islam in Malaysia’s most developed state. He said that although the festival started as a religious celebration, it has transformed into a largely cultural celebration over the past decades, and he urged Datuk Idris to attend the celebrations.

“Your Majesty does not want certain parties, especially politicians, to use religiously sensitive issues for personal gain or to gain popularity points,” Sultan Sharafuddin said last Thursday.

He added that he attended the festival in 2016 and did not notice any religious elements there.

He also ordered the Islamic Religious Department of Selangor not to prevent the festival from taking place. The event is supported by the Federal Opposition Pakatan Harapan led Selangor State Government.

The festival has been held in Malaysia since 1977 to celebrate Japanese culture. Organized jointly by the Embassy of Japan, the Japanese School of Kuala Lumpur and the Japan Club of Kuala Lumpur, the celebration attracted 35,000 participants each year before the pandemic.

The first of two Bon Odori celebrations this year will take place in Shah Alam, the state capital of Selangor, on July 16. The other will take place in Penang on July 30.

Mr Idris declined to speak following the sultan’s public remarks.

PAS leaders, however, have continued to denounce the festival, with PAS Selangor leader Ahmad Yunus Hairi suggesting last Friday that the Selangor state government should ban Muslims from attending the festival.

On the same day, Perlis State Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin suggested that the name of the festival be changed to “avoid confusion” over religion and culture.

Dr Jeniri Amir, senior researcher at the Malaysian Council of Teachers, said the controversy stems from PAS’s refusal to see the issues outside of its own perspective.

“They don’t understand multiculturalism, that they can’t impose their values ​​on others,” he told the Straits Times, while stressing that the Selangor leader’s remarks came as a rebuke to Mr Idris.

Dr Jeniri warned that PAS views could harm multiculturalism in Malaysia and could also tarnish the country’s reputation abroad.

Last year controversy erupted over the name of a local whiskey Timah, after several Muslim politicians – mostly PAS leaders – claimed the name sounded like the name of Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

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