Spotlight - Malaysia: April 11, 2024

Malaysian press and international observers are reporting a rise in religious tensions in the country, linked to controversy related to “Allah” socks sold by KK Mart, Malaysia’s second largest mini-market chain. While the controversy has been described as a sign of the growing radicalization of Malaysian Islamists, past events illustrate that cases of religiously motivated violence in the country are more often than not instigated by non-religious parties.

In March, KK Mart sold socks stamped with the word Allah, the term for God in Islam, written in both English and Arabic. After an initial outcry, Malaysian authorities raided the factory that supplied the socks on March 19 and could only find five pairs. KK Mart founder and director Chai Kee Kan and his wife Loh Siew Mui apologized to the king, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar of Johor, the symbolic leader and protector of Islam in the country. The couple was charged with intentionally wounding religious feelings, pleading not guilty, while three representatives of the vendor company that supplied the socks were charged with abetment. 

While the origin of the design remains unknown, the incident has created a political opportunity for ultra-Malay parties to mobilize their supporters. The story quickly spread across social media, and was circulated widely and inflated by both politicians and the media. United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Youth leader Muhamad Akmal Saleh called for a boycott of the convenience store chain.

Three KK Mart stores have since been targeted in molotov cocktail attacks. With this escalation of violence, public narratives have slowly shifted blame toward Malaysia’s Islamist community. Coverage from the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s English-language newspaper, refers to Islamist hardliners, while Le Monde in France focuses on the “most xenophobic and Islamist part of the Malay majority.” However, it is worth noting that the arson attacks took place in states run by the ruling government coalition or its allies (Perak, Sarawak, and Pahang), and not in the states run by the Malaysia’s Islamist party (Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu). 

The controversy and its developments mirror perfectly past incidents, such as riots in 2015, or an incident in 2012 involving pig heads being placed outside of mosques amid a decade-long controversy around the use of the word Allah by Malaysian Christians, among others. In Malaysia, political violence has often been linked to underground groups in connivence with the leaders of political parties. Connivence militants serve as the muscle of political parties, and sometimes even the state. UMNO, for instance, has had a long relationship with Malay-led underground organizations. This phenomenon is little known or understood outside Malaysia, and while many Malaysians are aware of the relationship between politics and crime, it remains a taboo.

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.